This film about Aldo Leopold’s life and the development of his thinking about our relationship with land is a true gem. I could not find when it was created, however, the people interviewed are his biographers and scientists who knew and worked with Leopold. It was shown on Wisconsin Public TV. A special treat is narration by Lorne Greene best remembered as “Pa” on Bonanza.
The film gives viewers an in depth history about Aldo Leopold’s life and how his ideas about The Land Ethic evolved over his lifetime.
WATCH EARLY THIS YEAR TO SET YOUR COMPASS TOWARD TRUE NORTH.
A story from the Coconino National Forest in Arizona
When Dorothy set off to find the Wizard of Oz, she and her companions encountered a lion in the dark wood just as they had feared, but, the cowardly beast only drew their disdain, for what good is a spineless lion?
Therein lies the dichotomy between our visceral fear of carnivores and our psychological need for them to be wild, fierce and free—a varmint or an icon. One gets them killed, the other immortalized, but neither will help them survive.
Neither perception tells us why lions, tigers and bears are important. A wolf takes the weakest of the herd, controlling not only numbers but removing the least adaptive genes from the population’s gene pool. A dynamic balance results between wolves, deer, and vegetation and myriad lives each dependent on the other.
That we do not understand the importance of these relationships was memorably recorded by Aldo Leopold. He wrote about an experience shooting wolves one afternoon, a common practice among Forest Service rangers in 1949. Leopold watched a “fierce green fire” flicker out in a mother wolf’s eyes.
Dawning on his consciousness was the realization of a bigger death̶, a death of wild things and something greater still: the very foundation of a healthy ecosystem. The wild, beautiful landscapes that inspired Leopold were created over centuries among myriad species until a dynamic stage was reached with an elaborate set of checks and balances. The wolf Leopold killed was one of the checks in a living community.
Until that moment Leopold lacked the understanding that he later identified as something only a mountain possesses. Mountains have the long view, he wrote, whereas humans are newcomers. A mountain has no fear of wolves, only deer, because too many deer will devour vegetation and the rains will wash away soil causing all kinds of havoc on the mountain.
The rancher who compares the life of a wolf against the current market price of his cow misses the much greater value of leaving the wolf wild and free. That “home on the range” where cattle roam depends on a natural community to sustain it – a community that evolved over thousands of years.
Leopold was writing about this phenomenon in 1949. Six decades later we are still acquiring that wisdom. We witnessed an ecological rebirth in Yellowstone National Park following the return of the wolf. Riparian willows and cottonwoods returned because elk spent less time eating them and more time hiding lest it become wolf scat. Other species like beavers returned in the rebounding willows and cottonwoods and their activities created habitat for insects and birds, and so on.
Further Reflections: The Elk Problem
One summer I attended a public meeting in Arizona in the Coconino National Forest convened to address the “elk problem.” Present were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Commission, White Mountain Apache biologists and tribal officials, ranchers, tourist industry reps, a hunters’ association, local residents, and curious campers like me.
It soon became apparent that a showdown was imminent.
The problem stemmed from an exponential increase in the elk population. A rancher testified that elk herds of 600 to 1,000-head could be found every morning on her land, leaving a swath of denuded range in their path . She was passionate and demanded that Game and Fish raise the limits for hunters to help bring the population of elk under control.
A rancher – tanned from a life in the sun and a silver mane pulled back in a thick pony – made her plea. She gestured toward the Apache contingent, and complained that the White Mountain Apache reservation, which bordered the national park, was serving as a nightly refuge for the elk who had discovered safety within its boundaries (1.67 million acres) of forest.
I imagined a tide of elk ebbing into the ranchland to graze by day then flowing back at night into the forested reservation. The rancher wanted the Apache Nation to help kill elk and bring the herds under control.
They would not, a tribal spokesman asserted in reply. The Apache would not do so based on ethical principles and the belief that restoring the natural ecosystem would be the only true answer to controlling the population.
I think I caught a twinkle in one tribal elder’s eye as this statement was made. “We take elk when we need meat for our people,” he said and sat down.
