Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949): Part One, The Almanac

I first encountered A Sand County Almanac when I was in high school biology. At the time I suppose I thought that the teacher (I forgot his name) was just wasting time reading selections from Aldo Leopold book to use, but in hindsight I wonder if I should have appreciated his generosity in sharing Leopold’s words with us. In any case, I did not appreciate it at the time.  There is nothing I can do about my ignorance and the lack of curiosity I had as a teenage. I wonder if I went to high school in any place except Wisconsin, would my teacher have had the same relationship to Leopold? (The growth of importance of the text is certainly ending whatever provincial character it had.)  I can say, living now in Taiwan, at the time of year that I miss my home state most of all, reading Leopold’s little book is a joyous experience.  While living in Taiwan, I suspended by Library of America subscription, but I did make a point of having this recent publication shipped here. Published in 2013, the LOA collection of Leopold’s writings is a wonderful contribution to the series.

coverFor those who have not read A Sand County Almanac, I can only urge that they pick it up. It only takes a couple hours to read through the first section, the almanac proper. It is a series of vignettes from his life on a rather unproductive farm in Sauk county Wisconsin. The vignettes are arranged throughout the year, starting with “January Thaw” and ending with “65290” (about chickadee’s winter survival). Each month has at least one story, some have several. This is followed by a broader set of essays set in other parts of Wisconsin or in other states but like the almanac are autobiographical and tell complex stories of ecological systems through his own experiences. The first part are some of his more formal essays on conservation, including “The Land Ethic.”

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Leopold always combines a serious scientific approach while casting doubt on the human ability to understand the minds, perspectives, and lives of the animals he writes about. Much of the power of the work comes from his subtle celebration of the diversity and otherness of the natural world. The reader sees this in his attempt to explain the inexplicable survival of chickadee 65290, banded by Leopold as part of his local conservation work. Falling short of learning very much, the banding experience gave Leopold a chance to just enjoy being in awe of the otherness of the chickadee, and in particular this small life. “I know so little about birds that I can only speculate on why 65290 survived his fellows. Was he more clever in dodging his enemies? What enemies? A chickadee is almost too small to have any. That whimsical fellow called Evolution, having enlarged the dinosaur until he tripped over his own toes, tried shrinking the chickadee until he was just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat. Then he regarded his handiwork and laughed. Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.” (81–82) Even in the small locale of his farm and surrounding forests, there was so much unknown about the plants and animals. One need not travel far to find radical otherness.  Take for instance his discussion of the evening “sky dance,” put on by the woodcocks. “I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May. Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance… It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them. ” (29)

A second thing that struck me while reading these vignettes was the deep sense of natural history. He reminds us that with every human act on nature we are intruding (and often ending) creatures with experiences deep into the past, making us neophytes at best. Most clearly laid out in “Good Oak” about the cutting down of an aged oak tree. With each pull of the saw blade, he goes deeper and deeper into that history, reversing (if only in his mind) the damage done to the Wisconsin landscape. ” The mental journey ends with the birth of the oak tree in the 1860s, “when thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered? They settled it, but they did not see, nor do we yet see, that the same question applies to the man-land community.” (15) Later, he writes: “It is an irony of history that the great powers should have discovered the unity of nations at Cairo in 1942. The geese of the world have had that notion for a longer time, and each March they stake their lives on its essential truth.” (20)

Another message, and one that is particularly important. is that we need the land in order to be free and creative. On one level, we learn about agency from observing the land and its residents. They are not simply following evolutionary programming but are engaging with their world. In one chapter Leopold describes himself as a landowner with tenants, but his sovereignty is completely contingent on the acquiesce of the animals.  Bottom-up political systems had always been there, it just had to be observed.  But I will say more on these radical political conclusions of A Sand County Almanac in the following posts.

leopoldWith a book like A Sand County Almanac, I find it useful to just enjoy the beautiful prose and the profoundly simple prose, which can carry such significant ideas. I wish people could speak so clearly.

 

Henry David Thoreau, “Selected Essays” Part Two: Civil Disobedience

As hinted at in my last post, one of Thoreau’s great contributions was to suggest (it would be too much to say he moved much in his lifetime since his influence is mostly posthumous) that the proper response to injustice, specifically unjust laws or governments sustained injustice, should be disobedience not non-resistance, which was commonly held by many of his contemporaries, including prominent abolitionists.  “Civil Disobedience” is one of the selections that I read for today and will be inevitably the focus on my comments.  I did read the following works:

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“Herald of Freedom” (1844): A celebration of the anti-slavery journalist Nathaniel P. Rogers, which repeats Roger’s important point about undo respect for religious traditions.  “that Jesus Christ did not preach the abolition of slavery, then I say, he didn’t do his duty.”  (161)

“Thomas Carlyle and His Works” (1846): Furthering Thoreau’s search for greatness in writers.  Here is his examination of Thomas Carlyle search for heroes and Thoreau’s search for heroism in Carlyle.

