From June 22 to July 17, I was one of 25 college and university faculty to participate in the National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on Aldo Leopold. Titled “‘A Fierce Green Fire at 100’: Aldo Leopold and the Roots of Environmental Ethics,” the institute commemorated the 100-year anniversary of Leopold’s arrival in
The institute took place in
The institute’s participants were a diverse group, both regionally and by discipline. Philosophers were particularly well represented (all of them, unlike me, sporting enviable heads of hair; maybe philosophical reflection encourages follicle retention). But there were also faculty from my own disciplines of Literature and American Studies, as well as from Biology, Religious Studies, Political Science, Women’s Studies, and even, in the case of a woman who teaches in
I’ve always respected Leopold as both a thinker and writer, but the institute gave me a greater appreciation both for the quality of his ideas and for the lengthy process by which he achieved their full flowering. When he first arrived in the Southwest, Leopold was a faithful disciple of the Progressive-era utilitarianism preached by the head of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, who saw timber as a “crop” to be managed solely for commercial purposes. Only gradually, over decades of observation, reflection, communication with leaders in the emerging field of ecology, object lessons in the United States and abroad, and more than his fair share of mistakes and missteps, did Leopold emerge as the revolutionary thinker who emphasized the need for humans to live harmoniously with the natural world, to reject economic profit as the sole measure of the land’s value, to view the biota as a unified whole with which humans should tamper only reluctantly, and to understand ourselves as a part of that unity, linked to the land in material, historical, ethical, and spiritual ways. The Southwest proved a fertile starting-point for Leopold’s development, his tutorship in the region’s fragile ecosystems making him particularly alert to the human impact on the land. It was also in the Southwest that the seeds were sown for his most dramatic about-face: his revolution from advocate of predator eradication to defender of wolves and grizzlies as essential members of the land community. In a stunning confessional from his most famous short essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold recounts the epiphany he experienced upon the downing of a mother wolf:
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes — something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Leopold exaggerates and compresses his revelation here; though a letter has recently surfaced proving that he did indeed shoot two timber wolves during his first year in
In Leopold’s essay “Some Fundamentals of Conservation in the Southwest,” written in 1923 but unpublished until 1979, some 30 years after his death, he places the American experiment in its historical context and finds occasion for judgment and regret: “Five races — five cultures — have flourished here. We may truthfully say of our four predecessors that they left the earth alive, undamaged. Is it possibly a proper question for us to consider what the sixth shall say about us?” I hold this question in my mind as I return to my home to teach, to raise my children, and to work for the restoration and revitalization of the land.
Joshua David Bellin with his children at the Grand Canyon, a not-too-far drive from Prescott, Arizona.
About the Blogger
Joshua David Bellin teaches American, Native American, and Environmental Literature at La Roche College in