Tracking Thoreau & Leopold, by Keith Badger

A trail toward a Golden Rule, a Land Ethic, and real magic

My most drawn-upon pieces of writing while working with adolescents over the past several decades have been Walden (1854), by Henry David Thoreau, and A Sand County Almanac (1949), by Aldo Leopold. Both embody invaluable keys toward drawing out the unique genius of youth and bringing into sharper focus one’s aim and purpose relative to our human journey. A journey requiring both a sense of self and sense of place and historically acquired via the vision quest or rite-of-passage. I have heard most youth crying for such a vision and quest, and I am alarmed that the adult obligation to provide it is forgotten in any critique of modern education. The cost of such negligence is witnessed by the rampant loss of civility within our culture, as well as by the current plight of the Earth regarding climate change.

The youthful aim and purpose of such vision quests or passages boil down to two perennial questions: “Who am I?” and “What am I to do with this life of mine?” Questions that organically reverberate and echo loudly for youth, whisking them into the arena of personal identity and the theater of life. Questions that are evocative of the quest, alluring in their call toward mystery and adventure, and which lead to a form and function of personal identity and life purpose—the required ballast for navigating a responsible life. Sadly, this mythic call to such adventure is often unheeded or unheard.

Tracking out these keys from Thoreau and Leopold to their mythic “life map” purpose may tell a more intimate story regarding the relationship among these two perennial questions, the Golden Rule, and a Land Ethic. They offer far more than an alternative map, in that they may be a reconciling, even magical, roadmap for navigating education’s future and our present dilemma.

Walden stands preeminently as a testament to Thoreau’s recognition of the need to create one’s myth, and what should be one lawful outcome of an obligatory rite-of-passage experience for youth. How else but through such devoted time and discipline to such experience can youth discover the sense of “I” in both its outer and inner dimensions? It is the “Genius” and deeper ‘sense of self’ that Thoreau wished to wake up to; a newly acquired force, an aspiration from within that affects the quality of the day, which he deems “the highest of arts.” It is the “awakening hour” where there is “the least somnolence in us” and where we reinstate “the heroic ages” of man’s journey to elevate his/her life by conscious endeavor.

Walden is a recognized classic, yet both its means and end toward self-discovery need greater inclusion within contemporary American culture if education is to succeed in servicing youth well. Thoreau reminds us that “we are constantly invited to be what we are,” and why all youth need their own Walden experience. If bereft of any real understanding of who we are when reaching responsible age, such as invoked in the inscription “Know Thyself” above the entrance to the temple at Delphi, how will we ever be able to understand others as invoked by the timeless Golden Rule?

The greatest gift coming from the struggle to ‘know thyself’ lies within the wealth of relationships we are then opened to by living life large, and the bonds of love that magically bring dimension to such relations. That rites-of-passage are not part and parcel of any piece of curriculum design or obligatory fulfillment necessary or required in navigating the hallways of educational institutions or working around the economic Monopoly board speaks loudly to our loss of civility. When the focus of the educational journey remains solely upon personal success, the “fake it ‘til you make it” rush to the top negates this gift’s normalizing response of obligation and reciprocity. Within such an isolating and lonely position, the wealth of possibility governing the realms of relationship are forgotten. How right youth are when they point to the world of adults and cry “no future!”

Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, a likewise recognized classic, ultimately leaves us with a question that may be the most pertinent and immediate question we find ourselves waking up to today—the climate change/crisis. A question having to do with our understanding of the concept of “place” and how that understanding (Land Ethic) may represent evolutionary possibilities. Place, as an ecological concept, involves an understanding of “state,” those places we occupy inwardly and outwardly, and “station,” an organism’s role, niche, or function within the theater of life. Leopold’s classic read, as with Walden, leaves a rich trail to follow and is worth a closer read given our current environmental crisis.

Leopold (1887-1948), though lesser known, is considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system. He was a conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, writer, and outdoor enthusiast. Heavily influenced by the Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky, who tackled these same enigmas of thought in his Tertium Organum, Leopold directed his critique of modern educational and economic thought to their roots within our psychological makeup. How we are trained to think (or not) is the nub of the Land Ethic concept that Leopold evolves, entailing the extension of the Golden Rule from the human social realm to include the land. The man-nature dichotomy at the roots of a market economy, where we have no sense of relationship to the land beyond our concept of it as property, inevitably results in a story of opposition and polarization as compared to reconciliation, relationship, and survival. A story often referred to today as the “Tragedy of the Commons,” or what Leopold referred to as “the impact of mechanized man.

Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp. Frederick Edwin Church, 1895. Oil on canvas. Portland [Maine] Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons. Author: Daderot

To best fathom the gist of Thoreau and Leopold’s literary testaments, I would point to Thoreau’s third chapter of Walden, “Reading.” Here he draws our attention to the necessity of a required deliberateness in our reading, while eloquently warning of the dawning modern era and its resulting “dullness of sight” when reading becomes mechanical.

Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing, yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.

When not attentive to the mythic, or “high sense,” we are prone to “a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties.” Thoreau calls for an attentive mind when reading what he calls “heroic books” and I agree. Books of a mythic nature, as in keeping with the instructional nature of all myth lore, treating the cardinal questions of “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” as fundamental to the hero’s and heroine’s journey. 

So, with Thoreau’s injunction in mind, let us look more closely at Leopold’s classic to discern what keys to higher thinking he breathed into it while witnessing the trivialities Thoreau so eloquently warns us of with the dawning modern era. Not easy as this requires an evolution in our thinking as well as in our reading if any educational nourishment is ever to be gained!

Although the Land Ethic is the culminating gem within the book, much requires close inspection. In the original edition, there are three parts. The first carries the book’s name (A Sand County Almanac) and is Leopold’s yearly almanac of the Wisconsin year as observed from the rag-tag farm on the banks of the Round River. Fondly referred to as “The Shack”—the family’s “weekend refuge from too much modernity”—it solidly invites and establishes the need for a grounding within natural history and the laws governing ecological processes. A cultivated view and understanding of Mother Nature gained via attentive observation over time would serve us all well if nurtured as an educational obligation. A sense of place, where Nature’s economy is witnessed as a gift economy, becoming mythically a “second mother” in our human story.

We are growing up disconnected to nature and nurture and behold in consequence this human sin of inadvertence. A sobering thought when considering that our current knowledge and understanding of the physical places we call home find most youth unable to recognize or name five species of plants or animals that share these same places, or to explain how and where the food they consume daily makes its way from. When most can recognize more than fifty corporate logos, it is easier to understand why the world burns. With so little or no mental image of the land, Leopold reminds us that “we can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Leopold feared in his day that we may have “outgrown the land.” Today, the further concern is if we are also “loving it to death.”

The book’s second part draws from all the years of Leopold’s musings over the meaning and value of nature’s story, so patiently unfolded to and shared with him, and his perceived obligatory role within that unfolding drama. The active working of an attentive mind to what his long-term exposure to natural process unfolded—the evolutionary need of the mind’s husbandry to Nature’s gift. Two exceptional essays are “Red Legs Kicking” and “Thinking Like a Mountain.” Both involve Leopold’s passion for hunting and the challenge of the hunt. The hunt in search of what ultimately is in keeping with Thoreau’s cultivation of a “higher sense,” where the reinstatement of “the heroic ages” of humanity’s journey truly elevates our lives by conscious endeavor.

“Red Legs Kicking” focuses upon hunting and ethics, where hunting is synonymous with attention. Leopold ponders whether the modern concept of our “growing up” is more a growing down by trivialities diluting the more essential. His clearest impression of the hunt has not been improved upon after sixty years. The exhilarating nature of being on the quest of game, guided by an ethic, was pure. The patience drawn out of Leopold, as he describes the event, was governed by his father’s premise that a real hunter never shot a standing treed bird; one must, in the name of fair play, take only a bird on the wing. Such skill required the necessary time, practice, and patience to develop if one wished to live up to that hunter’s premise of not “missing the mark,” which was tantamount to sin.

This essay by extension leads to “Thinking Like a Mountain,” where Leopold experiences an epiphany like Thoreau’s as described in his The Maine Woods (1864). Thoreau’s experience of the land and its mysteries finds him thinking about human life in nature, and that contact with nature brings him to the key questions of “Who are we?” and “Where are we?” In “Thinking Like a Mountain Leopold invites us back to “growing up” in our cognition with his utterance that “only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.” Here Leopold is remembering, during his professional career as a forester, when official policy felt that fewer wolves would mean more deer and the thought of passing up a chance to kill a wolf was never countenanced. He and his fellow workers found themselves pumping lead into a pack of wolves they saw in a canyon below. He reached an old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. He realized then, and knew ever since, that there was something new to him in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Perhaps, Leopold says, this is the meaning behind Thoreau’s dictum, “In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.” A higher point within us, requiring training, skill development, and practice to ascend to that place by effort.

Part three of A Sand County Almanac, “The Upshot,” is Leopold’s reconciliation of his head and heart. With what his heart perceived, and his head directed, the Land Ethic essay represents the mythic “higher sense” that we may all come to if we were to hear that call of conscience within us. It speaks but we do not hear yet. My own conviction is that our fate is intricately embedded within these questions relating to a sense of self and place in myriad ways. Without much time to ponder these perennial questions of youth, no longer will any real quest be embodied within the questions which serve an education designed to draw us out.  But if we were to cultivate the required skills of observation, we too may see the real magic that exists right before our very eyes.

This excerpt appears in our Winter 2021-22 issue, “The Golden Rule.” Purchase the issue here

By Keith Badger

Keith Badger is a tracker, naturalist, educator, and writer.