The importance of play
By Nicolette Hahn Niman
Living and working on a farm these past ten years, I have become increasingly convinced that we modern humans have much to learn from the animals around us – both wild and domesticated. One of the unavoidable lessons of farm life is that young animals play. While our mature cows tend to focus on activities like eating, protecting their young, and grooming, calves spend their time frolicking, chasing one another, and generally testing things out. While the casual observer might consider their activities trivial, by observing them over time one can easily see how play helps prepare animals for later life.
With human children, the importance of play has sometimes been underestimated. Many classrooms for young children have tended to emphasize academic preparation, especially as we’ve entered the computer age. “All too many of us believe even young children should be working, learning to read, and doing arithmetic, and perhaps a few beginning computer skills,” notes Dr. David Elkind, professor emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University. Elkind believes that a young child’s most important learning comes instead from “self-created experiences.”
Dr. Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, has spent years researching how play affects learning. She compares children at play to “pint-sized scientists testing theories,” and says the best stimulation for learning is to let preschoolers pretend, explore, and play.
Nationally recognized Marin County-based child psychologist Dr. Madeleine Levine would likely agree. Levine has written extensively about the problems she encounters in teenage patients who have been pushed too hard and too early. Asked recently how a parent should best discover a child’s interests and abilities, Levine answered: “Let them play. That’s where they learn about sharing, problem solving, getting along with others, and being creative.”
The play-based learning philosophy is warmly embraced by Bolinas’s preschool. Laura Di Stasi, the Bolinas Children’s Center’s head teacher, describes the school’s approach as “loosely based” on Reggio Emilia ideas, which originated in post-World War II Italy. Rather than being the targets of instruction, children are considered to have a very active role in their learning.
Important parts of the approach include exposing the children to nature, extended outside playtime, and allowing children to follow their own instincts. Di Stasi, who has been involved in preschool education for over three decades, says that it’s important for teachers to provide materials and an environment for learning, then “step back and let the children take it from there.” Such an approach is sometimes difficult for adults but Di Stasi believes it is the best way to teach children how to take personal responsibility for the choices they make.
She feels that the Bolinas preschool’s space is especially well suited for the school’s play-based philosophy. “Movement is so important. Some schools are deliberately set up to restrict it. But I want them to feel they have the freedom to move – both indoors and, especially, outdoors.” The school’s indoor area has a large, open middle space, surrounded by a half-dozen areas, each dedicated to specific activities. There’s an area for puzzles, one for drawing and writing, an area for dramatic play, blocks, one for drawing, writing and other crafts, and another area for truck, trains and cars. A large easel is continually set up, allowing three children to paint alongside one another. Outside, the school has a large grassy yard, sand box, climbing structure, swing-set, vegetable garden, and a track for tricycles and other vehicles. A significant part of every day, except those with very inclement weather, is spent outdoors.
Recently, the school set up its science discovery table with plastic insects. Some children took the bugs outside, giving them histories and adventures. “It has been fascinating to watch them create insect families and story lines,” Di Stasi reports.
Ultimately, Bolinas Children’s Center director Ward Young and teacher Di Stasi believe they are providing children an environment that will not only engage and entertain the children, it will prepare them well for life. “Although it is counter-intuitive, the more children learn from their own play when they are young, the better prepared they are to learn from academic instruction when they are older,” Dr. Elkind has concluded.
What’s the Deal? Part One: Suicide as a Social Transaction
By Paul Watsky, Ph.D., ABPP Published November 1, 2012
Given that death is inevitable for us all, our choices boil down to how we adjust to that fact – whether we promote our longevity or hasten our end, either for sound or unsound reasons. Most religions and governments condemn the self-serving pursuit of death, labeling it sin or crime, although to kill oneself in the service of the faith or the state can win you a medal. Gradually U.S. society seems to be moving toward an acceptance of the principle that death can be a legitimate personal choice and under certain circumstances we are entitled to enlist assistance in its pursuit. The few current enabling statutes are extremely restrictive, limited to medically diagnosable conditions that lead within six months or less to inevitable and excruciating extinction. A near-intolerable level of physical pain seems to be criterion, rather than, as in Alzheimer’s, an indeterminate but nonetheless fatal sentence with a sure downward, degrading course that will reduce us to a vegetative state and in the process rob us of our identity.