Tourist agencies pleaded their case for the presence of elk. Seen from the roads and campsites, thousands of families enjoyed watching wildlife. Tourism brings $16 million in revenues to Arizona each year, they reminded the crowd.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) deferred to the Arizona Game and Fish Commission which is charged with maintaining populations of wildlife. The FWS rep made a statement about the traditional range of the Mexican gray wolf—a keystone species of the disrupted ecosystem.
Sheer mention of the gray wolf acted like a match on tinder. The packed meeting room erupted in arguments from ranchers and tourism folks alike who didn’t welcome wolves in the woods.
Then a rancher with the look of one who had spent his life in the sun gained the floor. “We are victims of our own schemes – me included. First, we saw the wolf as our enemy and we systematically exterminated it. We saw it killing too many elk, too many cattle. We feared for our own lives. Once it was gone, we saw elk and deer populations explode. Well, maybe it’s time we examine our own nature to see if maybe we can control that!”
As I walked back to my cabin at Deer Springs Inn, I considered that I’d just witnessed a complete reenactment of the opening and closing of the West with all the historical parties represented as on a stage.
The sun was setting behind the dense Ponderosa pine forest. At Deer Springs Inn, families gathered around a campfire. I happily joined my family, spearing marshmallows. Wine flowed. Stars clustered overhead. A breeze fanned the flames setting our faces aglow. An owl hooted. The fire popped and sizzled as we settled down for stories and laughter.
Back at the end of the Yellow Brick Road Dorothy got her wish to go home, the tin man a heart, and the lion, his courage. Maybe the wolf will be restored at a time when our wizardry returns us to the natural order of things.
The legacy of the Peacemaker [the man credited with bringing the Iroquois Nations together under a Pax Iroquois] is best illustrated in his concept of The Good Mind. The Peacemaker believed that a healthy mind naturally seeks peace and that a nation of individuals using reason and harboring good will in their hearts can not only establish peace in the worst circumstances but maintain it forever.
At the time the Peacemaker was born, the region was beset by wars among the five tribes (Onandaga, Mohawk, Huron, Seneca, and Cayuga). In some areas the hatred ran so deep that individual warriors practiced cannibalism on their enemies. These dark times were at least 1,000 years before the Europeans arrived in what is now New York State.
There are noteworthy circumstances surrounding the Peacemaker. First, his grandmother had a dream that a great man would be born who would save the tribes from utter destruction. He was recognized as a youth for his exceptional qualities of mind as someone who would become a leader. But he had a problem—a speech impediment (stuttering)—which later required the assistance of the great Iroquois orator, Hiawatha, to help him accomplish his mission to bring the tribes of his nation together under the Great Tree of Peace—the democracy of constitutional laws and principles that exist to this day.
When I began studying with my teachers in Yuma, Arizona (see previous blog post, The First American Democracy) I was completely unaware of this body of law, the Iroquois legacy of which some passed into the U.S. Constitution, nor was I aware that the Iroquois Confederacy had maintained peaceful coexistence for 750 years before the founding of the fledgling American democracy.
The most important lesson of my four years of study was the reading of Basic Call to Consciousness, written as an address to Western civilization in the 1970’s when the Iroquois were still under threat and domination by the powers that be: the Canadian government and New York State legislature. Basic Call is still relevant in its astute analysis of the values that drive Western societies and how they lead to the destruction of the very basis of life.
In Basic Call to Consciousness Americans have a useful guidebook on how to strengthen our own democracy by broadening our bill of rights to include the natural world and all the life in it as sacred because, everything emanates from our common Creator. Practically, the document gave the early constitutional authors further reason to formulate a bicameral congress and institute a process of checks and balances. For example, the Peacemaker charged the women of the tribe to act as arbiters of peace by choosing the male leaders and representatives and removing them should their thoughts and actions stray from the sacred purpose of the Great Law.
I remember being shocked to find this gem of a small book in whose pages lay all the wisdom needed to solve entrenched political, economic, and relational problems here and abroad. But I realized the document was politically dangerous in the U.S. precisely because it would prevent greed and avarice from being the dominant drivers in our social and cultural enterprises. In fact, when my teachers suggested I read it, the book was out of print and hard to find. But I eventually did find a used copy at the Bohdi Tree bookstore in Los Angeles. It was considered an occult book and probably still is by a society that relegates any true challenge to its economic values as dangerous and suspect.
