I started today with a long walk up the road. It’s a gravel road, lined on both sides by seemingly endless expanses of close-cropped grassland. Between the road and the parallel barbed wire fences that keep the grasses from escaping, is a narrow gully full of clumps of weeds, deep-looking holes of varying diameter and the corpses of tumbleweeds, paling yellow in the sun. It is a rather anemic remnant of what probably used to cover both the road and the fields of shorn pasture.
While I walked the road, the only initial signs of life were from small flocks of sparrows (possibly Song or White-crowned, I’ll have to get up earlier tomorrow and pay better attention) that spiraled up from one side of the road and back down to the other each time I approached a new group of them. Then, about a mile from the station buildings where we’re staying, a black-tailed jackrabbit exploded out of his roadside burrow inches from my ankle, dove under the fence above his home, and didn’t stop running until all I could make out of him against the grey-brown grass were his two bouncing black ear spots. Then they, too, were gone. I saw no other creature (unless you count the guy driving the old Suburban) until I got back to the house and had a cup of coffee with one of the other retreatists.
Today I read Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. It is considered –with good reason–to be one of the defining works of American nature writing.
But I have to say, that bestowing bugs me a little. It is an amazing work of nonfiction that builds an argument in three convincing sections that progressively increase in persuasive tone, each making greater demands of the reader. It is strategic and beautiful.
It feels condescending and insufficient to call it nature writing. That’s like calling Into the Wild travel writing.
At the time Leopold was writing (original publication date is 1949) conservation and ecology were new. America was still in the midst of a grab what we can as fast as we can land/scape rush, would that we were over that.
He builds an argument for the value of land and its flora/fauna not just as economic resources to be owned and disposed of at will but as a component of a community to which human beings belong, that deserves an ethical standard no less stringent than the one we have for one another and our civilized communities. And he does so for an audience that is ambivalent at best, to these pretty radical ideas. This is why the Almanac is often cited with Silent Spring for impacting the American dialogue about progress and the need sometimes to pause before leaping forward.
Is it a perfect book, no. But he builds this argument so elegantly! He uses metaphor and sound and structure like a poet, but the content of a confident and learned scholar. It should be appreciated and studied as more than simply good nature writing. It is good writing.
The last essay especially, “A Land Ethic,” got my mind roiling about society and what we owe one another and ourselves.
We still are in desperate need of a land ethic that serves as a Golden Rule or Decalogue for how we treat our environment, but so too, I think we need a body ethic for ourselves.
Says Leopold, “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.” If I consider my mind, body, and spirit a small community, then I can choose to act ethically in support of that community or unethically against it. I can choose to limit my freedom, in service to a more fulfilling existence.
Framed this way, every one of us makes choices every day that have ethical ramifications to our own selves: what we eat, how and with who, we spend our time, how we tend our persons (or neglect them). Some people know just what they need and they make sure they have it. These people are easy to admire. Just as those of us who don’t are easy to shun and fear.
This isn’t a self-help or self-love pitch. Unless you need it to be, in which case: YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH. It’s about me thinking as I go.
Leopold also cautions, “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions.” In other words, important ≠ easy.
This is the only way we can change not only our own personal cultures, but also the rape culture and the gun culture and the waste culture: by interrogating all that we hold dear, with not only compassion but also integrity.
Also today I wrote up three outlines for short pieces, two of which I hope to draft this week.
In answer to a couple of questions I’ve gotten, first, the sweater is not being knit from a chunky wool, I had to do some math to make a worsted/aran work with the Frances pattern. It’s Jo Sharp’s Silkroad, a wool/cashmere/silk blend. It was gifted to me AGES ago in the long-defunct Random Acts of Kindness knitting group. I wish I could remember who gave it to me, so I could drop her a progress pic and express my gratitude, again, for her generosity.
And two, the research station we’re staying at has a full kitchen, but I didn’t bring all of my cooking accoutrements, so I am living on big pre-made salads and packaged soups. Turns out less cooking time means more reading time. I’m going to try not to remember that when I get back to my place, so I can continue my delicious food habit.