Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac

Joan Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness also inspired me to re-read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac AND SKETCHES HERE AND THERE, a book I read a year or so ago but never commented on, largely because I was so impressed by it that I didn’t think I could do it justice at the time (I doubt that I can do so even now). It was so good I was amazed I hadn’t encountered it before, though apparently everyone who has actually taken classes in ecology knows Leopold and his writing. According to Wikipedia, “Leopold was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation” and helped to found the Wilderness Society.

Luckily, Sand County Almanac reads more like a literary work than a scientific textbook. It’s a delightful read; I’m enjoying it nearly as much the second time as I did the first time. One of the first passages I underlined on my first reading takes on even more significance on a second reading when it becomes clear that it introduces one of Leopold’s major ideas:

The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.

Although this passage might seem more appropriate in the introduction of a child’s tale than in a college professor’s journal, it offered an interesting perspective when seen in light of this passage which appears just a few pages later:

The rough-leg has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well aware that snow melts in order that hawks may again catch mice. He came down out of the Arctic in the hope of thaws, for to him a thaw means freedom from want and fear.

These diametrically opposing statements force the reader to see the same event from two very different viewpoints, something most of us seldom bother to do. It’s even more remarkable to see the event from the perspective of two different animals, and not merely from a human perspective.

A few pages more and the reader is offered yet another perspective of this winter thaw:

Further on I find a bloody spot, encircled by a wide-sweeping arc of owl’s wings. To this rabbit the thaw brought freedom from want, but also a reckless abandonment of fear. The owl has reminded him that thoughts of spring are no substitute for caution.

We tend to forget that different animals see the same event from very different viewpoints, and certainly not from man’s viewpoint. Leopold argues we cannot get an accurate view of nature if we only see it from an Anthropocentric viewpoint:

It was a bolt of lightning that put an end to wood-making by this particular oak. We were all awakened, one night in July, by the thunderous crash; we realized that the bolt must have hit near by, but, since it had not hit us, we all went back to sleep. Man brings all things to the test of himself, and this is notably true of lightning.

Immediately Leopold proceeds to relate all the different events that changed the environment during the life of the oak as he cuts it up for firewood, events that most of us have never heard of or, if we have heard of them, dismissed as unimportant because they didn’t directly affect our life, no matter how devastating the effect on the prairie environment.

In a later essay, we learn when Leopold first gained his famous perspective.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks. We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her 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. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Raised as a city slicker and a life-long dog lover, I’ve never had to overcome a prejudice against wolves, but this anti-wolf mentality is ingrained in our society, as we’ve seen recently in local attempts to eradicate wolves once again. At the very least they are seen as competitors for wildlife, at worst as potential threats to humans. It seemed like a giant leap forward for a forest ranger to recognize that even he had been brainwashed into viewing nature only from mankind’s short-term viewpoint.

Once you’ve realized just how limited our anthropocentric view of nature is, you might even be able to see our environment from the view of the mountain,

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

no longer fixated on short-term gains but able to consider how present actions may affect the ecology, including our future generations.

Man’s Interdependence

One of the key concepts in Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness is the idea of nonduality, the sense that we are an integral part of the whole. It is this sense of nonduality that she has discovered through her study of Buddhism, shamanism, and deep ecology.

We go into the darkness, we seek initiation, in order to know directly how the roots of all beings are tied together: how we are related to all things, how this relationship expresses itself in terms of interdependence, and finally how all phenomena abide within one another. Yes, the roots of all living things are tied together. Deep in the ground of being, they tangle and embrace. This understanding is expressed in the term nonduality. If we look deeply, we find that we do not have a separate self-identity, a self that does not include sun and wind, earth and water, creatures and plants, and one another. We cannot exist without the presence and support of the interconnecting circles of creation— the geosphere, the biosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the sphere of our sun. All are related to us; we depend on each of these spheres for our very existence.

My original love of nature came from a childhood on Puget Sound spent fishing and hiking. It didn’t take long to discover that America’s predominant culture didn’t have the same love for nature that I did. I could never reconcile my view of nature with the Old Testament idea that man was giving dominion over the earth to use it for his own needs however he wished. Perhaps that is why later I was drawn to shamanism, ecology, Taoism, and, eventually, Buddhism.