Today you can find Basic Call to Consciousness on Bookshop.com to support independent book stores. I consider that progress!
Across the desert floor saguaros bake in the hot, dry air. It is the time when the saguaro fruit sets and ripens. Birds, bees, javelinas, coyotes, bobcats – and people – dine on the sweet red fruit. The Desert People will make syrup or jam and ceremonial wine for the rain dance inviting the wind and clouds to bring the precious gift of water once more.
After the harvest is the time of waiting and watching. We see voluminous clouds pile up over the mountains – swirling dark clouds over a living desert. Even their shadows cast welcome relief.
We wait … immersed in an ocean of heat. We sweat and burn in light that cuts like a hundred blades into unprotected skin. On the Fourth of July midtown rockets burst on an obsidian sky while desert creatures prowl in the cool moonlight. This day marks the arrival of the monsoon. Even the word, its utterance, a desert dweller’s mantra, offers relief: monsoon!
And then it happens … the first dollops of rain splash down! Perhaps we see it far across the valley falling in just one particular area. We are jealous, but encouraged, for we know that soon it will fall on us, too. Our lives are made more certain with the rain. No creature can live without this precious rain. No, none.
The summer rhythms of this desert remind us of our vulnerability. That is the gift of the Saguaro season. We are dependent. Humbly we may realize it. We stand outside like fools and let it fall on us, run down our faces and spine where its coolness makes us shiver when only a second ago we were sweltering.
People in their cars, navigating flooded intersections, are amused. In washes, valleys and hillsides the shallow roots of columnar cacti, the ancient trees of our land, pump in the crystal substance as it trickles or gushes through the sand and stone. Their fluted forms expand with the tidal rhythm.
It is a desert baptism among people who still appreciate the desert’s rhythmic character. They catch rainwater in barrels and dig wide basins in the earth to hold the precious rain and prepare the soil for native seeds saved from last year’s harvest of squash, beans, corn, melons, and greens. They collect the mesquite beans and pound the pods into sweet flour to make bread that heals the body. The harvest is bountiful when the gardening is blessed and prayers go forth in gratitude and hope.
When the big clouds roll up from the Gulf of California, the old women lift their harvesting sticks to pull down the clouds and bring the rain. The Tohono O’odham, The Desert People, keep vigilance over the city and the land around it and even the Europeans are learning to pray, in their own way. The Mexicans and Spanish have always kept the seasonal rhythms of land and seed and they pray to their spiritual guides, and all together raise their faces in prayerful patience as the clouds move up from Mexico over the Santa Catalinas swirling dark and black over the Old Pueblo. Somewhere I imagine there may also be a jaguar looking up in want of rain.
At midnight the heat radiates from the cement driveway under my feet. I stand in the white moonlight gazing up at twinkling stars. The dark outline of tall trees and roof tops form a stage-drop where city glow breaks the blackness of night.
This is my summer ritual: star-gazing in my pajamas. I wake out of some consciousness that tells my snoozing brain I can open the doors and go out to a cool 90 degrees. I lay in a chaise lounge in the middle of the driveway under a sparkling dome of heaven. The air is gentle, warm, caressing. Like other desert creatures, I have become nocturnal. The moon is my muse.
It’s summertime in Phoenix, Arizona. Temperatures soar over 110 ̊. After June, the buildings and streets absorb the day’s solar energy and then slowly release it through the night. Even though the sun goes down, the built environment radiates like an oven. The hum of air conditioners is a constant auditory feature of modern desert life.
In the old parts of town residents open aqueducts in their yards. Encircled by an earthen berm, the lawns hold the precious ground water releasing it slowly to soak deeply into the sandy soil and keep their urban lawns green. In the 1900’s people moved to the desert for its dry climate and to escape allergy-causing vegetation. However, the mulberry and olive trees they imported with them resulted in Phoenix becoming the asthma capital of the west by 2000. The average low temperature has increased by 10 ̊ in just 40 years—the result of miles and miles of asphalt and concrete which act like a heat sponge.
Native trees have been reduced by introduction of non-natives (exotics) like the Tamarisk tree in areas where the water table once ran close to the ground. For thousands of years these habitats supported the greatest species diversity in the state. Beavers and otters abound in rivers and streams, and fauna like deer and Coati mundi inhabited native forests. Memories of Arizona’s extensive green belts have faded with each new generation. Who will remember what has been lost?
