What matters over mind

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

-Blaise Pascal

“Home is where the heart is.”

-traditional proverb


Two weeks ago today, I went home. Not really, but it felt like it. I spent two full days at the Aldo Leopold Foundation (ALF) in northern Sauk County, about a mile from the one-time home away from home of the great conservationist and his family, and the birthplace of the modern land ethic. I was there with about two dozen other individuals from around the country to take part in the Land Ethic Leader program. It was two days of observation, reflection and action designed to enable “community leaders across the country to create opportunities for rich and productive dialogue about humanity’s relationships to land, making room to meet people where they stand and building upon our common ground in conversation rather than in argument.”

It is impossible to say whether the people, the place or the program contributed more to the feeling of homecoming I felt, and it does not really matter. It was one of many feelings my time there elicited from me.

It is feelings that I find myself thinking about most as the memories and lessons of those two days percolate. But then, I went there in part to test my hypothesis that the environmental movement is sorely lacking more tears.

Sure, some of us weep when oil poisons the ocean and fouls beaches, when another mountain gets decapitated for coal, or a favorite grove of trees is cut down to make way for yet another strip mall or cluster of McMansions. It is my strong belief, however, that not enough of us “let it out” when we receive such news.

Sandhill cranes near Spring Green, WI

Old Aldo can hardly be blamed for that. In fact, the book for which he is best known, A Sand County Almanac, is shot through with his feelings. One of the essays from that book that we read and discussed at length at the ALF was “Axe-in-Hand,” a delightful ramble in which Leopold muses about trees on his property and the feelings they engendered in him one brisk autumn day. Leopold’s emotions match the diversity and color of the foliage on the trees he names. And they’re not all “positive” emotions.

“The pine will live for a century, the birch for half of that; do I fear my signature will fade? My neighbors have planted no pines but all have many birches; am I snobbish about having a woodlot of distinction? The pine stays green all winter, the birch punches the clock in October; do I favor the tree that, like myself, braves the winter wind? The pine will shelter a grouse but the birch will feed him; do I consider bed more important than board? The pine will ultimately bring ten dollars a thousand, the birch two dollars; have I an eye on the bank? All of these possible reasons for my bias seem to carry some weight, but none of them carries very much.”

How many emotions can you find represented in that paragraph? I count at least seven. Few of the feelings Leopold expresses here flatter him, but most of us know that we harbor similar feelings for or about parts of the natural world with which we are familiar. Pride, greed, fear, selfishness, jealousy…

Later on in the essay, Leopold admits that his spirit soars with the tamaracks because they grow so lustily. He confesses that nostalgia makes him more disposed to like bittersweet than he might otherwise (his father favored the plant). But this is all denouement following Leopold’s climax, delivered with all the feeling of a teenager in the throes of a crush.

“The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.”

It is not the only place in Leopold’s work where he goes all emo on us. His writing is rife with love. With compassion, with humility, with hope. But most of all with love. “Thinking Like a Mountain” springs to mind, where Leopold’s empathy and remorse saturate the prose.

The full-throated endorsement, even celebration of, the full and vibrant aurora of human emotion is one of the things I find so refreshing about Leopold’s writing. In part, that is because it is so unexpected from a man of science (and reason, presumably). Or from a man of his era—his was the age of pragmatism and progress, after all. Or from a man of his age. Heck, just a man, period.

Even today, many men are uncomfortable expressing emotion, believing such outpourings a hallmark of weakness. Unless of course anger is the emotion in question; that emotion serves as a sort of catch-all for many of us men, and one that is still socially acceptable. The emotion that anger most often seems to mask is fear. But even glee is sometimes given an angry cast; think of the celebratory violence that sometimes follows major sporting events. Most other emotions are seen as wishy-washy, touchy-feely, hard to quantify and unpredictable. Okay to express in a song, perhaps, but not to your buddies or girlfriend unless you want to be thought to reside somewhere south of the masculine-feminine line.

Although women seem more comfortable in the realm of emotion, there are few who have not been made to feel ashamed of their feelings, or who have tried to make their emotions subservient to reason while navigating the corporate and academic worlds so long dominated by men.

Perhaps Leopold’s life-long passion for hunting headed off some of the criticism he might otherwise have received for his explicit references to feelings. One might naturally hesitate to call a man holding a gun a sissy.

Fortunately, a few men today are bravely calling for more emotion to catalyze the kind of action we need to meet the environmental crises of our time. Paul Kingsnorth, the author of another essay our group of budding Land Ethic leaders read and discussed, argues in “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” that he became an environmentalist because of a strong emotional reaction to the “other-than-human world.” Those feelings, he writes, became a series of thoughts which matured into a conviction to do what he could to speak for those wild places and the creatures that lived in them.

Notice the progression: experience –> feeling –> thought –> conviction –> action.