In a world that seems increasingly mechanical and increasingly alienated, perhaps Halifax is right when she suggests that

The wisdom of the peoples of elder cultures can make an important contribution to the postmodern world, one that we must begin to accept as the crisis of self, society, and the environment deepens. This wisdom cannot be told, but it is to be found by each of us in the direct experience of silence, stillness, solitude, simplicity, ceremony, and vision.

The deep ecologists Arne Naess, Joanna Macy, and John Seed write about the ecological self, the experience of our interconnectedness with all of creation. They know as well as I do that these words are intellectual concepts until this self is directly experienced. This is understood in Buddhism, where experience or “direct practice realization” is contrasted with conceptual knowledge. Buddhism as well as tribal traditions emphasize direct learning. In the tribal world, and I dare say in ours, Truth is not easily made real in our everyday lives, nor is it easily described.

Though I see few signs that society is ready to accept such wisdom, there are at least signs that society is beginning to pay more attention to ecologists and other scientists who warn about the abuse of the environment and the effects that has on people’s lives. Perhaps a realization that we cannot continue to plunder the environment without consequences will help people to realize just how much we are a part of the ecosystem. At the very least we can hope so while doing our best to promote that view.

The Way of Language and Stories

Naturally, I also easily related to the two chapters entitled the “Way of Language” and “The Way of Stories.” In fact, Halifax took me back to one of my earliest loves in literature, mythology, particularly Indian mythology, especially the stories of the Pacific Northwest Indians, though I don’t think I ever consciously saw them in the same light she discusses them.

She even quotes a favorite author in support of her interpretation, one of many times that she does so.

Thomas Berry, in The Dream of the Earth, has said that most of us suffer from a kind of autism when it comes to communicating with anything other than our own kind. The Holy Wind has been stilled within our lives, and we live in a cultural atmosphere that does not confirm the mutuality of creation. Even when we recognize our kinship and intimacy with other forms of existence, we remain mute before them. Their language has been forgotten. We are enclosed in a psychocultural cocoon; the outer world no longer flows into our being. Those voices remain unheard, and we are unable to speak in response. The winds of communication with creation are dying. Yet Earth and language meet and metabolize in the zones of dream and visions, in story, poetry, song, and prayer, and in direct communion with untamed beings. These zones comprise the boundary lands where cultural constraints and social habits are overridden, where tribal folk, shamans, and children, the mad and inspired, are caught in the holy wind of creation.

Being a city boy I have felt “ kinship and intimacy with other forms of existence,” but have seldom felt capable of communicating with them. The closest I’ve come to this kind of communication is with the many dogs I’ve had throughout my life, but the longer I bird the closer I come to thinking I can actually understand some birds. I talk to all the birds, if only to say hello, but at times I think I even understand their calls, particularly the crows who live in my neighborhood.

Halifax argues that until we are able to share our story with other species that we are cut off from our world and from our true selves.

The true language of these worlds opens from the heart of a story that is being shared between species. For us to be restored to the fabric of this Earth, we are bidden to enter this tale once again through its many modes of telling, to listen through the ears of others to the mystery of creation, with its continually changing patterns, and to take part once again in the integral weave of the narrative. Might we not hear our true names if we learn to listen through the ears of Others? Through language, one can exchange one’s self with other beings and in this way establish an ever-widening circle of existence.

Shamans can help restore us “to the fabric of the earth.” Since they live closer to the earth than we do, it seems to go without saying that they would have a better understanding of nature and its creatures than we would. If we want to restore our bonds to the earth, what better place to look?

In the next chapter, “The Way of the Story,” Halifax suggests that the best way to reconnect is through the stories of shamans and native peoples.

Yes, stories are also protectors. Like our immune systems, they defend us and the people against attacks of debilitating alienation. My good friend Steven Foster says that people erect symbolic stories around themselves like houses. These stories are “circles of protection and purpose that bodily carry our spirits all the way to the gates of death.” For stories and myths are the connective tissue between culture and nature, between self and other, between life and death that sew the worlds together in their telling. And in the protective and connective body of story the soul quickens. It comes alive.

