I hope that people who attempt to read The Dying Fish will see it through to the end. The simple-minded first half, chronicling day to day life in the woods, is setting the stage for something grander in the second half. Hopefully, something worth your time.
A few years back, I picked up a classic of environmental literature called A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. I didn’t like it a whole lot, just wasn’t getting much out of it after the first few chapters. And so, I set it aside and never got back to it till this spring. And I know now that I should have finished it the first time. Though first published in 1949, Leopold’s environmental vision strikes at something that can guide our conservation today, something that transcends the commonplace environmental socialism of the late 20th century. I’m a better outdoorsman for understanding his land ethic.
Near the book’s conclusion, there’s a statement of summation that may be easily overlooked: “As a land-user thinketh, so is he.” And then it clicked, the early chapters were simply a demonstration of this epigram. As Leopold wrote about his own wanderings around his Wisconsin farm, making simple observations on simple creatures, he was doing so with the mind of a conservation-oriented thinker. This is the kind of thinker who, though he needed to grow crops and provide for his family, wouldn’t see harm come to any living thing in his domain.
The early chapters also demonstrate nature’s most irradicable characteristic: Change. This is demonstrated primarily by looking at the history of the Wisconsin prairie which had passed through a 12,000 year interplay with coniferous and deciduous forests that had retreated and advanced dramatically since the recession of the glaciers. Native peoples were also involved in the maintenance of prairie through burning of vast tracts. This set the stage for the other historical changes in the biota but Europeans, of course, changed it all the most radically. Congressmen had passed land-use statutes, smelt had been introduced to the Great Lakes, wildfires had washed over prairie and forest and mountain lions, elk, turkeys and passenger pigeons had vanished.
Leopold speaks of a conservation aspect close to my own heart: interstitial, accidental habitat. He states that the strips along railroad tracks and roads were the best remaining samples of southern Wisconsin prairie. He speaks of the joys of hunting and fishing. And he demonstrates that the baseline by which we could evaluate the health of the prairie ecosystem is long since gone.
Interestingly, Leopold has at least as much environmental blame for the government as for the private sector. He’s largely apolitical in this respect, seeing, I think that the motives of a government comprised of men will be far from pure and the consequences of poorly-wrought directives have potential to be more far-reaching than those of a single farmer abusing his own land. As evidence, he points to the make-work depression era projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps. He points to road building in general. The government initiated and funded introductions of smelt and carp are pointed out (irreversible ecological calamities). Repeatedly, predator eradication programs are highlighted for their carelessness, ignorance and short-sightedness. And, in the big picture, he addresses the general failures of land planning overall. In short, he makes it difficult to trust conservation to those empowered to act on behalf of conservation.
All this sets the stage for the suggestion of something better (and freer): Leopold’s Land Ethic. This is about a state of mind that seeks to make sense of the complex workings of the biome around us but also allows that we won’t understand the value of every component though it surely has a role to play in the whole. Private property must remain as such and it’s our stewardship that obviates government’s desire to intervene for the salvation of plants and animals, perhaps trampling our rights in their haste; perhaps launching a cascade of unforeseen consequences in the markets and the environment.
And I wish that Leopold could have seen the Wisconsin and the broader northeast of today. It was commonplace in the early days of the conservation era to state that things were gone forever but I can’t help but think that Aldo Leopold himself might be pleased to see the state of things today and I wonder how today’s rich northeastern forest would affect his conclusions.