Living with wilderness: Nature, food and us

03/28/2013

This year’s Geography of Hope conference was a celebration of the life of Aldo Leopold, best known for a slim volume, A Sand County Almanac, first published in 1949. In the introductory talk, poet Robert Haas recited a Japanese haiku—“Lighting one candle/ With another candle/ An evening of spring”—that became a theme for the conference and, like Leopold’s work, the subject of a variety of interpretations by the conference’s more than two-dozen speakers.

Throughout his life Leopold developed what he called “the nature ethic.” He explained that for him, “All ethics rested on a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.” To postulate a land ethic, he broadened the scope of community beyond the common definition as an aggregation of human beings. He proposed that, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, water, plants and animals, or collectively: the land.” While he acknowledged that “a land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence and at least in some spots, their continued existence in a natural state.” At that time, and to some extent today, land was principally understood to be an economic resource. Leopold’s formulation of a land ethic helped to create the conceptual underpinnings for the 20th century conservation movement.

Point Reyes Books’ latest conference attempted to reexamine the nature ethic and update it for the 21st century—Leopold’s candle lighting a new candle for our time. Conference participants were invited to “examine Leopold’s legacy as a foundation for hope and for future conservation ideas and action in working landscapes, wilderness areas, forests farms and ranches.” During six panel discussions, rival concepts emerged of where the conservation movement should focus. Some felt future efforts should be devoted to identifying “the empty spaces on the map,” which in some instances meant preserving undeveloped landscapes and ridding other places of human inhabitants, their shelter and paraphernalia (with limited exceptions for aboriginals who have not accepted modern practices and mechanical equipment). Huey Johnson, founder of the Trust for Public Lands and secretary of resources during Jerry Brown’s first term as governor, was the most outspoken proponent of this view.

Other participants had a different take on the priorities for the environmental movement in the 21st century. J. Baird Callicott, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics, declared that, “the concept of wilderness is a colonial idea” and that the word “wilderness” does not exist in Spanish or other languages. For him the concept is “a tool of colonization that erases people who are being dispossessed.”

Michael Howard spoke about his a project to remove lead and other toxic material from an illegal dump site in his Chicago neighborhood and transform it into “Eden Place,” a setting where youngsters and other community members could create and enjoy the new green landscaping.

Michelle Stevens offered another alternative. She is the executive director of Hima Mesopotamia, a startup program dedicated to restoring the health of human and natural ecosystems in the Tigris-Euphrates watershed, in southern Iraq. The Marsh Arabs who live there were subjected to genocide during Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the marshes were drained. Hima’s objective is to encourage traditional practices that will restore the ecology of the area. Although it was not a principal topic of her presentation, she made a special effort to speak out in support of oyster cultivation in Drakes Estero.

But Stevens’ defense of the oyster farm was an exception. For the most part, the controversy over Drake’s Bay Oyster Company was the elephant in the room—or, in this case, the elephant seal in Toby’s Feed Barn. Leopold’s legacy offered little specific guidance to resolve this controversy or many others like it throughout the world (although he championed wilderness areas, Leopold also worked hard to restore depleted farmland through sound ecological practices).

Explicit recognition of the oyster farm dispute came only when Gary Paul Nabham, who moderated the concluding session, noted that there were good people on both sides of the debate and that he hoped a solution could be reached that would satisfy all parties. He asked the participants in the conference to acknowledge his statement by rising and observing a period of silence, which the audience did.

Whether Leopold’s candle lit a new candle for our time is yet unclear. Yes, there was a thorough examination of the man’s legacy, and many exemplary ideas were offered about what is needed to save, or at least enhance, the environment. In coming years organizers would do well to schedule fewer presenters and allow more give and take among panelists, and more time for audience questions and discussion. But first: Will there be another Geography of Hope? At the conclusion of previous years’ conferences, bookstore owner Steve Costa announced he was not going to do it again. This year he made no such promise.