Something within us loves the land. Sees gentle hills, undulating dunes, and toothlike mountaintops bright-lit at dusk and responds with deep delight. And not just to the look of the land, but to the feel of it. How it is to sit on a stony beach, recline in a blooming field, or plunge hands into the warm soil of summer. Such practices are essential for our sanity, to tap us into wild currents of energy without which we would wither.
These endeavors are also necessary for the health of the earth. Only when we’re disconnected from the land can we remain unaware of how we abuse our common home: carving it up, imposing monoculture and rectangular grids. Humans out of touch with the land excel in paving, damming, and digging up everything in sight, and then learning too late, if at all, of the consequences.
Not merely soil, the land is alive, and it thrives and suffers, neither infinitely lavish nor inexhaustible. Rivers run dry, forests are felled, and species die, aided by callused human hands. If we wish to counter the environmental terrors that face our planet, we must begin by fostering awareness and acknowledging harm. When we’re aware of how our actions affect the land, the lives of all who live on it are less likely to be imperiled. The more attuned we are to the vital connections that keep our system alive, the less likely we are to make bad decisions about using it.
Land use is right “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise,” asserts Aldo Leopold in his seminal 1949 environmental tract, A Sand County Almanac. The Iowa-born conservationist proposed a new, healthy land ethic that would involve changing humans’ relationship to the land from conquerors to community-focused citizens of the earth. One can be ethical, he writes, “only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”
Now is the time to revisit Leopold’s cautionary words and look with clear eyes at the “world of wounds” he described, and just how wounded it has become: forest clear-cuts, erosion, mountaintop removal, farmland turned to condos, and widespread, growing losses of species—a result of thinking of the land as ever-bountiful. Imagine a world without butterflies, without birdsong, without elephants and tigers. Picture a planet without glaciers, snow, and clean water.
We need to read and write and think. And then we must act (and, when appropriate, refrain from acting). We must open our eyes and dirty our hands. Get down to earth and humble ourselves. Let’s go outside and look around. Are we tourists here, or residents? Whose land is it? How many lives can it sustain? Who owns it? Maybe nobody does. Maybe we all do.
Read about it. A Sand County Almanac is a good place to start. But also: Eric Freyfogle’s Bounded People, Boundless Lands; Terry Tempest Williams’ Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert; Winona LaDuke’s All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life; and John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra.
Know words used to describe it. Cutbank. Drumlin. Moraine. Chaparral. Check out a copy of Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (reviewed in the May-June 2007 issue of Utne Reader).
Know its history. Who built the structure you live in, and when? Who lived there before you? What flowers flourished? “What better expresses land than the plants that originally grew on it?” Leopold asks.
Know who lives there now. It’s not just you. Not just your wingless biped neighbors and their cats and dogs, not just the gray squirrels and catalpa trees, or the deer and Douglas firs. Find out what insects and spiders live in your yard (and house), what weeds and worms, what lichens and moss. Become an amateur bryologist.
Know it in parts. Invest in a magnifying lens. Use it. Look at beetle antennae, lily stamens, grass roots. Examine parts of parts. Get really serious and use a microscope. What lives in pond water and grows in snow?
Know it in art. Take photos of the same location in different seasons, in different weather conditions, at different times of day. Invest in a set of colored pencils and use them. Enjoy the work of those who paint or painted the land.
Sleep on it. Camp out. The land is different at night.
Learn the phenology of the land. When do flowers blossom? When do foxes den? When do fruits form and ripen? Keep a nature journal about the times of recurring natural phenomena—and find the answers yourself.
Find something new on it. One never enters the same woods twice. Just because you have seen mountain and black-capped chickadees before doesn’t mean that there are no chestnut-backed chickadees to be discovered. Be prepared for stranger things.
Let it be. Some places don’t want humans dwelling on them. Desert is not the place for golf courses. Tundra is not the place for roads. Read John McPhee’s The Control of Nature about Los Angeles canyons, their debris flows, subsequent wildfires, and the ill-fated, hubristic human attempts to forestall the inevitable.
Help it be. At this stage in humans’ relationship with the earth, simply letting things alone will be fatal, like practicing only the Hippocratic oath—do no harm—when major medical attention is needed. Do some surgery: Identify and pull up invasive weeds, such as the spotted knapweed in my neck of the woods, tamarisk in canyon country, and buckthorn in south Minneapolis.
Support organizations working for healthy land. To name but two: the Trust for Public Land (www.tpl.org) and the Land Trust Alliance (www.lta.org).
Make your own maps. Put those colored pencils to use. Forget about the old borders. “At daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over,” Leopold writes. “It is not only boundaries that disappear, but also the thought of being bounded.”
Former Utne librarian Chris Dodge dwells in Kalispell, Montana.