My own experience was similar to Kingsnorth’s. Paraphrasing Leopold, the conclusion I drew as a child was that I loved all lakes, but I was in love with Lake Superior. It was through a literal and figurative immersion in that body of water, and in the lands against which she lapped, that my love grew and spread to other natural wonders and creatures. Because I loved Lake Superior, I grieved for the ways pollution had defiled her and development had disfigured her. Today I grieve bitterly for the damage done to her by human caused climate change. From my fear and grief, my jealousy and depression has sprung a fierce desire to understand, protect and defend her.

Kingsnorth reached the conclusion that this emotional path to enlightenment—the feelings that set a person on this journey of understanding and preservation—are hard to come by today.

“Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world…We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called ‘sustainability’.”

Environmentalism has lost its soul, Kingsnorth flatly states, just before resolving to walk away from the movement to which he once belonged.

But where does he go? Back to the jungles and coastlines that sparked the feelings that seem to have dimmed in him.

“I will follow the songlines and see what they sing to me and maybe, one day, I might even come back. And if I’m very lucky I might bring with me a harvest of fresh tales, which I can scatter like apple seeds across this tired and angry land.”

In other words, he is going on walkabout in search of the emotional connection he once had with the world.

Our small group at the ALF had a lively debate about Kingsnorth’s essay. It seems it was the men who were most uncomfortable with the emotions expressed in it, especially the sense of disappointment, disillusionment and hopelessness that seems to infuse the piece. Some thought Kingsnorth was ignoring all the progress that has been made since the modern environmental movement was born. I had already spoken up for emotion in another group that discussed Kingsnorth’s essay, and like most writers was afraid of sounding repetitive, so I kept quiet except to ask some clarifying questions.

But Kingsnorth’s story resonated deeply with me, and together with “Axe-in-Hand” strengthened my conviction that we depend on emotion—even “negative” emotions—to refresh and renew us. Not only that, but grief, hopelessness, cynicism, and even despair are vital to the work we do. We cannot save the world—or ourselves—without such emotions. These feelings can drive us deeper into ourselves or, as with Leopold and Kingsnorth, back out into the wild places we fell in love with years before. I believe those are the places from which we will draw the strength to continue our conservation work.

Sunrise over Wisconsin River

But many of us are terrified, especially of the darker side of the palette of human emotion. Dip your brush in too many of those colors, some say, and you risk falling into the bleak picture you have painted—a Munchian canvas of terror, depression, despair, breakdown and inaction. Yet even that fear must be faced and expressed lest it come out later with destructive rather than constructive consequences.

Leopold, as we have already seen, was not shy about expressing the feelings that his time in wild places—or the damage done to those places at the hands of humans—elicited in him. Ever the naturalist, Leopold examined each feeling carefully and tried to understand more about it, and about the organism (him) from which they sprang. But perhaps even Leopold was not immune to the temptation to suppress some of his darker feelings. In a forward to the 1947 manuscript that would become A Sand County Almanac, Leopold admitted that sorrow, anger and confusion filled him when he contemplated “the inability of conservation to halt the juggernaut of land abuse.” It was not this forward that was published, however, but one which, although eloquent and profound, contains far fewer explicit references to his personal feelings (he does give a shout-out to the idea that land is to be loved and respected).

Popular opinion (especially among men, if my own experience is any indication) has long held that emotion, generally speaking, is bad. Cool reason, on the other hand, is good and is often a preferred tool for keeping our emotions “in check.”

But it is the reasonable scientists of our time who are discovering that the very opposite is true.

As David Brooks points out in his recent book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, a total lack of emotion results in self-destructive and dangerous behavior. Sociopath is the term we use to label people who cannot feel emotional pain (and thus empathy). Such individuals often do horrendous things. Brooks writes about researcher Antonio R. Damasio who, after studying people who have lost the ability to feel (but retain the ability to reason), developed a hypothesis whose key point is that reason and emotion are not separate and opposed but intertwined and complementary.

“Reason is nestled upon emotion and dependent upon it,” Brooks writes. “Emotion assigns value to things, and reason can only make choices on the basis of those valuations. The human mind can be pragmatic because deep down it is romantic.”

Brooks tells the story of Elliot, one of Damasio’s subjects. The frontal lobes of Elliot’s brain had been damaged by a tumor. An intelligent man, Elliot began to experience trouble managing his life after recovering from the surgery to remove the mass. He would ignore the most important parts of a task and get sidelined by trivial things. It would take him hours to decide where to eat lunch; in fact, he could not reach a decision. Damasio also found that Elliot never showed any emotion, even when recounting the most tragic events in his life. The reasoning parts of his brain worked well, but he had lost the ability to feel. This disability turned his ability to reason from a blessing into a curse.