I wish I’d read this quote while I was still teaching. I’m sure it is one of the reasons I majored in literature. There seems to be plenty of reason to be alienated by modern life, but contemporary literature does help to transcend, or at least ameliorate that alienation. I’d like to think that the nature poets I read help bridge the gap between city life and the natural world.

Though she cites a few modern authors like Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold, it’s really the stories of more primitive people that she suggests present the best chance of healing the rupture between modern people and nature:

Stories and their ceremonies weave our world together: the story of corn maiden and mother, of salmon’s death and rebirth, of bear’s human wife, of coyote’s foul tricks and lynx’s loneliness. These stories of ecological conscience are a council where the voices of all species may be heard. It is through these stories that the Earth can be restored, for these eco-narratives are an ilbal, a “seeing instrument.” Looking through the eyes of others as their ways are told, we may hear and understand the voices of our relatives.

It has been awhile since I’ve read these kind of native stories, but perhaps it’s time to go back and read some of the sources she cites in her book.

The Silence of the Mountains

I underlined so many passages in Joan Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness that I didn’t realize how relatively short it is until I started to write about it (it didn’t help that I bought the Kindle edition, and I still can’t estimate length by the number of electrons in the book.) So, I’m hesitant to include too many passages in my discussion of it.

Halifax’s suggests there are many ways of “questioning and directly understanding our place from within the web of creation,” many ways of coping with “The World Wound.” Her table of contents provides a concise view of the many ways she discusses in her book:


1 The World Wound
2 The Way of Silence
3 The Way of Traditions
4 The Way of the Mountain
5 The Way of Language
6 The Way of Story
7 The Way of Nonduality
8 The Way of Protectors
9 The Way of the Ancestors
10 The Way of Compassion

One of the ways I was most familiar with is “The Way of Silence.” In fact, this passage seemed particularly familiar, for obvious reasons:

The poet Kathleen Raine once suggested, “It is not that birds speak, but men learn silence.” I think that it is when we learn silence that the birds speak to us. Fertile silence is like a placenta nourishing us from both emptiness and its connectedness with the greater organism of creation. Indeed, one aspect of silence is emptiness, and yes, it is often lonely. In the presence of silence, the conditioned self rattles and scratches. It begins to crumble like old leaves or worn rock. If we have courage, we take silence as medicine to cure us from our social ills, the suffering of self-centered alienation. In silence, sacred silence, we stand naked like trees in winter, all our secrets visible under our skin. And like winter’s tree, we appear dead but are yet alive.

If you’ve been visiting long enough you might remember an entry where I called myself “He Who Talks to Small Birds” accompanied by a shot of the hummingbird that hung out in my front garden and talked to me every time I came out to take photographs. Strangely enough, I considered that moment a high point in my life only paralleled by the moment when the Grey Jay flew down to take a piece of trail bar out of my hand when I was cross-country skiing on Mt. Hood.

I also identified strongly with the Chapter entitled “The Way of the Mountain” on many levels. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve spent most of my time backpacking or hiking in the mountains, whether Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, or The Olympics. There’s always been something spiritual about spending a week alone or with a small group of people in the mountains, even more so than climbing mountains.

And, as I’ve noted before, it is the love of the mountains that drew me to many of the Chinese writers:

Before Dogen and after Dogen, in Tibet, China, and Japan, wilderness, and most particularly the greatness of mountains, has called rustic ascetics to their strength and stillness. The Chinese ideograph for hsien and Japanese sen is made up of two parts, one meaning person, the other meaning mountain. In Taoism and in Ch’an Buddhism, the hsien was a spiritual practitioner who used the mountain as a birth gate to awakening. Japan, like China, had a number of spiritual schools inspired by mountain mind. The tradition of Taoist naturalism and Esoteric Buddhist cosmology and rituals combined in the background of Shinto asceticism to give rise to Shugendo. The ascetic practitioners of the Shugendo sect are called yamabushi or “those who lie down in the mountains.”

I suspect that the silence I encountered on those hikes and backpacks was one of the main reasons I loved spending a large part of my summers there. I’ve never really identified hiking in the mountains with meditation and silence, but looking back it’s clear that most hikes in the mountain were a form of walking meditation.