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Leopold: loving the land (alliteration intended)

February 17, 2009

 

from the Leopold Archive at Univ. of Wisconsin

from the Leopold Archive at Univ. of Wisconsin

I assume many of you from environmental studies and biological sciences have read Leopold before. And I also assume that those many of you, when you get into his focus on “The Land Pyramid” and the ecological perspective of the biotic community (these are selections from the third part of A Sand County Almanac) feel more at home. At least more at home than you are lost sauntering around the poetry and paradox (pair of ducks?) of Thoreau’s pond. Leopold offers an approachable view into the issues of ecological thinking.

 

From that vantage point, it does seem that we have left the poetry of Thoreau behind. Possibly. At least in Leopold’s more professional engagement with science and such things as the ‘land as an energy circuit.’ This could be discussion from an ecology text; in a sense, it is. And so in this question (I am asking this week, as we turn from Walden) of what and who comes after Thoreau, Leopold (and to a lesser extent Muir and Burroughs) signals a shift toward the scientific in the nature writing we are exploring. 

But notice this idea at the heart of his ecological thinking. The idea is that in order to be more ecological in our human perception and appreciation and understanding of the biotic community of which we are a part (and only a part, not the center), we need something that the poets do well. We need representation; relation. We need images and figures that foster love, faith, feeling, understanding. In order to think like a mountain we need, in part, writers like Thoreau (and Leopold himself). Consider how he begins the section on “The Land Pyramid” by calling for a new figure of speech and mental image to understand and love the biotic mechanism. Plato be damned: we need the poets (the image-makers) in order to be more philosophical.

An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to land presupposes the existence of some mental image of land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.

Ecology needs poetry. I would suggest that such poetry is evident in Leopold’s writing–though he may not be as interested or as gifted (in other words, as wild) as Thoreau is with his paradoxes. But I hear it in his evocation of elegy; in the alliteration of his ‘listening land’; in a sense that Leopold performs an ecological consciousness in his descriptions and in his desire to have us think like mountains (a poetic figure, after all, for something radically non-human, and as strange as anything in Thoreau). I understand this poetry of Leopold’s ecology, finally, in his call for an ecological consciousness that is ethically and esthetically right: “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” (396).

A remarkable and important line, this crossing of ethics and esthetics. In Leopold’s biotic community, we will achieve the stability the system demands (and will get one way or another, with or without us), when the poets lie down with the scientists and economists, and help them love the land as they would a work of art, as Whitman loves his leaves of grass or Thoreau his sand foliage. This isn’t without paradox: needing the distance of representation (writing, reading, thinking, language) in order to get closer to our nature. Back to Thoreau–and to a good bit of poetic wisdom from various spiritual traditions to boot: we need to lose ourselves (stand beside ourselves in a sane sense) in order to find ourselves. If you want to kiss the sky better learn how to kneel.

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