“It must be a poor life that achieves freedom from fear.”
It’s been a difficult reading week, even before the events of Monday. I’ve picked books up and read a while and then put them back again, feeling restless and unsettled. And then, finally, I settled on this and when I read the line above it rippled with so many layers of meaning I had to put the book aside and think about it. What Leopold means is that we should not seek to extinguish sources of fear from our life, because a fearless life is a dead life. Imagine not having people we fear to lose, capabilities we fear to be wrested from. Imagine if life was so safe that we could never take a risk, never risk failure or joy. Leopold wasn’t thinking about terrorists, about the fear that spreads from one, incomprehensible act, but his words are true anyway. They have given me comfort in this difficult week, a week in which I have been trying to unpick connections – connections to the Manchester bombing of 1996 which destroyed my workplace, the bomb was parked outside the customer service department of my office; connections to taking my, then, 11 year old daughter to see Ariana Grande at the MEN Arena 2 years ago; connection to the dead: Georgina Callendar was studying at the same college as my son (and that word, was, is so small and yet so difficult to write here), Saffi Rose who lived just down the road – and find context and solace amongst them. I was not there, nothing has happened to me or my family and for that I am grateful. And yet I cannot help but empathise with those affected by those terrible events. And I have shed a tear or two, and the victims – including their families and loved ones – deserve my tears. I have been into Manchester and the city is strange, quiet and reflective and yet there is an undercurrent of love, kindness and consideration. It is reported in the news as ‘quiet defiance’ and yet that, too, is a simplification. I don’t read defiance in what I’ve seen and experienced. I feel a city, a set of people who relate to the city, that is wounded, that is taking the time needed to heal and to reflect of what healing means. Because whether or not it is spoken, the bomber was a Mancunian too and we have to ask ourselves why he did not feel so connected that he could not bring himself to commit such a terrible act. There are no excuses, no justifications for what has happened, but there are things we can do differently to minimise the chances in the future. It’s too early, I think, to draw any conclusions, things are still too raw and people need time to grieve and to reflect and it’s imperative that we respect that, but another line of Leopold’s gives, perhaps, a route-map for a better future: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
The community of land is the focus of Aldo Leopold’s book. Leopold is a famed conservationist, one of the first in the US, and his book is the template, a jumping off point, for many in the conservationist movement. The book itself is split into three sections: the first ‘a sand county almanac’ chronicles a year spent at Leopold’s farm, living in community with the local wildlife. Here Leopold focuses on the cycle of life around him, reflecting on the history of farms in the area and why his farm is considered a ‘poor’ one, and the impact of farming as an economic activity on biodiversity. This segment is a beautiful reflection of life on a small holding, encompassing such lovely passages as this:
“The wind that makes music in November corn is in a hurry. The stalks hum, the loose husks whisk skyward in half-playful swirls, and the wind hurries on.
In the marsh, long, windy waves surge across the grassy sloughs, beat against the far willows. A tree tries to argue, bare limbs waving, but there is no detaining the wind.
On the sandbar there is only wind, and the river sliding seaward. Every wisp of grass is drawing circles on the sand. I wander over the bar to a driftwood log, where I sit and listen to the universal roar, and to the tinkle of wavelets on the shore. The river is lifeless: not a duck, heron, marsh-hawk, or gull that has sought refuge from the wind.”
Leopold is, perhaps, the first writer to posit the idea that technological ‘progress’ does not necessarily bring progress, that perhaps it can take us away from the things that give life meaning and joy. He is not a blind detractor of technology – no luddite here – but rather he asks the question ‘is it worth the cost’, does the technology, the industrialisation of ecology, add benefit to the ‘community’ of the land or does it seek to allow humans merely to exploit it for commercial or economic gain. He questions entirely the way that people see land as something to be owned, to which they have a ‘right’ but not, necessarily, a ‘responsibility’. Thus he questions the extermination of predators for the gains of the hunting economy, and the extermination of mammalian ‘pests’ only to be replaced with insect ones, all of which require more chemicals, more shot, more poisons to exterminate. He questions the wisdom of governments when implementing policy which confers rights and leaves the question of responsibility open, and he questions the wisdom of ‘adulthood’ which is so focused on one aspect of life, of the ‘values’ of life, often at the expense of a richer experience:
“When I call to mind my earliest impressions, I wonder whether the process ordinarily referred to as growing up is not actually a process of growing down; whether experience, so much touted among adults as the things children lack, is not actually a progressive dilution of the essentials by the trivialities of living.”
The second part of the book ‘sketches here and there’ are a collection of essays focused on particular habitats or locations, and the third part, perhaps the most powerful part for me, is called ‘the upshot’ and this is a more philosophical approach to the idea of conservation, the ‘upshot’ of all Leopold’s observations and musings being a kind of manifesto for a better approach to conservation. It seems that Leopold’s words have been heeded to a degree (certainly by some, if you believe how land-keeping is portrayed on Countryfile) whereby land-owners are beginning to focus more on the community of their land, retaining space for birds and wildlife, for wildflowers and native species all of which have helped to create the environment from which an economic benefit can be yielded. Yet on the other end of the scale we still see intensive farming which strips the land of every richness and, perhaps, affects the quality of the crops. It has made me think again about the value of organic farming, of producing fewer but better quality crops that sustain the viability of the land for the exploitation which is inevitable and allow the community of wildlife to flourish. Perhaps we all need less, but better quality foodstuffs. The question remains a complex one.
A Sand Country Almanac didn’t quite pack the punch of a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or a Living Mountain, but it is a lovely and important book and I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I read it this week because in a time of great incomprehensibility it has helped me shape my thoughts back to a sense of ‘community’ and the idea of co–operation as a force as necessary and as powerful as competition. Perhaps if enough of us can take that message to heart, to spread it by demonstrating it in our lived lives, we can all find a way to live as a co-operative community which meets the needs of all of its members, peaceably and respectfully and with the sanctity of life cradled at its core.