Living as if the earth mattered

Humans are remarkably short-sighted.  Our culture and economy both tend to pull us toward decisions that benefit us in the short-run without ever examining what is best for us and those around us in the long-run.  In order to be even close to sustainable, we have to develop ways to see this long run and to see the world around us, taking both into decision-making.

For class today, we read Derrick Jensen’s “Playing for Keeps” from Orion Magazine.  Yet again, he was saying about the same ideas that I was reading about separately in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.  (This seems to happen a lot.)

Jensen says we need to live in a relationship with the land, and Leopold says in a community with the land.  For both, this starts with listening to and seeing the world around us.  If we see the world around us as a world of objects for us to act on, then we will proceed to destroy it because we have no special tie with random objects.  Rather, if we see all around us as being important and unique – each bird that wakes at a different hour in the morning, each flower that first blooms at a different week of the year – that becomes something important to us.  And if its important, we will act to keep it whole and beautiful.

So, how can we do this:  (all a muddle of Jensen, Leopold, and me)

1) Look down.  We’ve all been told to look up when we walk, but if you look down you will see any number of leaves, worms, flowers, things you come into direct contact with.  Things you could step on or pick up – where your actions make an immediate difference.

2) Think about yourself as living 1000 years.  Are you treating your world (and yourself) as if you were going to last?  Would you choose to buy organic?  Buy less?  Would you choose to write a letter to Congress?  To attend a city council meeting?  Do anything to preserve what we have?

3) Know when the geese fly over.  If you live in one of the many areas of this earth over which the geese fly north in the spring and south in the fall, learn when this happens.  Knowing some basic movements of the earth’s year is an important step towards beginning to see how the earth operates and how we operate with it.

4) Think of everything as alive.  Life means value.  If we see trees and trout and soil as having life, then they are worthy of existing just because they exist.

5)  Listen.  Crack the window when you lay in bed at night.  Turn off the TV, the radio, the fan.  What is out there?  Insects, frogs, birds?  Can you tell?  Do you now have a winter silence?  How will that change in three months?  Is this sound something that is worth trying to protect?  Or, is the only sound you hear your neighbor’s radio and passing traffic?  What is it worth to you to get some real night sound back?

6)  Touch things.  When you were young, you were told not to touch things.  (Don’t tough that worm, don’t touch that burr, they’re dirty.)  Go on a walk and for once touch every natural (or semi-natural) thing you run across.  It’s amazing what adding a new sense to the menu can do.

7)  Make Friends.  Do what my husband does – buy some sunflower seed and cracked corn for some of the life that surrounds us.  Do what I do and plant some native plants for food and shelter for the same critters.  Their initial habitat may be gone (or they may be far from it), but in its absence we can create a new habitat the works for both us and them.

8)  Add a value in something other than money.  When we price things with an abstract commodity, we lose the tie to any real value.  Select something of value – perhaps a grilled cheese sandwich – and go around and try to price things using that currency.  You may find you have very different values than are reflected by our society in general.

9) Write a song about it, or paint it, or write a poem.  Take time to involve yourself in what you are experiencing.  It doesn’t have to be a good song.

10)   Breathe.  Step outside, fine a place to sit down, and just breathe for about 15 minutes.  If you are having a problem listening, this will tune in your antennae.

Photo courtesy of Shae Davidson


We all here about the role of individuals in our society – heck, individualism is supposed to be part of the American way as we each step out to make our own lives in the big world.  However, that got me thinking that if I am an INdividual, then there must be an opposite, a dividual.

There is: a dividual is a person who contains within him or herself the community to which they belong.  So, the separate parts of us are individual, but the joined parts of us are dividual.  We lean on each other and they lean on us and this means something deep inside of us.  A dividual is something that is cut into small pieces and shared among everyone.  And dividual keeps popping up on my spell check, which troubles me because we all know the first word and the separate part of ourselves, but not the second part and the joined part of our selves.  Dividual used to be a word that was utilized by our society regularly, which tells me that the concept was used more back then as well.

Dividualism is a sustainable concept.  We all take part in the same environment, the same community.  We share the good things and bad things that happen through it.  I cannot back out on receiving my dividual share of air pollution, not even if I wanted to.  But, I also have a dividual share of a warm spring day and the song of robins.  Mostly, the word dividual tells me to share, to perform the acts that make me dividual, that strengthen and improve my ties to others – and with that improve our environment and our community.

The book I lose the most

You can tell how good a book is by how quickly you give your copy away.  And, how fast you rush out to buy a new one.

Several students have walked out of my office with copies of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1966).  A couple of weeks later, I find I just need to read a section of it and head out to buy another copy.  I’m always looking for copies at used book stores, thrift stores, and library book sales – so I can stock up some in my office to lose them again.

While I love the major philosophical points of these essays – that we are part of the environment, it is part of us, and because of this land is a social issue and not an economic one. These are not my favorite parts of the book.

No, I love it because it presents tangibility and hope in our relationship to the environment.  “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”  When I read about mundane tasks such as splitting wood or watching migrating geese, it gives me hope that there are some small ways I can make a difference.

And, whenever I lose the book, I know that someone else is making a difference as well.

If I cannot put a copy in your hands, and you cannot find or afford one on your own, please visit some of these places online that are dedicated to preserve Leopold’s work and thoughts:

Thinking Like a Mountain

Discussion Guide for Sand County Almanac

Excerpts from the Works of Aldo Leopold

University of Wisconsin Digital Collections – Aldo Leopold Archives

The Aldo Leopold Foundation

Thank you Aldo.