In legal terms it’s almost never OK to decide to get off the train before the final station. A recent New York Review of Books article by Marcia Angell entitled, “May Doctors Help You to Die?” (October 11, 2012, pp. 39-42), puts it this way: “Most pain can be eased, but other symptoms are harder to deal with – weakness, loss of control of bodily functions, shortness of breath and nausea – and the drugs to treat these symptoms often produce side effects that are as debilitating as the problems they treat. Even worse for many dying patients is the existential suffering. They know their condition will worsen day by day until their deaths, that their course is inexorably downhill, and they find it meaningless to soldier on.” If we allow that assisted or unassisted suicide can be a reasonable decision we are faced with the problem of how to determine what’s reasonable.
“Man cannot stand a meaningless life,”Carl Jung asserts, the finale of his televised interview with the BBC (“Face to Face,” with John Freeman, 1959). When we can’t stand our inescapable living conditions we grow apathetic or angry, perhaps self-destructive. Absent a sense of meaning, or its synonym “purpose,” there’s nothing to structure our days cognitively, to motivate us to perform the chores necessary for survival. Most of us want to explain our existence in terms of goals, preferably ones that areobjective, obvious and unambiguous: “I live for my: spouse/children/grandchildren/pets/friendships,” “I live because it’s God’s will,” “I live for pleasure: sunsets, tequila sunrises, sexual escapades,” “I live to compete for material rewards,” “I live for all of the above, plus travel,” etc. So long as these answers work for us implicitly or explicitly we’re in good shape. Should our values fall into conflict with each other, or vanish without replacements, then we’ve got trouble.
Terminal illness aside, why might a sane person act suicidal? In Dalton Trumbo’s script for the epic movie Spartacus there’s an interchange between the leader of a slave rebellion against republican Rome and an emissary from a fleet of Mediterranean pirates whom he hires to transport his followers back to their lands of origin. Tigranis the Cilician, played by Herbert Lom as authentically curious, briefly lays aside flattery to ask Spartacus how a gaggle of menials can outfight the world’s greatest soldiers. Spartacus replies that his troops have no fear of death, because, “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain.” Toward the end of the film, having been betrayed by the pirates, who took a bigger bribe from the Roman government not to help their slaves escape, and defeated in a climactic battle, Spartacus’ men accept mass crucifixion rather than disclose the identity of their leader. Trumbo, who had been blacklisted by HUAC for refusing to cooperate with McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt, portrays their suicide as heroic.
And this doesn’t happen just in Hollywood. There was Masada during classical times, the kamikaze plots of World War II, and more than half of all Congressional Medals of Honor awarded since 1941 have been posthumous. We also honor altruistic suicide among civilians who sacrifice themselves for others – “women and children first” – or for an ideal. Even those religions which consider suicide a sinful repudiation of God’s gift and His authority glorify their own voluntary martyrs. All such suicides as the above not only were purposeful, but are collectively permissible. Yet when we presume to order off the menu, idiosyncratically, we enter riskier territory. (To be continued)
West Marin Citizen Nov 1 ,2012
What’s the Deal? Part Two: Suicide as a Permanent Fatal Error
By Paul Watsky, Ph.D., ABPP
Last month’s column explored the possibility that under certain circumstances self-inflicted death can be a legitimate personal choice. Such a course of action requires soundness of mind. Suicide is indefensible when a person’s judgment has become impaired.
Notoriously a permanent solution to a temporary problem, suicide rarely is the best decision. During my training as a Jungian analyst a very senior member of the institute I attended told my seminar group that the most important message one could convey to a depressed individual, and he was quite right for the vast majority of psychotherapy cases, consisted of the words, “This, too, shall pass.” Although in the depths of a reactive depression we may feel we’ve reached a permanent, hopeless, bottom, in most instances after several months, and barring fresh trauma, the mood will lighten. The psyche can recover.
