Fire In Her Eyes

In 2018, at a meeting around the dinner table of Wendell Berry, the novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural  critic and farmer based in Kentucky,  the host urged Nick Offerman, the author, woodworker and actor (think Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation) to explore the different concepts of conservation as expressed first by John Muir in the C19th, and then by Aldo Leopold in the early C20th.   The result was a series of journeys not only across much of the US but also to the Lake District in England, and the publication late last year of Where the Deer and Antelope Play : The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside.

 

I was familiar with the names of both men but was shy on their backgrounds, so a little  background reading was necessary.  

 

John Muir,  born in Scotland in 1838,  moved to the US when he was eleven years old where, when allowed a short break from a harsh work schedule in the fields, he and his brother would explore the rich Wisconsin countryside. When he was 29, and not unlike E.O.Wilson seventy years later, he suffered a severe eye injury; although he was to recover his sight, he determined to focus his vision on the natural world. He had an unquenchable wanderlust, at one time walking one thousand miles from Indianapolis south to the Gulf of Mexico, but it was the Sierra Nevada and the Yosemite Valley that claimed him, and he made his future home in California.  He herded sheep through the spring and summer of 1870 while building a pine cabin where he was visited by a number of prominent  men, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

 

He married when he was 42 but ten years of relative domesticity could not tame his wanderlust and  he traveled to Alaska, Australia, South America, Europe, China, Japan and Africa.  In his later years he turned more seriously to writing, publishing 300 articles and 10 books describing his travels, his emerging naturalist philosophy and his love of the mountains, which, for many readers,  endowed them with a spiritual quality. 

 

In 1890, disturbed by the devastation wrought on mountain meadows by sheep and cattle, Muir was instrumental in creating, by an Act of Congress, Yosemite National Park, followed by the Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon national parks.  Two years later, to protect these spaces from cattlemen in particular, he was influential in founding the Sierra Club, and it was as its president that, in 1903, he met Theodore Roosevelt and together they laid the foundations of Roosevelt’s significant conservation programs.  

 

John Muir died shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, aged 76, having just lost a court battle to prevent the damning of the Hetch Hetchy Valley which created a reservoir to supply water to San Francisco.  Yet the initiative he had started did not end with his death; today there are 63 national parks covering some 81 423 square miles, or 2.1 per cent of the land surface of the United States, and Muir is celebrated as the founder of the environmental movement in the US. 

 

An uncountable number of people of all nations have enjoyed the national parks, even if , according to Nick Offerman, the average visit may be as little as one half of one day, “which I guess is not that different from hanging out at the mall.”   Even if we treat nature “like an attraction at a theme park,” the impact, however brief,  can be invigorating and stimulating. But there is a cost.  For example, the people who had inhabited those areas for millennia were ruthlessly removed, had no say in the development of the parks then or now, and have not been able to return.  “Our country still has a long way to go,” Offerson observes, “to reconcile the beauty of these park with the way they were acquired …” 

 

Secondly a mindset has developed which suggests, in effect, that the preservation of those allows us to despoil the remaining 97.9 per cent with a clear conscience.   There is a sense that nature is somewhere outside of us, separate from us, confined to spectacular areas, and is someone else’s responsibility. 

 

Muir was 49 years old, married for seven years to Louie Strentzel, when Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, and like the former, Aldo spent much of his early years on excursions in the woods where he learned woodcrafting and hunting and showed an aptitude for observation.  Motivated by Gifford Pinchot’s foundation of the Department of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture, Aldo decided on forestry as a vocation, completing his graduate degree at Yale. 

 

For the first thirteen years of his professional life he was assigned to Arizona and New Mexico where, among other things, he wrote the first management plan for the Grand Canyon and the Forest Services first game and fish handbook.  Unlike John Muir he traveled outside of the county only once - to the forests of Germany and Austria when he was 48, an experience that was to have a profound impact on his ecological thinking - but when he was 26 he was appointed a professional member of a wildlife conservation  organization founded, ironically,  by Teddy Roosevelt as part of his preservation plans. 

 

The other event that had a profound impact on him happened early in his career in New Mexico where  he was assigned to hunt and kill bears, mountain lions and wolves at the request of local ranchers.  One day, after fatally shooting a wolf, he reached the animal in time to transfixed by “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”  That experience put him on a path away from the traditional wilderness ethic that stressed the need for human dominance, towards an ecocentric outlook and ecological ethic which reimagined the term ‘wilderness,’ which he called ‘agrarian,’ and visualized as a healthy biotic community to the point of including bears, mountain lions and wolves.  He envisioned the progress of ethical sensitivity from interpersonal relationships, to relationships with the larger society, to relationships with the land, and a consequent reduction of actions based on expediency, self-interest and conquest.  

 

Clearly this put him at odds with the utilitarianism of conservationists like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. 

 

Late in his life he purchased 80 acres in Wisconsin, a tract that had been left barren by poor land management, and  put his theories into practice.  A Sand County Almanac was finished just prior to his death, aged 61, from a heart attack after hoping a neighbor battle a wild fire.  Incidentally, all of his five children became notable teachers and naturalists. 

 

If there is spectrum of conservation, John Muir and Aldo Leopold are on different ends.  Muir was more towards the sustainability paradigm whereas Leopold visualized restoration; Muir preserved specific areas of great beauty whereas Leopold envisaged an all-inclusive, selfless community that some have labeled ‘religious naturalism.’   We are not separate from nature, he would argue, but an integral part of it. I would add that as long as we see nature as somewhere outside of us, somewhere apart from us, it is going to be difficult if not impossible to solve the environmental crisis that separateness has created. 

 

This relates to honey bees and beekeeping in several ways.  First, we know that all species of bees are in decline and that they cannot sustain themselves in the present environment.  We cannot fence off a fraction of the land, abuse the rest and expect them to survive.  We have to think in terms of extensive rehabilitation from the soil up and not rely on short term technological solutions to individual problems.  We cannot change the gas cap on a vehicle that consumes 25 miles per gallon and believe we have solved the emissions crisis; both the design of the entire vehicle and our perception as to its use have to change.  

 

Secondly, new beekeepers are often bemused by the intricacies of a colony of honey bees and struggle for several years to make sense of it all.  They see it as an isolated part of the natural world which they can manage.  With time, and if they are fortunate, they come to see honey bees as a superorganism  within a large and complex context, and the reward of being with  them is a feeling of interconnectedness with the natural world.  They and the beekeeper are one; the latter does not ‘keep’ them so much as experience, in Leopold’s terms, a biotic community in which self-interest and conquest (and I would add, a capitalist consumer mentality,) play no part. 

 

To end as we began, with Wendell Berry : “Whether we and our politicians know it or not, nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

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