Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Dullness and Dynamism by Curt Meine

Karene offered this comment on the previous post:
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"?
That sentence is Leopold at his most drily ironic. He sets us, the readers, up. These things – safety, prosperity, etc. – are, of course, wonderful goals and solid criteria of personal success… until he hits you with that “dullness.” For me, dullness here is a synonym for complacency. The sentence has to be read in connection to the phrase later in the paragraph: that “too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.” It does so, Leopold implies, in the affairs of both people and ecosystems.

An ever-expanding set of studies (most famously in Yellowstone) have documented the phenomenon that Leopold so lyrically described: prey populations and species, in the absence of their predators, can degrade ecosystem function. They do so not only through the raw increase in their numbers, but through changes in their movement and behavior. One of the lessons from Yellowstone and elsewhere is that ungulate populations, in the absence of predators, become more complacent; they become dull. Instead of moving about the landscape, vigilant in the presence of predators, they remain more stationary. The effects reverberate across the ecological community through a series of “trophic cascades.” Bill Ripple and Tom Beschta at Oregon State have studied these phenomena extensively, and coined the phrase “the ecology of fear” to describe these effects. (You might check out the recent documentary Lords of Nature: Life in a Land of Great Predators, which explores these themes. Will Stoltzenburg, who will take over this blog next week, served as the writer for that film.)
So Leopold distilled a lot in his phrase, alluding to the shortcomings of any simplistic measure of success (in conservation and in life); to the need to stay alert, attentive, and alive in the world; and to the utility of fear as a part of our set of inherited evolutionary responses to the world around us.

What should we strive for to be able to think more like a "mountain"? So many answers to that question! We should strive to think large-scale and long-term. We should consider the well-being of the entire system or community, and not just maximizing our short-term, particular interest within it. We should appreciate the limits of simple, linear, cause-and-effect thinking. We should seek to comprehend the dynamic, cascading effects of our choices and decisions on the broader human and natural communities that we exist within.
But above all, there is the point that Leopold was making in the very act of writing the essay: that we should not be afraid to challenge our own premises and evolve in our thinking as we grow though our lives. Leopold did not always strive to think like a mountain. But he challenged his own safe assumptions, warded off potential dullness, and helped to advance conservation in the process!


Mark Madison said...


Why do you think Leopold begins his Land Ethic with Odysseus? Was he showing off, arguing for the role of philosophy/history or something else? It is a very roundabout, beginning.

Curt Meine said...

Hi, Mark. It's an interesting question. I think Leopold chose that allusion very purposefully, and for a couple reasons. Most basically, he aimed to place his general argument for a land ethic within a historical framework. He wanted to establish the point about evolving notions of ethics and economic expedience. He chose to do so with reference to one of the foundational texts of western literature. I can see where it would seem roundabout, but I think it was more about finding a familiar way to introduce a challenging new ethical proposition, even while making it continuous with the deep history of Western civilization. (Some commentators have suggested that Leopold might well have chosen the even more familiar and recent American history of slavery to make the point.) In any event, Leopold belonged to a generation that grew up reading the classics, and his writing includes many such references.

Becky said...

Hello all! My name is Becky and I work for Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park. I'm a bit late to the discussion, but I've been following along. I've been thinking lately about ideas of science and emotion related to thinking "like a mountain". Science seems to remove emotion from the equation, while we try to get people to connect with land through emotional responses. But sometimes basic emotional responses are not so helpful when thinking of the bigger picture. People want to save the prey from being killed by the predator, because the idea of a predator killing a harmless creature triggers a strong emotional response. But science tells us that we need that predator/prey relationship to remain balanced for the health of the ecosystem. What I struggle with is how we help people have those emotional responses to nature, while using science and long-term thinking to help make balanced decisions. Leopold's essay seems to shed some light on this, but the interaction between science and emotion still seems so complicated to me...

Guy said...


Funny anecdote related to your post.

The other day, I was flipping through channels and came across a doc on oceans. The scene, when I joined it, featured humpback whales, with some awesome shots of breaching and great underwater video. I quickly called my children to see it, because it was just majestic and I knew they would appreciate it. So we watched for a few moments, during which I talked to them about whales and such.

So, 2 minutes later, the scene shifts from the elegant grace of whales swimming to great white sharks leaping from the water (also graceful, mind you) to snag seals. And I said to my kids, "uh, let's turn this off now." Sure, I didn't want them to spend any more time in front of the TV, but I also didn't want them to see the grizzly upcoming feast.

