Armchair Birding – May 2017
Having read one too many despair-inducing news stories, I went looking for something solid and nourishing to clear my mind and lighten my heart. There on the bookshelf was A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. It was as good and straightforward and sensible as I remembered, and funnier, too. There was the iconic story of the wolf whose death lit a fire in Aldo’s mind of how the world was really put together, predator and prey included. But there was also a story I had forgotten of Aldo’s search for the inner life of grebes, a bird that intrigued and beguiled him. His method jolted me: One day I buried myself, prone, in the muck of a muskrat house. While my clothes absorbed local color, my eyes absorbed the lore of the marsh.
He describes the quiet life of the marsh as he waited patiently for grebes to appear out of the rushes, and then unspools his thoughts about man and nature and time, as well as several pithy details about grebe life and ways. I could almost feel the mud seeping into my pores and the brown water lapping my chin as his wise and tender remarks sunk into my consciousness. This was committed bird watching!
But it was his profound vision of the land ethic, as he named it, that stuck with me as something we desperately need in these times:
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. And, paraphrasing: We humans are members of this community of interdependent parts, which include soils, waters, plants and animals—in short, the land.
In search of how he lived that creed himself, I found his daughter’s memoir of growing up in one of the greatest living experiments one can imagine of putting this ethic into practice. In Stories from the Leopold Shack, Estella Leopold—the youngest daughter in a large, close-knit family—tells how the family purchased an old rundown farm and journeyed there most weekends. They all worked together to resurrect this derelict property into a flourishing laboratory of land reclamation. They all became involved in their father’s work of documenting and painstakingly repairing the various ecological niches on the farm. It was a lot of work, but what mainly shines through was the fun they had!
She describes in loving detail transforming the “shack” into an inviting shelter for family and guests. They used locally found materials, hand labor and ingenuity, for the sake of economy—it was the Depression era—but also for authenticity of place and for sheer creative expression. Year by year, the family searched for native prairie species of plants and trees to propagate in their quest to restore the landscape to a measure of its original potential as a biotic community. The Leopolds were pioneers in understanding the role of native plants as the anchors supporting the entire structure of life. They discovered that deep prairie-plant roots drew up minerals and water that replenished the soils; birds and butterflies then fed off the plants and pollinated and scattered seeds for more plants. The fauna diversified and multiplied as the health of the land returned, the forests regenerated and the meadows, ponds and streams came back into balance. The health of one part replenished the whole system.
And the Leopold family flourished along with the farm. Along with the pleasures of creative work and outdoor exercise, they had music, companionship, adventure, and even a series of beloved pets to keep them merry. This memoir is not only an enchanting family story but also a primer on how to raise a passel of curious, knowledgeable and conscientious future biologists and conservationists. All of the siblings carried on some aspect of the work begun at “the shack” in noted professional lives as far-flung as Costa Rica, California and Colorado. The roots struck on the old farm produced fruit for generations to come. I’ve only hinted at the riches—and delights—of this memoir. There is real hope here that no matter how worn out we may feel or how threadbare our society may get, there are ways to regenerate and get back to the land. There is good work to be done; this book shows a path forward. (by Anne Kilgannon)