Gazing at the twinkling night sky above me, I imagine the ancient Hohokam people—who laid down the original grid of canals still in use today— how they, too, must have lain outside in the cool of moonlight thousands of years before me. Did they work and cavort at night like the desert’s creatures, and sleep in the cool of their adobe huts, or under a shady ramada of reeds, during the blistering heat of daytime? What happened to their great city and 200,000 inhabitants? Why did they leave this valley and its two rivers, the Salt and the Gila, leaving only their canals behind? Am I part of a Great Reenactment?
I watch the dark outline of a big, brown bat drinking nectar from a tall saguaro’s bloom in my neighbor’s yard. Afar I hear coyotes yipping from a hilltop in a suburban sea. In the wee hours of the warm, dry night, I drift into a deep sleep under a canopy of stars.
The Colorado River was a wild, red fury in its natural state. It flooded its banks in southern Arizona and Northern Mexico on its way from the Rockies to the delta on the Sea of Cortez, Gulf of California. This was true for thousands of years. Early people learned its rhythms and developed cultures in sync with the river’s seasonal flows. They are called The Colorado River Indian Tribes—distinct communities that still exist along the river’s course. Their history encompasses the dramatic changes wrought by damming the great river to create one of the most extensive desert gardens known to humankind.
When I crossed the Continental Divide atop the Laguna Mountains, under a brilliant star-studded black sky, I was entering a dimension so subtle it would take me years to define it. Something more than gravity pulled me down the steep, winding road as it descended into the Imperial Valley. The sun was just breaking above a distant horizon as my vehicle finally leveled out onto the valley floor. Immediately an aroma of soil, mist, and something close to boiled peanuts filled my nostrils. It is a scent that I have only experienced in this part of the U.S. – distinct and overtaking. It is not unpleasant but haunting in a way. You know it is not natural for the valley but something created by a great deal of struggle, sweat, and industry.
In the far distance a range of ruddy red mountains formed the eastern border of the valley with Picacho Peak soaring into unbroken blue. I recall my daughter’s reminiscence after moving to Washington, D.C. from Arizona: “Mom, I miss that big dome of sky that made me feel protected under its blue canopy.”
Openness, expansion, mystery and fear were the emotions that churned in me that day.
The Imperial Valley stretches over 100 miles from the foothills of the Laguna Mountains in southern California to Yuma, Arizona at the juncture of California, Arizona and Mexico. It is a vast alluvial plain, rich in minerals and, before the irrigation of the valley, a low desert dotted by barrel cactus and rolling tumbleweed. Once the dams and extensive canals were built (a colorful history of drastic measures, tragic mishaps, and powerful men with big dreams and money to back them) the desert floor flowered into one of America’s most productive bread baskets. In 1990 the lettuce crop alone harvested $16M for growers.
As the sun rose higher, row upon row of lettuce and blue canals appeared and disappeared from view like an old-time flickering movie. Egrets and gulls flew above or walked among the rows! Did they migrate from the oceans of southern California or up from the delta on the Sea of Cortez?The whole experience was surreal. Then I began to notice the heat…oh, dear. My un-air-conditioned beach mobile! I was unprepared for this region of the world. I was sweating profusely now and had brought only a small bottle of water with me. Suddenly I felt threatened. Where was the nearest town? Where were the people? I saw nothing but huge sprinklers like warriors from Star Wars on thin metal legs rolling across fields throwing streams of precious Colorado River water onto American grown vegetables and cotton. On and on I drove, past a feedlot that stank for miles, past an ostrich farm and more green flushed with blue sparkling water. Was there any water left in the Rio Colorado? I wondered.
The heat grew ever more oppressive. At below sea level, the Imperial Valley is a heat sponge. I nearly fainted before finding a small town and limped into Wendy’s where I remained for three hours slumped over a table. The waitresses were empathetic. Many California beach combers succumbed to the valley’s record temperatures. It reached 119 degrees that day in May.
