Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Green Fire and the Land Ethic by Curt Meine

Hi friends! My thanks to Anne Post at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center for inviting me to participate in America's WILD READ, and to all of you WILD READERs out there for joining in the conversation! It’s a cool, clear, blustery spring day in south-central Wisconsin, a good day for fresh thoughts.
I’ll start with just a few words of introduction to the two essays. If you are already familiar with Aldo Leopold’s writing, then you have likely read “Thinking Like A Mountain” [from A Sand County Almanac] many times. It’s among his most beloved, haunting, and quoted essays. The wolf-shooting incident he describes took place, we now know, in September 1909, on the Apache National Forest in eastern Arizona (still the Arizona Territory then). He had begun working with the U.S. Forest Service only a few weeks earlier. His first assignment brought him to the Apache, where he was put in charge of a forest reconnaissance crew. It was while working with the crew that the fateful incident occurred. It left little outward mark on Leopold at the time, but plainly the "green fire" in the wolf's eyes had left an enduring impression. Leopold wrote the essay in April 1944. In it he distilled lessons from thirty-five years of experience as a working forester, wildlife ecologist, educator, land manager, hunter, and writer. As an essay it works on many levels, but above all it exemplifies Leopold’s ability to examine critically his own ideas and values, and to grow continually in his capacity as a conservationist.
There is much more to the story that perhaps we can explore through the week. Some of you may have had a chance to see our new documentary film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. The essay, and the incident, plays a key role in the film. But more on that later!

The second essay, “The Once and Future Land Ethic" [from Correction Lines: Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation] is self-explanatory. I put it together about ten years ago, after a series of events surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. As the essay explains, I tried to ask myself (and others) the hard question:

What will it take to keep the land ethic alive, vital, and growing through the 21st century?

I haven’t read the essay myself for a while, so perhaps this week will be a good chance to see how on target I was then, and how we may (or may not) have advanced in the decade since. I’ll be very interested in how others view our progress in meeting the challenges it highlights.
I look forward to our exchange, and will try to reply as promptly as a busy spring week in Wisconsin permits!


giniajim said...

The most important thing to do is get folks out to the land so they'll know what there is. There is a huge amount of ignorance among the American populace about the land, who owns it, how its used and mis-used. Louv's book should be required reading in our schools.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Meine,

Thank you for your contributions to the modern conservation movement. Correction Lines is your best work. My battered copy has poignant passages marred by pencil strokes. Your questions remain relevant.

“What will it take to keep the land ethic alive, vital, and growing through the 21st century”?

Stories. Humans are deeply influenced by stories. Look at the influence books and movies have around the world. If we conservationists want the land ethic to flourish, we must tell stories that convey what we know and feel in our hearts - a noble, unselfish concern for others and this planet we call home. If we can’t tell these stories, then we must find those who will tell them for us.

Thanks for your support of the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Jimmy Fox
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Fairbanks, Alaska

Karene said...

Thank you for spending the week with us, Curt. Your thinking and writing affects so many of us. I have been thinking about this line in Leopold's essay..."We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness." Can you help me understand what he meant by dullness? Also - what should we strive for in our lives/careers to be able to think more like a "mountain"?

I agree with Jimmy that telling our stories is important to, as Meine puts it, ".. engage, and find acceptance within, diverse disciplines..." How else can we reach diverse audiences if not through the common lineage of story-telling! Here is my question for all of us - why are stories so difficult for us? Has the science of conservation become too complex?

Curt Meine said...

Okay, we're off and running!

giniajim, what a great first comment. It does all start with getting people -- especially kids -- out there for first-hand experiences. If that personal bond is not formed and reinforced, the ethical framework will be weak. That holds for us who do professional conservation work as well.

I was reminded of this yesterday afternoon. I've been stressed out lately, so I forced myself to get out fora good long walk in a nearby restored wetland. It made my whole day to see the geese and coots and cranes and white egrets -- but especially the yellow-headed blackbirds (I'm on the eastern edge of their range). I'm sure anyone reading this has the same experience: getting out never fails to yield some refreshing surprise.

Jimmy, thanks for your generous words. Stories. Absolutely. I'm reminded of N. Scott Momaday's essay "The Man Made of Words," so powerful in expressing how we identify ourselves, how we connect and grow, how we shape our world (as the world shapes us), through our stories.

I'm more and more convinced that, no matter how sophisticated -- or simple -- the tools and technologies we use to tell our stories, their essential power will always be fundamental to our humanity. They will always bring us back to the core; they will always convey meaning in a way that data alone cannot. I'm reminded too of the good work of Peter Forbes and company at the Center for Whole Communities ( Check them out for rich resources on the role of stories in advancing conservation.

Karene, I think I will take your cue from that line in "Thinking Like a Mountain" for the next blog entry. It's too rich for a short comment!

