Dissolution

Winter never came, but spring has come anyway. If you visit the forest and become very still, if you quiet your mind and listen carefully in the spaces between heartbeats, listen with your entire body, you can feel the faint rustle of spring annuals pushing upward through damp duff, feel the rush of air over goose pinions, feel the swish of a steelhead’s tail pushing it downstream, back toward beckoning saltwater. In the quiet instant between heartbeats you will feel the warming moisture opening the pores of your skin, until you are no longer just you.

This dissolution of self, or at least the primacy of self, in order to connect to a larger universe is the fertile ground from which the seeds Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic were germinated. This was the capstone essay of A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, the year after his death. Leopold saw the world as it really is—people connected to one another in human communities that are supported by healthy ecological communities. He understood that economics and all other human derived activities are derived from, and must be subservient to, the needs of the Earth. But Leopold’s genius was in taking this biological reality one giant step forward, arguing that the choices we make with regard to our physical and biological place fall within the purview of ethics. Morality. Perhaps Leopold’s most famous sentence:

“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”

We can function as moral humans only when we act upon our connectedness to one another. Leopold challenges us to extend this concept of morality to become a moral species making moral choices with respect to both our fellow humans and our place in the community of the Earth. Thus, in order to act as moral citizens of the biosphere we must become fundamentally connected to our ecological community as well as to our fellow humans. This is a tall order in a world that emphasizes the rights of individuals, and extends those rights to corporations.

Perhaps things really do come in their own time; this might be especially true of ideas. I was first introduced to A Sand County Almanac in my early twenties, and while one could say then that I knew of Aldo Leopold, it would also be fair to say that I was too young to really know Aldo Leopold. My youthful detachment from Leopold’s famous treatise had little to do with chronological age. I was simply too unsettled, too immature for his wisdom to penetrate deeply. But the seed was planted, and when I reread the Almanac decades later, Leopold’s words formed deep roots.

If there is a time to really know Aldo Leopold, this implies that there is also a time when we are less receptive. We cannot help but be influenced by the dominant culture of our time, and there is little about our current paradigm of exploitation and economic growth that is congruent with Leopold’s Land Ethic. While our separation from the land may have begun with the advent of agriculture and civilization, this was a recent disjunction when viewed from a vantage point that encompasses all of human history. So I choose to believe, and I use that word believe advisedly because it really may be an article of faith, that millions of years of evolution have etched into our genes a need for connecting to the land that is as deep and immutable as the rocks that have become our bones that carry us about in this wet, greening world. By extension I also believe that bringing Leopold’s Land Ethic back into the broader public consciousness is a process of rediscovering the knowledge that we already carry in the coiled memory of our chromosomes. Perhaps our conscience, that ineluctable “something” that causes us to act, the ecological moral imperative of which Kathleen Dean Moore writes and speaks, will turn out to be a product of our long evolutionary history in the biosphere that we now must be compelled to save.

Yet the pressing question is, are we ready? Has the time now come for a broader appreciation of Leopold’s Land Ethic? Have we now grown beyond our self-centered, childlike irresponsibility? Have we reached a level of maturity that will allow us to deconstruct the walls that we have placed around ourselves, remove that bubble of entitlement within which we exploit the biosphere? Can we drop the shield we have raised that separates us from true ecological awareness? Are we capable of unclenching our small hands?

I am not sure. In darker moments I wonder if we have gone too far down the wrong road. And not in the sense that our degraded ecosystems could now be in terminal decline--the earth does have tremendous capacity for repair. Rather, I wonder if the majority of humans have become terminally separated from the ecosystem that sustains us, to the extent that we have overridden our evolutionary capacity for regaining a true Land Ethic.

Of this I am certain: we will regain the capacity for ethical action only to the extent that we follow Aldo Leopold’s lead and choose to become our place, physically and spiritually. This will require that we become a community of people, connected to our past, responsible to present and future generations; that we become our land by eating our own food, grown on this ground by people who live here; that we become our weather by being outside in real sunlight and real rain; that we become our forests by knowing that every breath of air pungent with fungi is laced with oxygen made from the trees under which we stand. Surely this is the path forward. It certainly feels right.

Further reading:

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, Oxford University Press, 1949.

Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson, Trinity University Press. 2010.