Sunday, May 8, 2011
Dangerous Safety by Will Stolzenburg
With Curt signing off yesterday, I’m honored to be continuing the discussion on Aldo Leopold’s seminal essay, Thinking Like a Mountain. I’m here at the request of your hosts for this discussion, Anne Post and Karene Motivans and Friends of the National Conservation Training Center, because I’ve done some writing about the two central characters in Leopold’s Thinking—wolves and deer. More to the point, I’ve explored the ecological phenomenon that Leopold so presciently and eloquently summarized when he wrote the piece in 1944: the predator-prey relationship, and the unheralded contributions of our biggest meat-eating beasts to the beauty of nature and the quality of life.There is far deeper meaning to be found in Thinking Like a Mountain than just the ecological worth of wolves and the devastations of too many deer. But I’d like to start there anyway, with what for me is the elemental irony so brilliantly portrayed by Leopold—that of the decay and dullness that stems from too little danger.
Leopold wrote of our eradication of wolves, and the ensuing irruption of deer:
I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise.
In the sixty-plus years since Leopold penned that famous passage, science has since backed his anecdote with hard evidence of exploding deer populations, missing wildflowers, and failing generations of trees where the wolves and cougars no longer hunt. They’ve charted the fall of songbirds, whose habitat is not only being parceled and paved over, but being eaten by the hungry herds.
It’s Sunday and I’m heading out for my weekly walk to catch the flow of spring as it rushes by. Today I’ll be listening to the trees, for singing from the warblers and thrushes and orioles returning from southern winter homes. I’ll be looking for the latest flowerings on the trail. But inevitably I’ll be suffering the bad moments, remembering that the flocks and the flowers are mere remnants of times past. And that a critical part of that demise we can trace via intricate pathways to missing wolves and cougars—the topmost carnivores whose absence has been filled by hordes of smaller predators (raccoons, possums, and housecats by the many millions, eating their way through the birdlife), and too many deer, turning vibrant forests into feedlots.
The question that concerns me now, is So what? Of the few who still walk the woods and fields these days, most seem to have no idea what’s missing. They see tall green trees and flowering weeds, they hear a few birds singing, and believe that all is well. And maybe it is. There are some who would argue that we can’t and shouldn’t go back—that this is the price of progress, the new balance, and we should satisfy ourselves with what is.
I have my opinions, but I wonder what you think.