“Civil Disobedience” (1848): Thoreau’s declaration of independence from the unjust laws of the state of Massachusetts in protest of the Mexican War and its pro-slavery goals.

“Walking” (1851/1862 published): An attempt to find “absolute freedom” in nature, through a rediscovery of “wildness.”

“A Yankee in Canada” (1853): A travelogue of Thoreau’s 1850 trip to Canada.  He writes much on the differences between Canada and New England, suggesting stark differences between the two civilizations.

We see the continuation of many of the themes in Thoreau’s work from the early 1840s such as the Promethean spirit of man and how to revive it from a civilization of mediocrity and his fascination with wilderness as a locus for the search for human greatness.  We also see his movement into politics as Thoreau moved into the sectional conversation.  Most of his political writing is tied directly or indirectly to the sectional conflicts of the 1840s and 1850s, up to and including his great writings on John Brown, which I will explore in the next post.

If we put “Walking” and “Civil Disobedience” next to each other we see mirror image arguments.  While “Walking” is suggesting that the locus of a true freedom is in nature and wildness, “Civil Disobedience” looks for how we can come to terms with civil government.   I would suggest that the libertarian cannot afford to examine just one or the other.  It is not enough to just come to terms with some limited government or struggle against imposed injustices, as essential as those struggles may be.  We also need imagination.  Conversely, imagination and a lifestyle of “true freedom” (perhaps variants of lifestyle anarchism) does not go far enough if it is not also in rebellion against the injustice of civil government.  We cannot ignore that governments exist and commit cruelties.  Remember, Thoreau was relatively immune from the injustices of slavery and the Mexican War (outside of the small tax he was to pay).  He was enjoying a relatively free bachelor life in Concord.  His debate with civil government was his attempt to maximize freedom for others.  This is the shortcoming of lifestyle anarchism, because it can only save the few, the lucky, the most imaginative, or the bravest.

“Walking” opens with: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” (225)  Walking through an untouched landscape is particularly special because it is separated (often by fences) from development, civilization, and private property.  Thoreau is careful to separate freedom from property.  “The landscape is not owned, and the walked enjoys comparative freedom.” (233) We also might see in this essay some of his profound anxiety about the Mexican War.  The Mexican War promised not only to spread slavery to the West, but also civilization.  Thoreau admired the west but hoped it could remain “the Wild.” (239) Thoreau is also, of course, interested in sustaining a world that is suitable for art and creativity.  I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s claim that socialism is essential for a world that can cultivate individualism and artistic expression when I read Thoreau calling for halting the spread of civilization and ensuring the Wild’s sustainability (he does not use this late 21st century term) for the aid of art.  “In Literature it is only the wild that attracts us.  Dulness is but another name for tameness.  It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in “Hamlet” and the “Iliad,” in all the Scripture and Mythologies, not learned in schools, that delights us.” (244)  All is not lost.  Even as domestic animals can “reassert their native rights,” civilization can find its way back to the Wild.  He is only resigned in that for the time being most of us will be “fit subjects for civilization” and only a few will not.

It is that reality that civilization has domesticated most people that makes “Civil Disobedience” such an important essays.  Its inspiration to the methods of countless social movements and radical thinkers in the past century and a half likely makes anything I have to say banal.  Yet, this blog is about the American tradition and anarchism and this is a central text of that intersection so I am obliged to express my thoughts, as banal as they may end up being.  We start with his hope that government govern as little as possible, maximizing the principle of leaving people alone.  This seems unlikely because government will tend to express the will of the majority, and who makes up this majority?  “The mass of men serve the that thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.  They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables, posse comitatus.” (205)  Furthermore, that majority will and indeed has established and actively defends unjust laws.  We also have, from the American Revolution (actually from the Magna Carta but Thoreau does not mention that) the right of revolution against unjust governments.  What Thoreau masterfully does here is extend the principle of revolution against unjust governments to revolution against unjust laws.  Voting, which is just a “form of gaming” (208) does not go far enough because it still leaves the judgment to the majority.  The proper challenge to democracy’s unjust laws is a tendency toward greater individualism, and this requires the individual resistance against injustice through open opposition to those laws – not opting out or “non-resistance.”  “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” (213)  Liberty is finally rooted in disobedience.  Perhaps it is through such disobedience that we can go from the reality of civil government to the absolute freedom Thoreau pines for in “Walking.”

Well, I reckon this is not a new observation, but I do find that by reading “Walking” and “Civil Disobedience” side by side we find ourselves pondering the debate between the activist and the lifestylist.  Where they come together is in an assertion of individualism.  The strongest activism is that which comes out of individual and active resistance to civil government, while the true home of the individual is in “the Wild.”