Saturday, May 14, 2011
Acting Like a Mountain by Will Stolzenburg
I add my apologies for the electronic gremlins who made off with several rich and thoughtful comments from yesterday’s discussion. And my thanks to the intrepid WildRead team who so gallantly rescued them from the ether.
I also want to introduce next week’s moderator, Anne Post, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Conservation Librarian. Anne and the WILD READ team will be your guide as we take what may seem an epic leap of subject—on levels of taxonomy, geomorphology, and philosophy—as we go from the wolf of Aldo Leopold’s Thinking Like a Mountain, to the Anthill of E.O. Wilson. But of course there’s a common heart to these stories, as Anne and the rest of you will no doubt discuss.
But for the last post on Thinking Like a Mountain, I’d like to raise a prickly issue that comes from that cynical and skeptical chamber of my journalist heart. We’ve talked about philosophy and ethics and thinking like a mountain. But how many of us really live like a mountain? Do we gravitate to Leopold’s poetic vision of compassion and community as a nice, soothing ideal, but as an impractical way of life in the crowded, dog-eat-dog world we’ve inherited? And what about the convictions of Leopold himself?
I’m speaking here of a point Curt Meine brought up a week ago in his opening post on this blog, about discovering the date that Leopold actually shot the now legendary heroine of Thinking Like a Mountain. It’s an important question, because until recently, none of us—not even Curt, who wrote the book on Leopold—could be sure the shooting actually happened. I first spoke with Curt about that incident when I was writing my book, which examined the consequences for life on earth from losing our great predators. An essay written in 2005 by a biologist from Berkeley named Dale McCullough—which unfortunately may never have been published—raised the question of whether Leopold did indeed shoot the iconic wolf in that canyon on that fateful day. The records were missing. Leopold, the consummate journaler, apparently hadn’t recorded it anywhere that scholars like Curt Meine could detect—until recently. Curt emailed shortly after my book came out—my published position on the matter sitting squarely and cowardly on the fence–that he had found Leopold’s smoking gun. “Just recently some new Leopold family letters surfaced,” wrote Curt. “One of them contains the first extant documentary evidence of the wolf-killing incident.”
So it turns out Leopold did shoot the wolf, in 1909. As a journalist and admirer of Leopold’s thinking and writing, I’ll admit I was relieved to hear that one of the conservation movement’s most iconic martyrs had not been manufactured for the sake of good story. But there remains that unfortunate gap, those years between the shooting and Leopold’s actual change of heart. As McCullough so baldly stated: “Leopold's conversion about the inherent value of predators didn't come until the middle of the 1930s, some 20 years later.” And as we all know, Thinking Like a Mountain was written in 1944. Leopold’s legendary line, as he peers into the fading green fire of the wolf’s dying eyes—“I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain"—is, to be charitable, a bit of a stretch.
So I wonder, do we grant Leopold his poetic license, ignore the messier details, and accept the larger lesson of Thinking Like a Mountain as a sincere and achievable goal in our ethical evolution? Or do we chalk it up as one more piece of hypocrisy that helps explain why we’re losing the campaign for wildness in this world?