Major depression, by contrast, seems organically based, and if untreated may follow a self-perpetuating, ultimately disabling downward trajectory. It may distort perception and reasoning, sometimes causing delusions, such as, I’m the worst person who ever lived, accursed of God, and deserve to die. Even severe cases, however, usually will respond to anti-depressant management, especially when combined with ongoing psychotherapy.
Substance abuse can precipitate suicide through the depressant effects of certain drugs, including alcohol, and through the psychotic mania and paranoia associated with the abuse of psychedelics, stimulants, and cocaine derivatives. A person may hallucinate being chased by monsters, or imagine he has acquired super powers—flight, the brute strength to halt moving trains. Correctable hormonal imbalances, many of natural origin, can produce very dark moods, and communicable diseases can drag us down emotionally, as when several days of spontaneous black depression precede the other symptoms of an oncoming cold, or convalescence from a flu is accompanied by a sense of desolation.
Post-traumatic stress reactions, especially in military personnel with weapons access, domestic tensions, and financial stress can precipitate suicidal mayhem, including what is known as blue suicide, i.e. provoking one’s execution by the police. Murder-suicide seems commonplace in our culture, not just by soldiers, but also by disgruntled employees, alienated adolescents, parents on the losing end of custody battles, even, recently, a psychotic babysitter. Some folies-a-deux suicides result from pacts between individuals, others can be large-scale social phenomena engineered by mad but viciously clever cult leaders.
Children and adolescents are capable of ending their lives when they experience themselves to be unloved, molested, bullied and/or shamed by peers. Also at risk are seniors outraged by the effects of aging: diminished income, physical frailties, career disappointments, the loss of beloved family members and friends. Elders grown bitter or despondent about life’s perceived unfairness—maybe assuming nothing lies ahead but humiliating deprivations—can “turn passive into active,” as the adherents of control mastery theory like to say, by striking a You can’t fire me. I quit! posture and doing away with themselves.
Our inclinations to self harm, even when not flat-out psychotic, usually are driven by urgent, supercharged emotional states alloyed with overgeneralization. Only after the less extreme and often readily available remedies for whatever life problems have generated despair are exhausted may suicide become a plausible last resort, to be weighed with the utmost skeptical caution. But when faced by impatient clients who seem driven to imminent violence, psychotherapists possess a solid rationale and a broad public mandate to intervene actively and forestall the ultimate irreparable damage.
(To be continued)
What’s the Deal? Part Three: The Urge That Dare Not Speak Its Name
By Paul Watsky, Ph.D., ABPP
This month’s column stands as the midpoint of a five-part discussion of the subject of suicide, Part One having examined how our social institutions react to suicide, Part Two surveying suicide as psychopathological behavior, a consequence of manifest cognitive and/or emotional disturbance. The final pair of columns explore the argument that suicide can be a philosophical choice for someone of sound mind, a realistic expression of personal values. This present column, however, foregrounds soft-core suicidality: an insidious, unconscious death-seeking agenda and passive-aggressive problem-solving strategy.
Jung describes an acquaintance (rather than a psychiatric patient) of his, a man about fifty, well-educated, disrespectful of Jung’s profession, especially the value of dream analysis, who during one of their encounters reports the following dream:
He was alone in the mountains, and wanted to climb a very high, steep mountain which he could see towering in front of him. At first the ascent was laborious, but then it seemed to him that the higher he climbed the more he felt himself being drawn towards the summit. Faster and faster he climbed, and gradually a sort of ecstasy came over him. He felt he was actually soaring up on wings, and when he reached the top he seemed to weigh nothing at all, and stepped lightly off into empty space. Here he awoke.
