Living symbols or monuments to the dead?

“I don’t mind being a symbol but I don’t want to become a monument. There are monuments all over the Parliament Buildings and I’ve seen what the pigeons do to them.”

-Tommy Douglas, Canadian clergyman

A feature story I wrote for the November/December issue of Wisconsin Trails examines the potential impacts of climate change on four of our state’s symbol species.

Our almanac of state government, The State of Wisconsin Blue Book, says the function of our twenty-one state symbols is to provide for expanding public awareness of Wisconsin’s history and diversity. But as the first report from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) clearly shows, Wisconsin’s biological diversity is under grave threat. The report predicts a 4-9 degree F rise in average annual temperatures by 2050, and goes on to warn that although some plants and animals could benefit, those benefits will come at the expense of other species. Most are expected to do worse as things heat up.

Three of the four species I researched for my article — cranberry, sugar maple and muskellunge — are among those expected to suffer. Each contributes mightily to Wisconsin’s economy. But there are dozens of plants and animals whose loss or decline could significantly impact our economy; only twelve of them are state symbol species.

The loss of even one of our widely harvested symbol species could, in the long run, significantly hurt Wisconsin’s economy, especially if little is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the less quantifiable costs of symbol species loss are worth contemplating.

Baraboo Hills maple syrup producer Larry Phelps tending the evaporator in his sugaring shack

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. I’m not sure I buy all the way into that, but the fact that symbols existed long before language tells us just how important they are to our own species.

When we speak of things symbolic or spiritual, of course, we’re talking about the invisible: in many cultures lions symbolize courage, doves symbolize peace, butterflies symbolize inner transformation… “The animating force within living beings.” “The part of a human associated with the mind, will and feelings.” These are just two of the several definitions listed under “spirit” in my American Heritage Dictionary.

So symbol and spirit are not the exclusive property of religion, certainly not of any one faith. Even many of our greatest scientific minds were comfortable talking about the symbolic and spiritual significance of the natural world they studied. One of those minds belonged to Rachel Carson. In “A Sense of Wonder” the legendary marine biologist writes:

“What is the value of preserving and strengthening this sense of awe and wonder, this recognition of something beyond the boundaries of human existence? Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper? I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant… There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Aldo Leopold didn’t shy away from the symbolic and spiritual, either. This despite his upbringing in a non-religious household, eschewing organized religion as an adult, and a lifetime of scientific inquiry and scholarship. In his essay “Goose Music,” Leopold wrote, “If, then, we can live without goose music we may as well do away with stars, or sunsets, or Illiads. But the point is that we would be fools to do away with any of them.”

By comparing the honks of geese to music and Homer’s epics, Leopold is in agreement with J.C. Cooper, who writes in An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols that symbols – including the plant and animal variety — reveal reality in a way that other modes of expression cannot.

Symbols can be both windows and bridges. Like windows, they can act as portals or mirrors depending on the slant of the light and the perspective of the viewer. In “Song of the Gavilan,” Leopold even rhapsodized about the symbolic structure of a camp meal of steak and biscuits he prepared with ingredients he’d gathered from the largely unspoiled Mexican wilderness he was writing about. “The buck lies on his mountain, and the golden gravy is the sunshine that floods his days, even to the end.” Interestingly, he goes on to write about the damage that often ensues when scientists admit no reality beyond the limited number of facts they can perceive as they go about what Leopold calls their “dismemberment” of the world.

Photo by Teresa Chamberlin

Would not our days be less sweet if drained of the color sugar maples have always shown us in the fall, whether or not we’d ever tasted the syrup rendered from their sap? Would not our existence be lonlier without the plaintive song of the mourning dove, no matter the kind or quantity of the company we kept? If all wood violets disappeared from Wisconsin, it might take me a while to become conscious of the fact, but my spirit would perceive it; some deep part of me would feel disconcerted every time I tramped through the forests where they once bloomed.

Some readers will know that wood violets are not native to Wisconsin. Which brings me back to awareness, history and diversity — those words from the Wisconsin Blue Book  used to describe the function of our state symbols. Are not these human spiritual values, too?

Arundhati Roy reminds us that symbols become ineffective when they become unmoored from what they symbolize. Sometimes this can take a while; Michiganders — at least the more athletically minded — still refer to themselves as wolverines even though it’s been almost 200 years since that creature was extirpated from that state. Wisconsin might retain the badger as a symbol of itself for some decades if that other member of the weasel family, never abundant here, was to disappear, but would badgers mean as much to our grandchildren? I doubt it. As Leopold said of the passenger pigeon when a monument to that extinct species was dedicated at Wyalusing State Park in 1947,

“There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.”

Near the conclusion of his remarks, Leopold lamented, “The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess… But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss.”

Sixty-three years later, it’s not trigger-happy sportsmen and market hunters who are the problem; indeed, conservation is much on the minds of most hunters in this country. Today the problem is far too many of us thinking only of our own comfort, convenience and monetary gain. This kind of thinking, fueled by cheap and easy fossil fuel use, is driving what many scientists believe may be the 6th great mass extinction. If we don’t act swiftly to mitigate climate change, there will be many more species to mourn. Some of our state symbols are among the most vulnerable. As Leopold said, we would be fools to do away with any of them.

Doing all we can to ensure that our living state symbol species remain living symbols of this unique land and its inhabitants instead of becoming dead monuments to our greed and foolishness will require us to dramatically shrink our carbon (and other greenhouse gas) footprints.

The good news is, history has shown that this would require only modest increases in the political footprints of  those of us who care for far more than just comfort, convenience and monetary gain.



  1. I’m working on a tribute to Harold Kruse for my next column. Your blog today fits right into my thinking. I was glad to read your last OPTOMISTIC statement. Too much of what I read is discouraging.


  2. You and Harold were cut from the same cloth, Jean, and it’s a tight, colorful weave. Thanks for posting… and for all you do every day.

  3. It is so great that you pointed out awareness, that is incredibly important when trying to produce change. Thank you for bringing awareness to the changes happening around all of us!

  4. Thanks, Kimble. And thanks, too, for your contribution to awareness; I like the look of your blog.