Tracking Leopold: The Golden Rule and Ecological Consciousness


Several modern day injunctions find their roots in the work of Aldo Leopold. Thinking Like A Mountain, which was a natural progression of thought stemming from his fellow Wisconsinite John Muir, is one worth bearing mention, while the other is the Land Ethic; a piece of writing that has become a classic within environmental literature.

The nub of this idea entails the extension of ethics (moral principles governing social behaviors) from the human social realm to include the land, or biota. Seen, in essence, as a limitation upon our freedom of action, Leopold perceived the ‘land ethic’ as an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity, and as the only way for the “land to survive the impact of mechanized man.”

I started ruminating once again upon these pearls of wisdom from Leopold when I recently took notice of a work initiative, called The Golden Rule Project, to which two friends from Utah have been dedicating themselves. Bonnie Phillips and Steffan Soule, a professional magician, have been addressing the rising concern of bullying within our schools through a program that links the Golden Rule concept (treating others as you would have them treat you) to magic. Within this brilliant presentation Steffan makes note that while magic involves making the invisible visible, the magical effects of adhering to the Golden Rule begins with, and is dependent upon, our use of attention to drive that process. Something very challenging to conjure these days it appears from all that is heard concerning attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Magical things do indeed start to happen in life when payment of attention is made, or brought into our present moment. Who amongst us has not witnessed the wide-eyed wonder of a child when a wee bit of magic calls forth their attention, and wonder, to the moment at hand?

In his landmark essay Leopold astutely relates how the Golden Rule integrates an individual to society, while democracy integrates the social organization to the individual. It would seem to follow then, that as a Land Ethic would hold the possibility of integrating the individual to the land, so too, as potential, would an ecological consciousness obligate individual action to the self-renewing, life sustaining, principles of the land.

Given the assumption that Man and Nature are one, an ecological consciousness would imply the consciousness of oneself co-existing harmoniously with a consciousness of the environment – or the possibility perhaps? Leopold reminds us that “the evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process”, and that, “by and large our present problem is one of attitudes and implements.”  (“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.”)

It’s our behavior that we need to watch and become aware of then. And if, for the sake of understanding the condition of our existence, we think of consciousness analogously to the electromagnetic spectrum (and the narrow band of visible light whereby we witness the phenomenal world to the stage of development where we become aware of the need to understand ourselves, as well as the world in which we live), we could easily say that we truly need to see the light!

In his day (1949), Leopold recognized that there was of yet no recognition of obligation to the land beyond self-interest (economic interests). Can we say that things have improved any during these past 70 years? I think, in respect to scale, the problems we face today may be much worse, thus demanding even greater levels of attention.

Leopold reminds us that “obligations have no meaning without conscience”, which cannot be merely a government oversight task. It must exist within the individual as something we can “see, feel, understand, love, and have faith in.” To this end Leopold utilizes the image of the biotic pyramid, with each successive layer, or tier, in the pyramid dependent upon the tier below for food, and each species within each layer being alike by what they eat (food chains). Leopold interestingly considers that man shares an intermediate layer, along with bears, raccoons, and squirrels, leaving a key question unasked by Leopold in his essay, which is, assuming we do not sit upon the pinnacle, what feeds upon Man?

Leopold believes that the ‘balance of nature’ image fails to serve our thinking, with the biotic pyramid being better employed, where each layer or level within the pyramid is best imaged, not by any inherent form, but by what an organism eats. “Each species, including ourselves, is a link in many chains.” A very potent thought to entertain, andleopold which brings me to a remembrance of the Thanksgiving Prayer of the Haudenosaunee people, and an image of prayers and wishes of wholeness serving as nourishment (food) for Ecological Consciousness. A Native American waymark spiriting us in the direction of greater attentiveness toward the creation, and the “words to be spoken before all else” are of human thanks and gratitude. A seemingly upside down image as, in our current culture, thanks is usually given after one receives a gift – not before, and unfortunately, often not at all.

Leopold tells us that “the velocity and character of the upward flow of energy (within this pyramid system) depend on the complex structure of the plant and animal community, much like the upward flow of sap in a tree depends on its complex cellular organization”, and that the energy circuit moves both ways; all pointing to an up & down ladder of phenomena where feedback loops point toward a dance of reciprocal maintenance as the main plot of the cosmic story.

Leopold perceives that our most serious obstacle to an evolving land ethic is that we have no vital relationship to it. Unfortunately, he says, we have “outgrown it”, while at the same time pondering if our educational system has become “a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?” When he sadly proclaims that “our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land”, I begin to realize why we need to get out onto the land and experience it. For this reason, the act of walking, as an actual interfacing with the land, is an act of participation; participatory involvement with the processes that give shape, as well as meaning, to our experience within the land. If we take on the guise of Thoreau’s “walker” (as caste and/or order of being), or what I would equate with the “tracker” (and the tracker’s mind) we might be so graced to gain a glimpse of this dance called reciprocal maintenance.

If it does become a problem of attitude, and that we truly are in need of a more objective view of land health, it requires a new way of seeing the world, or a new vantage point on our part. Thinking more like a mountain perhaps serves as a good analogy, where, as Leopold so aptly reminds us, “a land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological consciousness, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land”. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.” The human recognition of the obligatory need to understand the laws involved with maintaining such health is tracking; the tracker’s mind which we must invoke in order for the obligation to be worth striving for. A process where the invisible becomes increasingly more visible, and the sense of wonder opens us to following a very different track from that which characterizes our ecological footprint today. Following that track could bring me back to myself, or perhaps a re-membering of who we are, or who we truly could be.

The Land as community is a basic concept of ecology. Perhaps, as Leopold reminds us, “such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free.” The journey of getting to that very different vantage point of experiencing the truth of this obligatory striving toward the Golden Rule is a longwalk worth undertaking. Journeys where we too may start thinking like a mountain.

The Biotic View

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