Jung then shows us how he establishes the dream’s context:
Knowing that mountaineering was…a passion with him, I got him to talk about it. He seized on this eagerly and told me how he loved too go alone without a guide, because the very danger of it had a tremendous fascination for him. H also told me about several dangerous tours, and the daring he displayed made a particular impression on me. I asked myself what it could be that compelled him to seek out such dangerous situations, apparently with an almost morbid enjoyment. Evidently a similar thought occurred to him, for he added, becoming at the same time more serious, that he had no fear of danger, since he thought that death in the mountains would be something very beautiful. This remark threw a significant light on the dream. Obviously he was looking for danger, possibly with the unavowed idea of suicide. But why should he deliberately seek death? There must be some special reason. I therefore threw in the remark that a man in his position ought not to expose himself to such risks. To which he replied very emphatically that he would never “give up his mountains,” that he had to go to them in order to get away from the city and his family. “This sticking at home does not suit me,” he said. Here was a clue to the deeper reason for his passion. I gathered that his marriage was a failure, and that there was nothing to keep him at home. Also he seemed disgusted with his professional work. It occurred to me that his uncanny passion for the mountains must be an avenue of escape from an existence that had become intolerable to him.
On the basis of this background history and what elsewhere he would call the dreamer’s “associations,” Jung develops a sense of the dream’s import, which initially he keeps to himself, because he and the dreamer are engaged in ostensibly casual conversation:
I…privately interpreted the dream as follows: Since he still clung on to life in spite of himself, the ascent of the mountain was at first laborious. But the more he surrendered himself to his passion, the more it lured him on and lent wings to his feet. Finally it lured him completely out of himself: he lost all sense of bodily weight and climbed even higher than the mountain, out into empty space. Obviously this meant death in the mountains.
A pause has developed, broken by the climber, who says, “suddenly, ‘Well, we’ve talked about all sorts of other things. You were going to interpret my dream. What do you think about it?:’ Now Jung speaks his mind, but to no effect:
I told him quite frankly what I thought, namely that he was seeking death…and that with such an attitude he stood a remarkably good chance of finding it.
“But that is absurd,” he replied, laughing. “On the contrary, I am seeking my health in the mountains.”
Vainly I tried to make him see the gravity of the situation. Six months later, on the descent from a very dangerous peak, he literally stepped off into space. He fell on the head of a companion who was standing on a ledge below him, and both were killed. (The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 17, Paragraphs 117-122)
Might this man, given his personality, have found the best solution for himself? It’s doubtful. His way of talking to Jung suggests deep uneasiness glossed over with a show of bravado. And let’s remember the small detail that while doing away with himself the dreamer also committed negligent homicide.
Quite a few premature deaths seem to occur accidentally on purpose. So if you’re ever invited to go joyriding with a friend who drives as if he’s got a death wish, think twice. You could be right.
(To be continued)
Geography of Hope
‘Rebels with a Cause documentary film
The cause: the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreational Area.
This documentary is good, well-done, serious fun. Nudges were everywhere in the political landscape. Richard Nixon looked like a clown every time he burst on the screen. John Kennedys grin is still engaging. Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, stands out distinctly for more than his elegant string tie.
The award-winning and local film makers, Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto, unravel the national, state and county politics that became entwined in 80 miles of California coast back in the 50s. In concise logical and chronological order, you get the big picture. The big bucks butting head to head with small potatoes, as those in suits struggle alongside those with mud on their boots.
Even as huge progress was made, we begin to realize that the open space we now enjoy could easily have been snuffed out forever under a blanket of mass housing and corrupting highways. Etched in my memory is an image of the Bolinas Lagoon sporting high-rise hotels and a heliport, its waters to look like a kitchen-cutlery drawer for the 1,500 boats it promised to park.
A blueprinted suburbia called “Marincello” was to have sprawled and spilled down a slippery slope to the sea; house after house, high-rise after high-rise. Its lofty development plans sank when its hefty investor Gulf Oil pulled the plug. A big break for open space.
It is time well spent, seeing footage of swaying grasses and sparkling water interrupted with black and white truths. I am a novice when it comes to the history of the magnificent place we can call “ours”. This film let me know not only what more to appreciate, but who made all this possible.
