Leopold’s Wilderness

I was as strong advocate of Wilderness areas long before I read Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River, but his short essay reminded me of many reasons why all of us, even if we never visit a wilderness areas, should be wilderness supporters. As a life-long city dweller whose relatives have been farmers, I could identify with Leopold when he pointed out that:

To the laborer in the sweat of his labor, the raw stuff on his anvil is an adversary to be conquered. So was wilderness an adversary to the pioneer.

But to the laborer in repose, able for the moment to cast a philosophical eye on his world, that same raw stuff is something to be loved and cherished, because it gives definition and meaning to his life. This is a plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.

Anyone who has ever read Giants in the Earth realizes just how hard it was for pioneer farmers to survive. Small wonder, then, that many of them came to see wilderness as an enemy to be conquered, an oft-repeated theme in American literature. Modern farmers have it much easier, but even under the best of conditions it continues to be a tough job as shown by the number of farm children who end up in large cities rather than taking over the family farm.

For a city-slicker like me, though, the wilderness has been a god-send. My fondest adult memories are inextricably linked to Wilderness Areas in Washington, Oregon, and Montana.

Wilderness areas are first of all a series of sanctuaries for the primitive arts of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing. I suppose some will wish to debate whether it is important to keep these primitive arts alive. I shall not debate it. Either you know it in your bones, or you are very, very old. European hunting and fishing are largely devoid of the thing that wilderness areas might be the means of preserving in this country. Europeans do not camp, cook, or do their own work in the woods if they can avoid doing so. Work chores are delegated to beaters and servants, and a hunt carries the atmosphere of a picnic, rather than of pioneering. The test of skill is confined largely to the actual taking of game or fish. There are those who decry wilderness sports as ‘undemocratic’ because the recreational carrying capacity of a wilderness is small, as compared with a golf links or a tourist camp. The basic error in such argument is that it applies the philosophy of mass-production to what is intended to counteract mass-production. The value of recreation is not a matter of ciphers. Recreation is valuable in proportion to the intensity of its experiences, and to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life. By these criteria, mechanized outings are at best a milk-and-water affair. Mechanized recreation already has seized nine-tenths of the woods and mountains; a decent respect for minorities should dedicate the other tenth to wilderness.

I feel blessed to live in an area that has only recently seen the kind of growth that threatens to destroy what little wilderness is left, especially since those living in the East have realized what they have already lost and have made attempts to preserve more land in the West. Washington State has a large number of National Parks and Wilderness Areas, as well it should have, and there’s no place in the world I’d rather be than high up in the Cascades on a crisp, sunny morning.

I’ve spent considerable time signing petitions and sending comments on recent attempts in America to not only delist wolves from the endangered species list but to totally eradicate them from some states. Sure enough, years ago Leopold saw the dangers of eliminating predators:

One of the most insidious invasions of wilderness is via predator control. It works thus: wolves and lions are cleaned out of a wilderness area in the interest of big-game management. The big-game herds (usually deer or elk) then increase to the point of overbrowsing the range. Hunters must then be encouraged to harvest the surplus, but modern hunters refuse to operate far from a car; hence a road must be built to provide access to the surplus game. Again and again, wilderness areas have been split by this process, but it still continues.

I’ve long felt cheated that I’ve never managed to hear, much less see, wolves in any of my many backpacking trips to wilderness areas. Nor have I managed to see a mountain lion. But even if I never see one I would feel better knowing that they are there.

Permanent grizzly ranges and permanent wilderness areas are of course two names for one problem. Enthusiasm about either requires a long view of conservation, and a historical perspective. Only those able to see the pageant of evolution can be expected to value its theater, the wilderness, or its outstanding achievement, the grizzly. But if education really educates, there will, in time, be more and more citizens who understand that relics of the old West add meaning and value to the new. Youth yet unborn will pole up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, or climb the Sierras with James Capen Adams, and each generation in turn will ask: Where is the big white bear? It will be a sorry answer to say he went under while conservationists weren’t looking.

Wilderness really doesn’t seem like “wilderness” without all those species that evolved with us and recent studies seem to show that predators play a vital part in maintaining a healthy wilderness ( see this informative video on the role of the wolves in Yellowstone: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ysa5OBhXz-Q&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Dysa5OBhXz-Q .

Leopold also argues that is not only those of us who would experience life at its most primitive level that lose when wildernesses are lost. Scientists can learn much about nature from studying wilderness,

Paleontology offers abundant evidence that wilderness maintained itself for immensely long periods; that its component species were rarely lost, neither did they get out of hand; that weather and water built soil as fast or faster than it was carried away. Wilderness, then, assumes unexpected importance as a laboratory for the study of land-health.

and what they learn can help us learn to farm more productively.

While even the largest wilderness areas become partially deranged, it required only a few wild acres for J. E. Weaver to discover why the prairie flora is more drouth-resistant than the agronomic flora which has supplanted it. Weaver found that the prairie species practice ‘team work’ underground by distributing their root-systems to cover all levels, whereas the species comprising the agronomic rotation overdraw one level and neglect another, thus building up cumulative deficits. An important agronomic principle emerged from Weaver’s researches.

It would be hard to find a better rational for preserving the few wildernesses that are left than this essay, especially when read in the context of Leopold’s whole book.

Guilty as Charged

This passage from Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac seemed particularly relevant after my recent encounter with the Sandhill Cranes at Ridgefield.

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.

I’m definitely guilty as charged. I began bird photography trying to capture the beauty of certain birds that I admired when I first saw them. I’m probably still guilty of paying more attention to those species I consider beautiful, like the male Wood Duck or the male Harlequin Duck than to their drabber relatives. But it seems impossible when you’re actually out there paying attention to birds you admire to ignore those other animals that don’t meet the common definition of beauty.

For instance, I doubt that many people would view the American Coot as a beautiful bird, but over the years I’ve found myself fascinated with them and have spent much time trying capture pictures of them with their offspring, one of the scruffiest birds I’ve ever seen. Over the years I’ve probably learned more about them than I have about either the Wood Duck or the Harlequin Duck.

American Coot

In fact, my appreciation of the American Coot seems to have evolved very much as Leopold’s appreciation of the crane did. One look at those strange green feet and I was hooked (and according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology the American Coot closer to the Sandhill Crane than to the ducks most people identify it with.)

This much, though, can be said: our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.

Although I have life-long love of nature and wilderness areas, I discovered birding relatively late in life, and will never have the kind-of-in-depth knowledge of wildlife that Leopold possesses,

And so they live and have their being—these cranes—not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun. The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.

but the more I learn about the birds I photograph the closer I feel to nature, and to the environment. No one who birds would ever underestimate the value of marshes, with or without cranes, though until recently they were regarded as worthless areas to be filled so that houses could be built on the shores of beautiful lakes or, worse yet, filled in as garbage dumps so that they could be paved over as parking lots. Indeed, it seems rather ironic that the college where I got my undergraduate degree relied on a land fill to provide parking for its thousands of commuters, a college well known for its fisheries and oceanography programs.

It would be too bad if people only appreciated nature for its beauty, but if that beauty leads them to a true appreciation of nature in all its beauty and complexity then it’s a wonderful tool that I don’t mind relying on regularly in this blog.

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.