We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.
Most people would agree that Thoreau was the original American nature writer. His reflection on his two years on Walden Pond is classic and the root from which many others have grown. One of the greatest of these was Aldo Leopold.
Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948) was an American author, philosopher, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and is best known for his book A Sand County Almanac (1949), which has sold more than two million copies…. Leopold was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation…. He emphasized biodiversity and ecology and was a founder of the science of wildlife management. -Link
What does Leopold as an heir of Thoreau have to teach us this Lenten season? How can we discover new insights into our spiritual lives in this world from him? I for one believe that wilderness and nature is always an excellent starting point for any spiritual journey. It is not coincidence that we use Jesus’ wilderness temptations as the starting point for Lent or that the Desert Fathers and Mothers went into a wilderness to find their own souls closer to God. The presence and possibility of nature in all its hope and danger is a place to learn about the limits of our human condition.
Leopold began the Foreword to A Sand County Almanac:
THERE are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot. Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. (P. vii)
Leopold was in the forefront of a movement that saw great danger in what we humans were (and are) doing to the natural world. He understood that his view can only begin to be discussed once we have enough food to eat, that is, we are beyond basic survival mode. But unfettered progress was not necessarily a good thing either.
The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not. … (P. vii)
I am currently reading a truly interesting history of the two sides of the debate of the future of humanity. In The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles Mann tells the story of the “two sides of a century-long dispute between what Mann calls “wizards,” who believe that science will allow humans to continue prospering, and “prophets,” who predict disaster unless we accept that our planet's resources are limited.” (Kirkus Review) Leopold was part of the side Mann calls the “prophets.” They see the earth’s resources as limited, needing to be protected or we will misuse, abuse, and eventually eliminate them to our own and the world’s detriment.
These two sides have not been reconciled and remain clearly opponents in the debate. Leopold concludes his Foreword with these words:
[O]ur bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to tum off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings. (P. ix)
Many of us raised in the environmentalism of the 60s will easily fall on the Aldo Leopold side of the debate. Such a view is based on an understanding of ultimately limited resources, maintaining stewardship of what we have, the absolute interrelatedness of humans and nature, and finally, the dangers of a consumer-driven society where more and bigger is always better (even as we gladly participate in it.)
I am a fugitive and a vagabond, a sojourner seeking signs.
- Annie Dillard
- Annie Dillard
Many of us also know the advantages of “nature.” Books like A Sand County Almanac and Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) have opened many of us to the amazing world around us. They have shown us both the “otherness” of nature and our connectedness, even dependence on it. It is a place that, as others have said, one must go prepared, or not at all. I am one of those who believes that the “spiritual” is the best way to be prepared for what it has to teach us and what I need to learn.
I don’t mean just wilderness, either. It can be the town park, the woods off the side of the road, the Bald Eagle’s nest along the river on the edge of the city. It can be a bike trail, a neighborhood street, or the nearest state park. If we go there with an openness to what’s there, what’s new, and what’s old, we will never be disappointed. Sometimes we look up at the canopy or the sky; at other times we get down and explore the square foot of earth beneath our feet. They are both filled with wonder and beyond.
They are filled with God and the words of God. They are icons- images that open to the indescribable. They are sacraments- outward and visible signs and means of God’s grace.
The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.
Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.
I pray that we not lose sight of this value of the natural world. I pray that as we go through our days, the possibility of finding God in all places will deepen our spiritual health through the world around us. The inward journey of Lent can prepare us for that. It is why we return here every year. We walk our inner labyrinths in order to circle and then touch the holy center of who we are.
There are many lessons to be learned, explored, and acted upon in these writings of Leopold and Dillard, heirs of Thoreau. We in the faith community know some of them, in our own imperfect human ways. We preach stewardship but often forget about the stewardship of the world around us. We sing of our “awesome wonder” at all the works God’s hands have made, yet pay little thought to how we can help protect and enhance that. We know of the value of community but overlook the greater community of the interconnectedness of the world.
I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you can rig a giant sail and go. The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.
This week of Lent, may I walk into the Light, put myself into the path of it’s cleansing and healing beam. Then sail into the presence of the Creator! Let us do it together.
To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.