The rebels: Huey Johnson, Robert Praetzel, Stewart Udall, Amy Meyer, Bill Duddleson, Joe Mendoza, Sr., Clem Miller, Katy Miller Johnson, Peter Behr, Martin Griffin, M.D., Martin Rosen, Doug Ferguson, Edgar Wayburn, M.D., Gary Giacomini, Ellen Straus, Phyllis Faber, Jolynn Mendoza-McClelland, Jared Mendoza and Albert Straus as those trail blazers appear on screen. With wisdom and wit, they offer their candid reflections and insights on the “cause”, the struggles and the successes.
Rebels with a Cause will be screened as part of the Geography of Hope Conference on Saturday, March 16, 3 p.m. at the Dance Palace. Run time is 70 minutes. For tickets, as well as books that inspired the film, go to www.ptreyesbooks.com.
Geography of Hope 2013: Igniting the Green Fire
Published March 7, 2013
The key to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic lies in human relationships
“There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other and the relation of people to land.”
— Aldo Leopold
A cornerstone of Aldo Leopold’s vision for successful conservation of the natural world is the idea that humans also have a place in nature. Leopold’s land ethic was radical for its time; for most, conservation was limited to protecting natural resources from human impact. Curt Meine, author of Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work and on-screen guide in the Emmy award- winning film Green Fire, scheduled to air during this year’s Geography of Hope Conference, finds Leopold’s controversial approach compelling.
“People re-engaging with the landscape in a way that restores its diversity and healthy functioning? This was radical in conservationism,” Meine says. “Leopold was always challenged by the fact that our social and ecological relationships are inevitably intertwined. Conservation has as one of its fundamental aims to seek to harmonize those relationships. That’s what set him apart as a leader of conservation thinking in the 20th century.”
Meine cites the example of the now-famous “Shack,” where Leopold and his family worked for decades to restore a plot of degraded land, as a living example of humans working not only to protect wilderness but also to sustain and restore human parts of the landscape. “Those beautiful sketches in A Sand County Almanac (Leopold’s seminal work) were about a place that was a wasteland,” says Meine; “Wildness exists everywhere in varying degrees, and in all scales, from your backyard to the most pristine wild places. There are different opportunities and different values, but it doesn’t matter where you are, there is wildness everywhere and within us, in our own bodies. We all need to be working at all points in the landscape from the most wild to the most urban to bring resilience back to our places.”
It’s also the relationship between people that plays a major role in successful, intelligent conservationism. “Looking from the outside, Marin County is one of the better places in the country, showing how to protect both the wild and the working lands, like the ranches,” Meine says. “There’s never a permanent solution to resolving tension, but as an example of how to work for conservation across the landscape, you guys should be proud of yourselves. I know how difficult some of these battles have been and I know there is a lot of passion behind it all, and there should be; we are trying to resolve the deep tension between the fact that we consume things, and that we want to protect the wilderness.”
The film Green Fire explores these dimensions — how Leopold created the first protected wilderness, but also worked to sustain working farms, ranches and forest, making a strong point that the land ethic pertains as much to cities as to the wild and everything in between.
The sound of silence can be pretty darn loud
When he was a young man in West Marin, a single ecological disaster changed John Francis’ life, setting him on a path that is as surprising to him as it is to an outsider. From a young, brash hippie living in Inverness to a UN Ambassador with a PhD makes for a good story in itself, but when Francis vowed to stop riding in cars after the 1971 oil spill in San Francisco Bay, the plot thickened in ways he never expected.
“Most of us didn’t see the correlation between what we were doing in our daily lives and what was impacting the environment. I stopped riding in cars and that changed my interaction with my neighbors and friends; it also enhanced my interaction with the natural world of plants and animals and rocks and hills and things like that; not that I hadn’t been walking before, I’d follow trails and explore and do those things, but when walking becomes your principle means of how you get around, things slow down and you’re in the present more. You have different priorities. When you have to walk twenty miles to do something, you think deeply about whether you want to do it. It changes your relationship to the landscape.”
After he stopped riding in cars, Francis found himself in frequent debates about the effectiveness of his one-man protest, so on his birthday, he decided to stop talking for a day. “I do a lot of crazy things on my birthday. I thought it was going to be a day. If I’d known it would be 17 years before I talked again, I might not have done it.”