Brooks uses the term Emotional Positioning System (EPS) to describe how the reasoning and feeling parts of our brain work together to coat each possibility in our lives with emotional meaning. This meaning influences our decisions, most often unconsciously. Emotion does sometimes lead us to make poor choices, but it is often very accurate. Researchers Alexander Todorov and Janine Willis of Princeton have found, for example, that snap judgments based on first glimpses of other people are astonishingly accurate in predicting how people will feel about each other months later.

So what does all this talk of emotion have to do with climate change? you might reasonably wonder.

Only everything, in my opinion.

As I have written elsewhere on this blog, an effective response to the climate crisis demands action born of deep reflection—on the science and the physical impacts, yes, but also on our own experience, on the effects on our psyches. The land ethic—both the essay of that name and the unwritten ethic Leopold rekindled in so many people with his writing—was born out of Leopold’s clear-eyed and courageous observation of, and deep personal reflection about, how the juggernaut of human land abuse was affecting the wild things he cared about—and thus how it was affecting him emotionally. It was born, in short, out of heartbreak.

We defend what we love, not what we grasp intellectually. Near the end of his impeccably reasoned essay “The Land Ethic,” after extolling the virtues of critical thinking, Leopold writes, “The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process.” (emphasis mine). By using myth (Odysseus by Homer) and poetry (Tristram by E.A. Robinson) in that essay, Leopold spoke to readers’ hearts as well their heads.

It seems to me that we must follow Leopold’s example. Insisting that our leaders in Congress and elsewhere base their decisions on science and reason will only be heard to the extent that those leaders’ brains are opened by their hearts. After all, it is a feeling—fear—that motivates too many of them to listen more to the fossil fuel lobby than to ordinary citizens and scientists when it comes to energy policy and climate change. They fear losing the campaign cash those deep pocketed lobbyists dangle in front of their noses. They fear losing their jobs, their income, their status. (I’m not so sure about power, since so many leaders seem to have gladly given most of that away to special interests long ago.)

Instead of trying to make those leaders fear the loss of other things they value (say their homes or families to any number of natural disasters made more frequent and intense by climate change) more than they fear the loss of their jobs, perhaps we would do better to help them remember what they love. Although it’s important to connect the dots between climate change and natural disasters, research has shown that scaring people can actually be counterproductive with some groups. Rather, think Citizen Kane and Rosebud. How can we engage our leaders in a conversation about what places or experiences in the outdoors most shaped or enriched their lives? Did they grow up on  farms? Did they fish? Hunt? Climb trees? Sail? Climb mountains?

But let us not forget to look into our own hearts, too. If we avoid the emotions that the climate crisis triggers in us altogether and focus instead (if it is even possible to do so) solely on the facts and figures, we may be as useless to the movement to stabilize the climate as those who genuinely believe climate change is not happening and/or is not caused by human activity. We may be a movement full of Elliots, with all the information and reason in the world but little ability to get anything accomplished.

* * *

Last week at the ALF, near the one-time home away from home of a man unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, I felt as if I’d come home.

This week, my thoughts are still on home, and another late great American who had the courage to do as Leopold did. A brave and combat-seasoned World War II veteran, George McGovern understood the awesome power of emotion, even heartbreak, to fuel right action. In his last book he wrote about how it felt to be labeled a bleeding-heart liberal, making it clear that he embraced the term. We ought to be stirred, the elder statesman wrote, “even to tears,” by what was wrong in the world. “Sympathy is the first step toward action.”

Cranes homeward bound

In his acceptance speech at the 1972 Democratic convention, McGovern called this nation home from many things, including secrecy and deception in high places, wasteful military spending, entrenchment of special privilege and tax favoritism, prejudice, and the neglect of the sick. He called us home to the affirmation that we have a common dream and that we can move our country forward.

Is is not the work of all leaders to call our sisters and brothers home—to work with them to make it home?  Is it not the responsibility of a leader to remind those who look to us for direction that all our homes depend on our home planet operating pretty much the way it did when it gave rise to humanity? We won’t do that if we cringe from emotion or make it take a back seat to reason. We will only make it home if we have the courage to express the homesickness we feel when we see our home threatened or wounded. That is what draws others into the fold, and keeps them there. That is what moves people to take bold, thoughtful action.


1 Comment

One Comment

  1. I think that many of us who have an intellectual interest in the environment early on developed an emotional bonding with our local environment while growing up. My ancestors settled in the Mt. Morris area (Waushara County) in the 1850s, and I lived there for a time while a youth, and will always think of that area as my true home. I remember, for example, the “delicious” feeling of walking barefoot behind my dad, as he was plowing the garden, in the freshly-turned soil. Watching the geese fly south in the fall. Going hunting in the fall with a cousin. Etc. Those early experiences have never left me–and never will!