Wisconsin’s sand county odyssey, part 3: the x factor

In this third and final installment in my series on the pre-World War II essays of Aldo Leopold, I explore some of the moral underpinnings of Leopold’s land ethic and consider how that ethic relates to the frac sand mining rush underway in Wisconsin, and the broader issue of climate change caused by burning fossil fuels of all kinds. We must soon revive such an ethic if we are to avoid a future that looks more like the deep Cambrian past in which Wisconsin’s sand was created than a habitable planet. As with previous installments, this one was informed by the published work, suggestions and gentle corrections of Curt Meine, Leopold biographer and Director of Conservation Biology and History at the Center for Humans and Nature. Also as before, I alone am responsible for any errors of fact.

The cast of characters taking the stage in Wisconsin’s great sand rush today would have been all-too familiar to Aldo Leopold. Besides the hubristic, front and center stand the head buriers, who ignore both the lessons of history and the laws and limits of nature. Less culpable, perhaps, are those imaginatively challenged individuals who look at all that sand and see only… sand. Or perhaps their ability to think abstractly extends only as far as dollar signs. Regardless, each of these characters (make no mistake, we all play some part in this drama) seems oblivious to the ways its actions are further unbalancing the grand equation upon which human life and civilization depends.

This ensemble acts out an age-old drama, as old as Greek myth, as old as the Bible.

Leopold’s 1941 essay “Odyssey” makes it clear that he was well schooled in the former. But the man knew his scripture, too. Although he never subscribed to the tenets of any church, Leopold had studied the Bible as a young forest ranger and believed the following passage from Ezekiel epitomized the moral question with respect to humanity’s relationship with the land:

Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but must you tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?

Troy Gardens near dusk, Madison, WI

It is an almost universal spiritual principle, mirrored in (among other places) Jesus’ message to his followers as recorded Matthew’s gospel: our own salvation is inextricably related to how we treat “the least of these,” the smallest, most common members, which are in fact indivisible from the whole. When we fail in this regard ecologically, we inherit a hell of our own making. In Leopold’s war-eve essays, “Odyssey” and “Yet Come June,” we catch glimpses of just such a place.

Leopold the bridge

Whereas John Muir (who almost died after being overcome by carbon dioxide and other gases while digging a well  through 80 feet of Jordan sandstone for his Calvinist father a few miles east of where the Leopold shack still stands) worked to preserve wild land so that all of us might better appreciate and enjoy it, Leopold went further by seeking to resurrect a moral framework for our relationship to all land. Every environmental problem, he famously wrote, stems from the tendency to view land as a commodity instead of as a community to which humans belong. Only a land ethic, he believed, could provide a solid enough foundation upon which to rebuild our relationship with the land and thereby ensure its – and our own – salvation.

Having a land ethic means you sometimes must draw lines in the sand – say in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, the Sand Hills of Nebraska, or the sand counties of Wisconsin. Such lines will be temporary, however, susceptible to the incessant and shifting winds of commerce and competition, if we do not also draw clear lines in our own heads and hearts. Leopold understood that the more we all drew lines there – ethical lines we would not cross ourselves – the fewer lines we would have to draw in the sand to keep out others who would, for profit, unbalance the give-and-take relationship upon which most species, including our own, depend. “An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence,” Leopold wrote in the capstone essay of A Sand County Almanac, “The Land Ethic.” “An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one thing.”

When looked at circumspectly, it must be concluded that sand mining as currently practiced in Wisconsin is anti-social conduct.

Although some conservationists have been hard at work sowing a land ethic in hearts and minds ever since Leopold’s day, it is time to acknowledge that too many of us in the environmental movement have neglected this harder work. Instead we have chosen to put too much of our time and energy into defending lines we have scratched in the literal sand. Perhaps it is time we turned this ratio on its head and devoted the better share of our resources (limited as they are) to ethic building, so that we can prevent more environmental disasters from ever happening.

In addition to his study of the Bible and other spiritual literature, Leopold’s own sense of ethics was informed and enriched by the example of his father Carl, a well-respected Iowa furniture maker and avid outdoorsman who held himself to a strict hunting code. Carl Leopold’s field scruples, particularly, made him an anomaly in an era of rugged individualism, few game laws and rampant market hunting.

The elder Leopold’s example was reinforced and enriched for Aldo by the writings of luminaries like Whittier, Tennyson and Emerson, who, even if they didn’t hunt much, celebrated the nobler virtues. Leopold’s education, both formal and informal, constantly reinforced personal morality and character. As biographer Curt Meine writes in his meticulous biography, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, individual responsibility was a cornerstone of Aldo’s philosophical construction.

Sunset over Sauk Prairie

Although not explicitly articulated in A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s strong faith in the Jeffersonian ideal of small, limited government was expressed in his other published work and personal correspondence. Few individuals were more willing to defend public lands against the short-sighted efforts of private interests. Leopold was outspoken in his opposition to a 1947 scheme concocted by corporate leaders to transfer federal lands to the states for easier pickings.

But it may surprise some fans of Leopold, as it did me, to learn that Leopold was just as adamant in his opposition to government subsidies that, in his view, condoned the ecological ignorance of many landowners and led, as he somewhat hyperbolically put it, “straight into government ownership.” His core point: The purchase of federal land was no substitute for private conservation practice.