Despite his silence, Francis made a big noise in the world. Silently, he walked. He walked to the store, he walked to play volleyball, he walked to Oregon. Silently, he earned a BA at Southern Oregon University. He walked to the University of Montana. Silently, he earned an MS in Environmental Studies. He walked to Wisconsin, and, silently, earned his PhD in land resources at University of Wisconsin, teaching classes there, still without speaking.
He walked across the United States. He sailed and walked through the Caribbean, and South America. Today, Francis is both speaking and using motorized vehicles, and his career has included a United Nations Ambassadorship and advising the U.S. Coast Guard on managing oil spills. When Francis looks at an old photograph of himself from the 1970s, he laughs. “Who is this guy? He’s just a hippie leaning up against a post playing a banjo…how’d he get to be a UN ambassador?”
Francis’ adventures led him to contemplate the nature of change. “As we become what it is we are becoming, we have to stop being what it is we wanted to change from. We can’t stay at the same place and keep aspiring to be someplace else.”
His studies at the University of Wisconsin gave him a strong connection to Aldo Leopold and cemented his belief that the human presence in the natural world is a valid one, and that it is not only the human to nature relationship, but the human to human relationship that will determine ecological success, or even survival, as the planet changes.
“Leopold is a great conservationist, but he did have some things wrong, just because of the time, and I think he realized that; when he was in the southwest, for example, he moved Indians off the land so it could become a state forest, and I think he realized later that was wrong.
“To some degree we get to choose, it’s not like we are mandated to go in and wreck and pollute; we get to have this conversation: How do we do this in a way that promotes life? How can we honor everything that is here, including ourselves? I know when I’m on the Yukon with the indigenous people there, they get very nervous when someone talks about wilderness; they think ‘What wilderness? They’re pointing at hour home!’ They know someone’s going to want them to get out, if the wilderness is going to be ‘preserved’.
“It’s really about how we treat each other. This is so important to me. This planet was once one big continent, and then the plates separated, but this process of the plates moving hasn’t stopped. We think that everything is staying the way it is, and that’s wrong; we can be overwhelmed by what is just naturally occurring, when an asteroid passes close or a meteor impacts the planet; it doesn’t mean that because it’s now and we’re here on our cell phone that it can’t happen. It’s not that it happened, it’s that it’s happening. We need to use our time together in this relative calm to get together as the people of the planet and figure out how we can work together. We’re hurting ourselves so badly, we really need to.
“My underlying philosophy is that we have to learn to take care of each other, love each other and cooperate, and that is how we will survive.”
Meet Curt Meine and John Francis and learn more about Aldo Leopold’s land ethic at the 2013 Geography of Hope Conference, March 15, 16 & 17 in Point Reyes Station. Presented by Point Reyes Books, the conference is the first West Coast gathering of the world’s foremost Aldo Leopold experts. Also meet and hear from the creators and stars of Green Fire, the 2012 Emmy Award-winning film about Leopold’s life and conservation legacy. The film will be screened at the conference. For details, visit www.ptreyesbooks.com
Geography of Hope 2013: Igniting the Green Fire
The poetic language in Aldo Leopold’s seminal work transforms conservation concepts into art
“A dawn wind stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass. Like the white ghost of a glacier the mists advance, riding over phalanxes of tamarack, sliding across bog-meadows heavy with dew. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon.”
— Aldo Leopold, in the essay “Marshland Elegy” from A Sand County Almanac.
Published in the West Marin Citizen February 14, 2013 by Cyndi Cady
Comparing Aldo Leopold’s opening lines in his essay “Marshland Elegy” to the opening lines of, say, a tenth grade science textbook article on wetlands, is like comparing a plate of West Marin organic cheeses, oysters and olives to a chunk of hardtack…both provide sustenance, but the first is mouth-wateringly delicious; the second, dry as sawdust and just as dull.
In A Sand County Almanac, the poetry of Leopold’s writing makes the subject of conservation and ecology as delicious as that plate of local goodies. Readers can forget themselves in the beauty of his prose, while absorbing his concepts by osmosis.
