Cool Friday Essay #2: Aldo Leopold

I’ve been too busy to post anything worth posting for a while, but I think the following essays are certainly worth it. For a law school class, I just finished a re-read of Aldo Leopold’s classic “A Sand County Almanac.” Published in 1949, Leopold was able to put into words his view of conservation, a view that has been gaining steam (albeit with little substantive change in our land use practices). I have chosen two essays that really resonated with me, called “Thinking Like a Mountain” and “Escudilla”.  They appear in this order, back to back, in the middle of A Sand County Almanac and do an amazing job of capturing some of the fundamental problems with how we interact with nature. Without further ado:

Thinking Like a Mountain

by Aldo Leopold

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.

Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

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.

***

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

Escudilla

by Aldo Leopold

Life in Arizona was bounded under foot by grama grass, overhead by sky, and on the horizon by Escudiila.

To the north of the mountain you rode on honey-colored plains.  Look up anywhere, any time, and you saw Escudilla.

To the east you rode over a confusion of wooded mesas.  Each hollow seemed its own small world, soaked in sun, fragrant with juniper, and cozy with the chatter of pinyon jays.  But top out on a ridge and you at once became a speck in an immensity.  On its edge hung Escudilla.

To the south lay the tangled canyons ofBlueRiver, full of whitetails, wild turkeys, and wilder cattle.  When you missed a saucy buck waving his goodbye over the skyline, and looked down your sights to wonder why, you looked at a far blue mountain:  Escudilla.

To the west billowed the outliers of theApacheNational Forest.  We cruised timber there, converting the tall pines, forty by forty, into notebook figures representing hypothetical lumber piles.  Panting up a canyon, the cruiser felt a curious incongruity between the remoteness of his notebook symbols and the immediacy of sweaty fingers, locust thorns, deer-fly bites, and scolding squirrels.  But on the next ridge a cold wind, roaring across a green sea of pines, blew his doubts away.  On the far shore hung Escudilla.

The mountain bounded not only our work and our play, but even our attempts to get a good dinner.  On winter evenings we often tried to ambush a mallard on the river flats.  The wary flocks circled the rosy west, and the steel-blue north, and then disappeared into the inky black of Escudilla.  If they reappeared on set wings, we had a fat drake for the Dutch oven.  If they failed to reappear, it was bacon and beans again.

There was, in fact, only one place from which you did not see Escudilla on the skyline: that was the top of Escudilla itself.  Up there you could not see the mountain, but you could feel it.  The reason was the big bear.

Old Bigfoot was a robber-baron, and Escudilla was his castle.  Each spring, when the warm winds had softened the shadows on the snow, the old grizzly crawled out of his hibernation den in the rock slides and, descending the mountain, bashed in the head of a cow.  Eating his fill, he climbed back to his crags, and there summered peaceably on marmots, conies, berries, and roots.

I once saw one of his kills.  The cow’s skull and neck were pulp, as if she had collided head-on with a fast freight.

No one ever saw the old bear, but in the muddy springs about the base of the cliffs you saw his incredible tracks.  Seeing them made the most hard-bitten cowboys aware of bear.  Wherever they rode they saw the mountain, and when they saw the mountain they thought of bear.  Campfire conversation ran to beef, bailes, and bear.  Bigfoot claimed for his own only a cow a year, and a few square miles of useless rocks, but his personality pervaded the country.

Those were the days when progress first came to the cow country.  Progress had various emissaries.

One was the first transcontinental automobilist.  The cowboys understood this breaker of roads; he talked the same breezy bravado as any breaker of broncos.

They did not understand, but they listened to and looked at, the pretty lady in black velvet who came to enlighten them, in aBostonaccent, about woman suffrage.

They marveled, too, at the telephone engineer who strung wires on the junipers and brought instantaneous messages from town.  An old man asked whether the wire could bring him a side of bacon.

One spring, progress sent still another emissary, a government trapper, a sort of St. George in overalls, seeking dragons to slay at government expense.  Were there, he asked, any destructive animals in need of slaying?  Yes, there was the big bear.

The trapper packed his mule and headed for Escudilla.

In a month he was back, his mule staggering under a heavy hide.  There was only one barn in town big enough to dry it on.  He had tried traps, poison, and all his usual wiles to no avail.  Then he had erected a set-gun in a defile through which only the bear could pass, and waited.  The last grizzly walked into the string and shot himself.

It was June.  The pelt was foul, patchy, and worthless.  It seemed to us rather an insult to deny the last grizzly the chance to leave a good pelt as a memorial to his race.  All he left was a skull in theNationalMuseum, and a quarrel among scientists over the Latin name of the skull.

It was only after we pondered on these things that we began to wonder who wrote the rules for progress.

*                              *                              *

Since the beginning, time had gnawed at the basaltic hulk of Escudilla, wasting, waiting and building.  Time built three things on the old mountain, a venerable aspect, a community of minor animals and plants, and a grizzly.

The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows.  He did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together.

The bureau chief who sent the trapper was a biologist versed in the architecture of evolution, but he did not know that spires might be as important as cows.  He did not foresee that within two decades the cow country would become tourist country, and as such have greater need of bears than of beefsteaks.

The Congressmen who voted money to clear the ranges of bears were the sons of pioneers.  The acclaimed the superior virtues of the frontiersman, but they strove with might and main to make an end of the frontier.

We forest officers, who acquiesced in the extinguishment of the bear, knew a local rancher who had plowed up a dagger engraved with the name of one ofCoronado’s captains.  We spoke harshly of the Spaniards who, in their zeal for gold and converts, had needlessly extinguished the native Indians.  It did not occur to us that we, too, were the captains of an invasion too sure of its own righteousness.

Escudilla still hangs on the horizon, but when you see it you no longer think of bear.  It’s only a mountain now.

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Posted on February 3, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. A possible rebuttal to Leopold’s romantic attachment to the state of nature that hundreds of years of progress has so callously destroyed and replaced with prosperity and a better quality of life.
    http://www.southparkstudios.com/guide/episodes/s03e01-rainforest-shmainforest

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