Tipping the hat, expanding the ethic

“That the situation appears hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best.”

-Aldo Leopold

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

When I think about how I ended up here in Sauk County, I shake my head. Somehow I managed to land in a place of special significance to the conservation movement in this country, but I never planned it that way.

It was largely the unexpected demands of work and family that brought me here in 1998. A Wisconsin native, I’d been living about 30 miles away in Madison since 1986.

Although my wife and I liked Madison, we worried about raising children (our son was born in 1995) in the kinds of neighborhoods we could afford to live in at the time. We knew we could have a much better quality of life if we moved to a smaller community. Less traffic, less crime, safer schools, easier access to natural areas, more house for the money, that sort of thing.

So we chose Sauk Prairie. I thought I knew a lot about our state’s rich conservation history when we moved here. After all, it was the writing of John Muir, who spent much of his youth on a farm in central Wisconsin and went on to found the Sierra Club, that inspired me to spend the summer of 1987 working in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. But I had no idea Sauk County was such fertile ground for both conservative and progressive thought. I mean conservative in the sense of conserving things.

It wasn’t until I’d been in Sauk County for a year or more that I learned that Aldo Leopold’s famous shack, where he wrote much of A Sand County Almanac, was just a few miles up the river from Sauk Prairie. This still causes me some embarrassment, because the book had been required reading in the environmental economics class I took in college years earlier.

I tried hard in those first few years in Sauk Prairie to read some of the work of our area’s other famous literary son, August Derleth. But with the exception of one of his ghost stories, his writing could not hold my interest. Derleth was something of a naturalist and conservationist—his Walden West is, in part, an homage to Henry David Thoreau—so he did help to cement Sauk County’s reputation as a breeding ground of reflective environmentalists. I just don’t find his writing terribly compelling. Perhaps someday I’ll give him another try.

Our family had visited the International Crane Foundation near Baraboo, 17 miles north of Sauk Prairie, when we still lived in Madison, so I wasn’t completely ignorant of the county’s environmental legacy when we arrived here in ‘98. ICF’s work to save the world’s fifteen species of cranes from extinction represents one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time, and I encourage you to visit their facility or check out their Web site.

And then somewhere along the line I learned about Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, former Wisconsin governor and U.S. senator, and his wife Belle Case La Follette. I quickly fell in love with the enigmatic political couple. Belle was from Baraboo, where a festival celebrating her husband and the populist and progressive principles both of them espoused is held every year, eighty-five years after Bob’s death. It’s at Fighting Bob Fest that I first heard Bill McKibben speak in 2008. In addition to instituting important economic, social and political reforms when he held office, La Follette was a champion of conservation. His son Phillip followed him into the governor’s mansion not once but three times. After Phillip died, his wife donated to Dane County a beautiful parcel of rolling land just across the river from Sauk Prairie. It is now a designated natural resource area known as Phil’s Woods.

It’s not just something in the gin-clear water here that accounts for Sauk County’s fecundidty when it comes to producing natural scientists, writers, conservationists and progressive legislators. Our proximity to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 35 miles to the southeast, certainly has a lot to do with it. Not only Muir but Leopold studied (and later taught) there, as did Wallace Stegner.

T.C. Chamberlin (no relation) and Charles Van Hise, both geologists, were early presidents of the University and greatly influenced the emergent field of glacial geology. Chamberlin hypothesized that global warming could result from man-made carbon dioxide inputs at about the same time the Swedish physicist Avante Arrhenius did in the late 19th century.

A neighbor of mine, Curt Meine, earned his graduate degrees from the UW. Partly because he is a humble guy not prone to self promotion, I knew Curt for years (mainly as a musician and fellow frequenter of a certain area tavern) before I discovered that he was also an accomplished scholar and conservationist in his own right. He is, in fact, one of Aldo Leopold’s biographers. Curt’s book, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, is considered by many to be the definitive biography of the man. Today Curt is a senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation and Director for Conservation Biology and History at the Center for Humans and Nature.

It seems entirely appropriate then, to begin this blog with a tip of the hat to Leopold and his land ethic. The land ethic, Leopold wrote, “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land…” Leopold, who practiced restoration ecology on his Sauk County land, said a thing was right when it tended to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community and that it was wrong when it tended otherwise.

I think it’s safe to assume that if Leopold had lived into our time, he would have long ago expanded his ethic to include the atmosphere. It is clear from the essay in which he laid out his thoughts about the land ethic that he understood climatic changes could be both the cause and effect of disturbances to — and “wastage” of — the biotic community he referred to simply as “the land.”

The painful irony is that by and large we still don’t seem to get it, even here in the sand counties. Forget extending our ecological conscience to the atmosphere; many of us still treat the land itself like dirt. Every spring I observe from my front window the topsoil from the recently plowed corn and soybean fields around my home blowing east by the metric ton. Last week I watched an enormous dust cloud blanket our entire town. Leopold reminds readers that it wasn’t only the southwest part of the United States to which the term Dust Bowl applied. Wisconsin and other Midwest states saw many of their fields blow or wash away in the 1930s, too. Unless we change our ways — not only our agricultural practices — it could happen again.

We could scapegoat the farmers, but there are so many other culprits, myself among them. Farmers are at least as much victim as perpetrator. Our agricultural system is broken, relying too heavily on commodity agriculture fueled by fossil energy. Our entire economic system, which also relies heavily on oil and coal, is broken.

And now our climate is broken.

The first four months of this year have been the warmest the world has experienced since recordkeeping began 130 years ago. Wisconsin has warmed between one and two degrees Fahrenheit since 1950. According to the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, our state has been losing about a week of ice cover on its lakes every decade, and the rate of that loss is increasing.

Listening again to Leopold and others who paid great attention to the biotic (including human) communities where they lived and worked can help us to ensure that the amount of hurt headed our way from anthropogenic climate change is minimized. But there is no substitute for us paying close attention to what’s going on where we live and for engaging with the communities, biotic and otherwise, of which we’re a part and on which we depend for our very existence. We will cultivate an ethic that includes the land, the atmosphere and the entire biosphere, or the biosphere will ensure that we cultivate very little of anything.

And so that’s how I got here. To Sauk Prairie, and to this experiment in attentiveness I’m calling Climate Chronicle.

1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Rick–I loved this post. What a lovely tribute to your extremely beautiful and especially significant neck of the woods! Linda