Buddy Huffaker, President and Executive Director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and executive producer of Green Fire, the documentary film about Aldo Leopold’s life and legacy, thinks the poetry in Leopold’s work extends beyond the written. “It’s not just that he was a scientist and not just that he was a writer who could write with clarity and eloquence, but that in his spare time he just picked up a shovel and started planting trees,” Huffaker says. “He was definitely composing a scene or a poem on that landscape in terms of where he put certain plants and clusters of trees and framing views; it was art that went into that effort.” Huffaker will be among the presenters at the 2013 Geography of Hope Conference.
It takes one to know one
Another conference presenter well-qualified to recognize the art and poetry in Leopold’s work is Robert Hass. The former U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and advocate for ecoliteracy believes the beauty of Leopold’s language not only allows his message to appeal to a broad audience, but helps root the importance of the natural world in the minds and hearts of his readers.
“There are things we know in our bones and you need an expression of them to keep them alive. If you don’t have the language for them, they don’t become a part of the value system that you live with,” says Hass. “One of the things about the metaphors in Aldo Leopold’s writing is he found ways to make visits in our minds.” He credits Leopold with the ability to make readers care deeply about places they may never see, which in turn makes them want to care for those places and the wildlife they contain.
“I saw a whale at Limantour Beach once, just outside the breakers; it was heart stopping. How do you convey to people that if you fail to keep that kind of life alive, we fail as a civilization? Leopold found a kind of language to do that.”
Hass likens Leopold’s writing style to that often seen in old sporting magazines. “He’s brilliant sometimes. He really taught himself to see the place.” As an example, Hass cites Leopold’s essay, “Good Oak,” which takes us back through time by following the rings of a lightning-felled oak he is sawing into firewood.
“He taught himself the history of what happened to the environment in Wisconsin; this could have produced in a dull way but he found a beautiful metaphor of sawing through 150 years of Wisconsin history.”
Huffaker agrees with Hass about the importance of Leopold using graceful language to explain and explore the natural world. “All the essays have some poetic characteristics, but “Marshland Elegy” is one of the most powerful. The positive response when it was first published made him think he needed to give this kind of voice to the conservation movement, rather than scientific jargon,” he says.
“For anybody who has a social conscience, Leopold is one of those people who will help reveal and refine who they are and why they do care about the world in which they live. I think he is on par with Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King and Gandhi; people who truly shape our consciousness. If you think about it that way, Leopold is kind of a ‘must read.’ You don’t have to agree with everything he writes but he is part of the process to help people improve their own thinking and sense of what they care about and why they care about it.”
In his essay “July,” mourning the loss of a seemingly insignificant prairie weed, Leopold says “We grieve only for what we know.” Through Leopold’s compelling writing, he allows us to know, and by extension, care for, lands and life far beyond what we see from our own windows.
Meet Buddy Huffaker and Robert Hass and learn more about the writings of Aldo Leopold at the 2013 Geography of Hope Conference, March 15, 16 & 17 in Point Reyes Station. Presented by Point Reyes Books, the conference is the first West Coast gathering of the world’s foremost Aldo Leopold experts. Also meet and hear from the creators and stars of “Green Fire,” the 2012 Emmy Award-winning film about Leopold’s life and conservation legacy. For details, visit www.ptreyesbooks.com
Igniting the Green Fire:
Finding Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic
By Cyndy Cady
Geography of Hope 2013 explores the life and ideas of the father of the modern conservation movement.” In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy; how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable side-rocks.” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Once a young man “full of trigger-itch” and firm in his belief that fewer wolves meant more abundant game, Aldo Leopold’s journey to become the father of modern conservation is only slightly more unusual than the journey taken by two of the people who have made the study of his legacy a focus of their life work.