Whay are stories so difficult? Good question! My first thought is that they are actually easy, instinctive even, for us humans. But we have somehow been taught to regard stories as somehow childish, or unprofessional, or lacking the rigor of science or formal rhetoric. We are told and even trained to leave stories behind, and to divorce tham from our work as scientists, or resource managers, or decision-makers, or business-people.

In fact, stories are the vehicles of meaning. They allow us to make sense of all that complex scientific, cultural, and moral information that swirls around us. Leopold's "Thinking Like a Mountain" is a great example, in fact. It's a story. It's informed by science and experience and complex ideas, but it conveys meaning through story and symbol. We've all likely read a lot of illuminating scientific papers on wolf biology, predator-prey dynamics, population ecology, trophic cascades, etc., etc. If we are young and our memories are fully functional, we may remember all those facts! But we really remember stories. And we pass them along as aprt of our collective memory. Gary Nabhan once wrote (paraphrase): "Give a student a copy of Leopold's textbook Game Management, and a copy of A Sand County Almanac. Then ask him/her in a year which one he/she remembers!" That's the power of stories.

Okay. I'll post some thoughts on... dullness next!

Robert Michael Pyle said...

There's never been a thing said or written more apt, wise, or needful than Aldo's basic ethic:

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

If this were widely followed, or even attempted, we might have a chance.

Robert Michael Pyle
Gray's River, Washington

Anonymous said...


Jane Hoffman said...

To keep the land ethic alive, vital and growing we need to engage young people. They are living in a world much changed since our childhoods. Programs like Youth Conservation Corps and Americorps are giving them opportunities to work on public lands and in same cases educate school children who visit. Now more than ever, our young people need to be in the outdoors more and spend less time with their computers and video games. This Thoreau quote in Aldo's essay struck a cord with me:
"In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men."

Curt Meine said...

(Oops! I responded to Jane and Robert in the second posting on the blog here. Still working out the kinks! So please forgive the double post):

Thank you, Robert, for checking into Wild
Read. Those two sentences continue to reverberate so powerfully, sixty-four years after Leopold penned them. What's interesting from my perspective is how exceptional they are in Leopold's body of writing. He generally hesitated to make that sort of proclamation. But I've always felt that he was so deeply concerned about the direction in which the world was headed, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, that he put aside his rhetorical reserve.

(And for those of you not familiar with Robert Michael Pyle's writing, please run and pick up any of his works right away. And I nominate him for a near-future selection for the Wild Read!)

Jane, I couldn't agree with you more. I would only add a further point: that we who are involved in conservation also need to share the ever-evolving story, and history, of conservation with the next generation. I feel such urgency on this. Students who may feel overwhelmed by the challenges before us need to know whose shoulders we stand upon. It's a remarkable and inspiring story, but we don't do as much as we could to share it. And if we don't share it, who will?

WILD READ Team said...

More about Robert Michael Pyle here

Heather said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Heather said...

Upon reading both articles, I think the answer can be found in the word "community", a word often-used throughout Dr. Meine's article. Although I agree the youth have to be educated, that cannot stand alone by itself. Having a six year old who will loudly point out when my actions do not coincide with my words, I feel that there must be an example set by the adults around the youth for it have any lasting effect. There will not be a silver bullet to turn this around, but instead a consistent and focused chipping away of our current culture of quick fixes without consequences and hyper-consumerism. I do agree that stories help to educate, and that can be very effective in illustrating the message to people. But I believe the impact will be focusing those actions on providing an alternative message of 'me-ism' to being part of this planet's community. That focus will lead the actions, to include educating the youth, leading local conservation projects, providing stories to counter the hyper-consumerism message with 'intelligent consumption', and pressuring our government to be an example of these practices. I this this is encapsulated in a quote from Leopold, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."
(Note: this was much better the first time I wrote it, but it was all erased when I went to preview I didn't preview it this time!)

Anne said...

The mountain’s rise and slope, its immensity next to any organism, is a generosity of form: You may be here, it says in its quiet occupation of place. The nature lover’s descriptions of green fire in the eye of a dying wolf, says, I am called forth by lives I cannot imagine.

We gather around Leopold’s description of green fire to find what joins us. What speaks like a mountain is mighty, but it is no mere lump on the earth, no giant rock with a city of wildlife teaming over it. The mountain, the words of the lover of nature, are quiet in a place where we ourselves need to move and resound. Others are already there, called as it were, to live. Some of them are human.

What speaks in the voice of the nature lover and resonates in the massive calm of a mountain is all that I cannot fathom when the diversity of life translates innumerable tongues, giving me to the feeling of all lives calling upon each other. In the quiet of the mountain and the descriptive words of the nature lover is the opening of space for lives to meet up and in joining, to become greater than what they are alone.

If we will speak for nature it will be with the voice of our endless rejoining. I will hear it rise and fall on the generous slopes of the mountain of our consciousness.
For there is a massive place where we humans — floating as Neruda said, in the “origin and ash” of language — team and bustle with awareness. There is a massive presence of our intellect as among the ants who squat down to be the road beneath each other’s feet.