Writer and naturalist Janisse Ray recently visited Miami University to tell us about “Being Human in Wild Times.” She hails from southern Georgia’s long-leaf pine territory not so far from the place I grew up in coastal SC—she sounded like a long forgotten friend and she had a passion for pines which is rare in those parts. As she spoke of the long-leaf pine ecosystems that she loved (I would say who would not, but history suggest the answer may be many), of which 97-99% have been lost, she made a connection between fragmentation of the habitat and fragmentation of our communities and families, suggesting that our detachment from the land has perhaps became possible as we left the communities of our upbringing and the natural habitats that were part of our cultural heritage to move on to somewhere better where we were more anonymous and less tied to our past and surroundings. Would we be better stewards of our natural resources if we knew we would live and die in the same place we were raised, where we would watch our children and grandchildren grow up?
One of the joys of rereading A Sand County Almanac with my students is rediscovering the love that Aldo Leopold has for his small patch of land in Wisconsin and what a great student he is of his 80 acre parcel. I no more hear geese without thinking of him. He makes me want to love my 0.5 acre parcel a lot more even if there is slightly fewer grouse in my yard—but there are weeds buried somewhere under that snow that I regularly fail to cherish. From January to December he finds himself out at his “shack” on the weekends getting to know his community—the chickadees and grouse, the rabbits and deer, the prairie chickens and woodcocks, and of course the plants that many of us never take enough notice of—the white pines (his beloved) and red birch, the Silphium and Draba. He relishes the least of these. And from an old agricultural field, he helps the land return to what it once was even it was on the verge of forgetting and in doing so build a natural community. He doesn’t speak so much of the human community that he may or may not build when he is there, but he mentions the neighbors who have treed a coon or collected the honey from his trees, and he doesn’t seem to mind sharing his bounty. So perhaps loving the land can also connect us to community. Or at least slow the pace down.
It is a work-weary world, it seems, that keeps us too much out of nature and too much glued to the keyboards and the warm glow of our screens. In Ohio, we are quite enveloped in snow and a brisk chill, which I have been enjoying on my daily walks with the geese flying in the blue sky with great purpose. Tonight the edge of the chill is being taken off by the heater, as well as a log in the fireplace, which Leopold notes “is the sunlight that is now being released, through the intervention of my axe and saw, to warm my shack and my spirit through eighty gusts of blizzard. And with each gust a wisp of smoke from my chimney bears witness to whomsoever it may concern that the sun did not shine in vain.” He reminds us that we are connected and part of the land, that we will leave our mark on it one way or the other, with the axe and with footsteps we leave tracking across the snow.