Moving to the Colorado River Valley in 1990 began a great period of personal growth and learning. Teaching children of migrant farm workers (who harvested lettuce in view of the classroom windows) and children of Colorado River Indian Tribes who lived on near-by reservations, I quickly learned the harsh realities of the cultural landscape as well as the natural landscape on which our life science lessons focused.
The following blog posts are three memories from living in the desert (1990-2008). The first is my initiation to the land’s elemental beauty and its stark realities. The second and third memories illustrate lifestyles in two desert cities with very different perspectives on how to live there – Phoenix and Tucson.
Because I was introduced very early in my time in Arizona to indigenous perspectives, I was able to more acutely measure the gap between native and contemporary points of view about the human relationship to nature, the meaning of community, and the underlying values that are at the roots of how cultures develop.
By getting to know Cocopah families – families whose nation was separated by the U.S. Mexico border and whose way of life on the Colorado River was fractured by the damming of the river – I witnessed the social, financial, emotional and spiritual devastation wrought by being unable to live by the values one holds dear and by which one knows oneself.
Another important stream of influence on my thinking was the environmental movement in which I was actively engaged through education, a daily endeavor that caused me to read the history of these great cities and to get involved in local citizens movements to create more sustainable ways of living there.
While we are going about our daily lives, critical problems such as over-drafting groundwater continue. Indigenous values that have been pushed to the background are emerging into the foreground. Are we paying attention? What can we learn about place and the art of living from the first people of a place?
I understand, now, why spiritual seekers often go to desert lands. There is quietude and mystery. Stories are hidden from casual view, unspoken but exerting their presence. The quest then is discernment.
In the past few days we have learned that major investors and businesses are getting in step with climate action. BlackRock investing firm announced they would no longer invest in businesses that are not meeting climate change objectives.
“Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” Mr. Fink wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times. “The evidence on climate risk is compelling investors to reassess core assumptions about modern finance.” ~ New York Times 1-14-20
Microsoft announced a Net Negative carbon footprint plan to reduce its emissions and to eliminate its carbon footprint completely by 2030.
The scientific consensus is clear. The world confronts an urgent carbon problem. The carbon in our atmosphere has created a blanket of gas that traps heat and is changing the world’s climate. Already, the planet’s temperature has risen by 1 degree centigrade. If we don’t curb emissions, and temperatures continue to climb, science tells us that the results will be catastrophic. ~ Microsoft Commitment to Sustainability
As the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board
prepared for its first set of Doomsday Clock
discussions this fall, it began referring to the
current world security situation as a “new
abnormal.” This new abnormal is a pernicious
and dangerous departure from the time when
the United States sought a leadership role in
designing and supporting global agreements
that advanced a safer and healthier planet. The
new abnormal describes a moment in which
fact is becoming indistinguishable from fiction,
undermining our very abilities to develop and
apply solutions to the big problems of our time.
The new abnormal risks emboldening autocrats
and lulling citizens around the world into a
dangerous sense of anomie and political paralysis.
The Bulletin serves as an authoritative guide that confronts man-made threats to our existence by advancing actionable ideas for the planet and its people. Read the latest bulletin below.
Wangari Maathai grew up in her homeland in Kenya, living close to the earth and learning traditional Kikuyu values and practices. Her memoir, Unbound, describes her daily activities as a child, her mother’s teachings, and how her people regarded the streams and forests in a land where the balance of nature is delicate, not to be abused without serious consequences for its inhabitants.
In Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, Maathai’s wisdom is distilled onto each page, every sentence the next drop in the flow. Wangari describes herself as working practically to solve problems she learned about in discussions with communities and among women’s groups. Their need for clean water, and for access to earn a living, were her daily concerns. Eventually, Wangari and the women she served established the Greenbelt Movement that planted over 30 million trees in Kenya.
In Replenishing, Wangari’s concerns about the destruction of the environment in Kenya are examined in light of the world’s sacred traditions. Always a practical perspective, her observations and reflections give readers much to consider often through humor. For example she writes that God in his wisdom created Adam on Friday. If he’d created him on Monday he’d have perished for lack of food!
Wangari Maathai’s clarity of thought is invaluable in this age where massive destruction of oceans, rivers, wildlands, and forests have imperiled life the world over. She and the women of Kenya remind us of the earth-shaking power of people to replenish the earth, if we choose to do so.