Becky said...

Thanks for sharing your anecdote, Ken. I can understand with small children how knowing about the food web as a concept and seeing it play out are definitely two different experiences! We humans have such a complicated relationship with the idea of violence - we abhor it between members of our own species in any form, and yet it's a fundamental part of the balance of an ecosystem. How do we come to terms with what is so unacceptable for us as a society, and so necessary for nature? A friend of mine and I just recently finished reading "The Land of Little Rain", by Mary Austin and in it she describes, "What taxed me most in the wreck of one of my favorite canyons by cloud-burst was to see a bobcat mother mouthing her drowned kittens in the ruined lair built in the wash, far above the limit of accustomed waters, but not far enough for the unexpected. After a time you get the point of view of gods about these things to save you from being too pitiful." Another way of thinking like a mountain?

Curt Meine said...

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...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Curt Meine said...

(Sorry for the confusion! My last comment above was in response to comments in the first posting. I'll have this all figured out by week's end!)

macrobe said...

If I may offer a personal perspective: To me, 'thinking like a mountain' is like 'allowing things to speak,' 'reading the rocks,' 'seeing beyond seeing.' They are metaphors for a phenomenology of being in the world, seeing beyond our own drives, prejudices, and constraints. And trying to attain an indivisible connection, a wholeness, of us as human beings and ALL that surrounds us. Rocks, water, mountains are beyond our conceptions of time; they make no judgments, they are not constrained by human constructs of time, they are not plagued by human trappings. They just 'are.'

Yet around them trickles a evolving cycle of organisms that are in constant flux and dynamic changes. All life has relationships with each other in some capacity, and like a flowing and ebbing tide, those relationships circle each other with an innate struggle for balance. All systems, organic and inorganic, teeter totter on a sliding balance, and all organisms play their parts in it. The prey-predator relationship is a natural fulcrum for that sliding balance. Even our own bodies have a drive to reach homeostasis, inside us and out.

Perhaps the mountain, which is the tallest and oldest of all, is the metaphor for timelessness and infinity. The mountain 'sees' all. What happens in the wild is what has gone on before since life began. It is we, our species, that have tipped that balance to a dangerous, and perhaps irreparable point of threatening that holistic interrelationship around the planet. Indeed, as we enter the advent of the Sixth Great Extinction, with ignorance and denial, we even try to tear down the mountains.

What we have lost is that connection, the relationships with other organisms and even the inorganic and physical components of our planet. We have pushed the balance too far. And we somehow need to establish a new one to try and rescue all before it is lost. We each need to do our part, in our own backyard, before it will spread to the whole, so that we may all come together to do our best to right our wrongs.

Curt Meine said...

So well said, Macrobe.

Yes, it's the time scale that Leopold especially invokes in the essay. That's what he means, I think, in his reference to the mountain's "objective" perspective. He fully acknowledged the distinction between geological time and dynamic ecological change. In this, and a couple other essays, that's a dominant thread. The question was how best to live with, and within, the community of life, how to work with its flows of water, nutrients, energy, lifeforms. (Leopold tended to resist, actually, invoking the term "balance," preferring to talk in terms of healthy functioning, or "land health"). One of the advances in the conservation arena in the last couple decades, I think, is that we now think about the temporal scales of change in nature much more accurately and carefully. (Think about, for example, how far we have come in understanding fire as a natural force of disturbance and renewal.)

Fred said...

My take on Leopold's sentence,"We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, longlife and dullness."

If you are totally safe without any possibility of injury you lose your edge. The "edge" is what gives life an extra dimension of excitement. Try canoeing rapids, rock climbing or dirt biking etc., you may get injured but you will also experience a great deal of satisfaction in overcoming your fear.

If you are prosperous to the point of no longer needing anything you lose a degree of faith and hope. Trusting providence for your next meal gives one's life a degree of adventure that the prosperous will never know. All wild animals experience this dimension of life, however, modern man, for the most part, has never experienced the need to hunt and gather food.

Being comfortable robs one of the experience of making do. If you can spend a week in the wild without modern tools, sleeping bag, etc., you'll have developed survival skills that will bring you even closer to nature.

Concerning longlife, we all want it but if you are afraid of living for fear of dying then you are already dead.

Nature and Wildness are realms where safety, prosperity, comfort and longlife are absent. The native americans used to say, "it is a good day to die", because death was always a real possibility but dullness and boredom were not.

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