In “Sketches Here and There” Aldo Leopold takes us from an elegy of a marsh drained for farmland to a monument/gravestone of a species, the passenger pigeons, to place after natural place facing the threat of humans and often succumbing to a homogenized fate. One of the most heart-breaking lines was at the beginning of “The Green Lagoons”: “It is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness, for the more golden the lily, the more certain that someone has gilded it. To return not only spoils a trip, but tarnishes a memory.” Earlier in “On Top” Leopold offers a similar sentiment: “Despite several opportunities to do so, I have never returned to the White Mountains. I prefer not to see what tourists, roads, sawmills, and logging railroads have done for it, or to it. I hear young people, not yet born when I first rode out ‘on top,’ exclaim about it as a wonderful place. To this, with an unspoken mental reservation, I agree.”
I went into science because I was concerned about conservation issues, but I do wonder if science can do enough fast enough if people have neither an appreciation nor passion for the natural world. But, then, in those circumstances, I have no solution either. It is sad to think that Leopold feared going back to a place he had known at an earlier time, having learned no doubt repeatedly, that nature is not universally valued or protected. Leopold makes us feel this loss poignantly.
Although despite this loss, often brought about by guns, as well as saws, we frequently find Leopold hunting. I cannot decide if that is the optimist in him or the human instinct that he often rails against. (He shows no optimism regarding returning to wild places he had loved, if that offers any clue.) I have a healthy respect for hunters, and appreciate that through them we gain many natural areas and wild life. But, it is hard for me to reconcile the hunter in Leopold who is able to take such pleasure in the woodcocks dance, yet still bag one or two of them; and, surely there is nothing wrong in that, but it still surprises me. In “Clandeboye,” a marsh where Leopold spends time trying to catch a close look of the ever-wary grebe, one finally appears and then another with two young on her back. In the margins I wrote “Please don’t shoot!” because I can never tell with him. Fortunately, he listened this time. We all must partake of the food web in some way, and it seems to grow more challenging by the year to discern how to make a minimal global impact (and local hunting may be one of the very best strategies when it is all said and done).
These passages have had me thinking about the first species I saw in my bird guide that would have lived within my range, if it had not gone extinct: the Carolina parakeet (above...you knew that was no Wisconsin bird, didn't you?), the only North American parakeet. I remember feeling that new knowledge in my stomach. Still printed in the bird guide then, but why? To remind us of our own nature? Of how much more there is to lose? Or perhaps the writer of the field guide still held a hope that it would turn up somewhere and a birder with his guide would be there to witness its return. If hope is the thing with feathers, then perhaps that is the best explanation.