J. Baird Callicott, for example, stumbled onto Leopold largely due to being fired for being a hippie. “I went to Memphis for my first teaching job right in the heat of the civil rights movement. I was a young, hip college professor, and the university had just been integrated. A handful of black students wanted to form a student organization; they needed a faculty sponsor, so they asked me, which got me involved in the civil rights campaign that brought Martin Luther King to Memphis. I was there during the events that led up to his assassination. But then because I was a hippie I got fired, so I moved to central Wisconsin. I got there right before the first earth day in 1970. It was such a big event that I got together with some other faculty and we started a multi-disciplinary environmental studies program. I was in the philosophy department, so I volunteered to teach environmental ethics. It was a rash announcement because I didn’t really know what I was going to teach. Then a student told me that A Sand County Almanac (Leopold’s seminal work) might be useful; the last chapter was called ‘The Land Ethic.’”
Making Leopold the foundation of his philosophical research, Callicott went on to pioneer in the field of environmental philosophy and ethics and is now University Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Texas, teaching Leopold’s Land Ethic as part of the program.
“Expanding ethics is a slippery slope,” he says. “You start down the path of expanding rights and then the question becomes, why stop at any given point?”
Callicott believes in extending the concept to nature. “You need to give nature consideration, if not rights, as you would with humans. But there’s also balance; how do you balance human rights against the species? The land ethic is scaled to processes that can be measured in decades. Climate change, on the other hand, is globally scaled. That creates a much different ethical challenge than smaller scale phenomena like what’s happening in Marin where you have salmon and creeks and houses in the same ecosystem; we’re talking about CO2 in the atmosphere; oceans acidifying, sea level rising – that’s all on a scale of hundreds or thousands of years. So how do we respond to that in terms of our duties and obligations? Can we make sense of that?”
Susan Flader’s path to Leopold was circuitous as well, beginning, oddly, while studying Thomas Mann in a class on German comparative literature. “The instructor kept comparing Mann with Aldo Leopold, and he was getting blank looks from students, including me. So I went to the bookstore in Madison and got the book (A Sand County Almanac). It became kind of my private discovery; I never met anyone else who had ever read or knew Leopold.”
Later, doing graduate work at Stanford that combined her love of nature and of history, Flader needed to develop a seminar on a subject in her field. “I started working on the Hetch Hetchy issue in San Francisco; I had done all this research when I learned someone else was about to publish a book on the same subject.” She needed a new topic. “A few days later I woke up and remembered Leopold.” Initially guided by none other than Wallace Stegner, Flader went on to build a life around researching and writing about Leopold’s land ethic, and now teaches Environmental History at the University of Missouri.
“Environmental history is the study of people’s relationship with the environment from early time to present; not just conservation, but the impact of people and the environment on each other,” Flader explains. “The purpose of the land ethic is to think about what needs to be done to restore the health of the system that we are all a part of. There’s nothing to stop you from getting involved and doing things yourself. Ideally you’d be doing it with your hands in the ground, but there are a lot different ways to do it. You can work to create the opportunity for others to be out there with their hands.”
While still a green youngster with a twitchy trigger finger, the young Aldo Leopold watched “a fierce green fire” go out in the eyes of a dying wolf. The experience sparked a transformation in him, changing forever the way he viewed relationships in nature. Leopold’s journey included getting his own hands in the ground. In 1935, he purchased a decrepit chicken coop teetering on eighty logged out, fire-scorched, overgrazed, barren acres in Wisconsin’s Sand County, land nearly destroyed by drought and misuse. Over the next fifteen years, Leopold, his wife Estella and their five children worked to turn the property into a lush landscape covered in healthy trees, grasses and a host of other native flora and fauna. But the property still included the chicken coop, restored to a cozy refuge where the Leopold family spent their weekends and holidays. The now-famous “Shack” is a living demonstration of Leopold’s success at what he termed “the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
Meet Professors Flader and Callicott and learn more about Aldo Leopold’s land ethic at the 2013 Geography of Hope Conference, March 15, 16 & 17 in Point Reyes Station. Presented by Point Reyes Books, the conference is the first West Coast gathering of the world’s foremost Aldo Leopold experts. Also meet and hear from the creators and stars of “Green Fire,” the 2012 Emmy Award-winning film about Leopold’s life and conservation legacy. The film will also be screened at the conference. For details, visit www.ptreyesbooks.com