Politically homeless since the death of Teddy Roosevelt, Leopold believed so strongly in bottom-up conservation that he even angrily criticized Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes’s plan to create a federal department of conservation. “The real substance of conservation,” Leopold wrote to a friend at the time, “lies not in the physical projects of government, but in the mental processes of citizens… All the acts of government… are of slight importance to conservation except as they affect the acts and thoughts of citizens.”

Aldo Leopold spent most of his career in the employ of government institutions but his faith in those institutions was not without limits. Government was not a cure-all for the nation’s environmental woes. Because he was as familiar with the rural mindset as he was with the flora and fauna of the sand counties, Leopold understood that the benevolent hand of the state was at least as likely to foster resentment and dependency as gratitude and independence. He had met many farmers in Wisconsin who only employed conservation practices that were financially profitable.

Government could play a vital role with research and education, and by modeling good stewardship of public lands, Leopold wrote, but government could only go so far. It would not go very far at all, he believed, without acknowledgement of humanity’s moral obligation to the land. “The land” was Leopold’s shorthand for the entire biotic community.

Our choice

Today more than ever, we need to bring Leopold and his full legacy into sharper focus. I can think of no figure, living or dead, who stands a better chance at bridging the two main, fiercely competing political worldviews dominating our state and nation. In Leopold, conservatives and progressives can both find a lot to love. On the one hand you have a lifelong hunter who revered a Republican president, believed in small, limited government and individual responsibility. On the other hand you have a holistic thinker who understood that life on planet Earth is a dance of interdependent species and systems, a man who hated war and devoted the better part of his life to educating others through his lecturing and writing.

Progressives and conservatives both ignore the man in full at great peril. Choosing to highlight only the parts of Leopold’s legacy that best serve our personal ideologies would be a false choice, leading to even more damage to the planet — and body politic.

The more important, nay critical, choice we must face, and soon, screams at us from between every line of “Odyssey.” For as in that winter seven decades ago when Aldo Leopold sat down to pen the essay that would become his favorite, humanity once again finds itself in a dark place. Like Odysseus at Aeaea, home of the seductive and wicked Circe, we stand at a terrible crossroads.

Down one road – let us call it Y – the future of our state and our planet looks not unlike the Cambrian past in which all that Wisconsin sand was created: iceless and devoid of most terrestrial life. Wisconsin’s latitude has not changed on planet Y, it just feels like it because atmospheric CO2 concentrations have skyrocketed. Average temperatures in Wisconsin have met or exceeded the 4-9 degree rise by mid century projected our own university scientists. As our take has continued to exceed our give, we’ve also lost our spiritual equilibrium. The poisoning of our bodies has followed the continued poisoning of our land and water, and the scars on our landscape, whether inflicted directly by extractive and exploitive  industry or indirectly by climate change, have left deep gouges in our psyches.

Things look a lot less scary down the other road – call it X. Although life is hotter and more difficult on planet X, and diversity and beauty have been eroded considerably, slashing our fossil fuel use and preserving and expanding our forests, prairies, taiga and tundra has allowed us to pull back from the ecological tipping points upon which we have been teetering. Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen sharply, temperatures have begun to moderate, and our weather has gradually  become less volatile. With luck, sea ice has stopped declining, subarctic and marine methane releases have tapered off, as have the number of extinctions. On planet X, humans have learned to live more with natural systems than against them, to give at least as much as we take, and to treat the smallest and most common members of the biotic community as we would wish to be treated. Because ultimately what we do to them we do to ourselves.

It will not be easy getting to planet X; indeed, it will probably be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. But we are not alone, and we are not starting from scratch. Leopold and his land ethic point the way forward. Only a moral relationship to the land will enable humanity to pull its collective head out of the sand and instead engage deeply with it. When we do, we just may see, as Leopold did, the worlds contained in it. No doubt we will also see that we share far more in common with each other than seems apparent to us today.

As direct inheritors and trustees of Leopold’s full legacy, responsibility for sharing the land ethic weighs heaviest on those of us who, geographically or in spirit, count ourselves residents of the sand counties. Will we do everything we can to ensure that Wisconsin becomes a model of conservation and clean, home-grown renewable energy production? Will we see to it that the land ethic blows, like sand or the seeds of the prairie smoke plant, into every home, school, business and organization in the state – and then into the country as a whole?

 * * *

Bee on sunflower

Will we choose to throw in our lot with Leopold, who early on chose the path of x over y, and whose personal and professional odyssey was a journey to better understand the world in which we live — as well as protect that world? Will we choose to embrace a vision of a future in which mining, refining and sharing the nuggets of wisdom Aldo Leopold deposited in A Sand County Almanac and other works is valued above the extraction, commoditizing and destruction of the very earth beneath our feet? Will we strive toward a future in which our sand counties are left unmolested so they can continue to safeguard and purify our water, support the unique life that has sprung up on them over the millennia, sequester carbon and teach future generations how best to live in harmony with the rest of creation?

Will your odyssey be that of x or of y? Make no mistake: one path leads to survival and the other to eventual destruction. Humanity’s odyssey – making it home – depends on your choice.

Read part 1 here.

Read part 2 here.