Two weeks ago we finally visited the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center in nearby Fort Davis. The nature center is home to the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, a nonprofit organization founded in 1974. The nature center sits on 507 acres in the Davis Mountains and offers opportunities for travelers to experience the flora and fauna characteristic to the Chihuahuan Desert. Along with hiking trails, the center has a cactus and succulent greenhouse and a botanical garden.
We ventured out on a Saturday morning to join our friend, Jeremiah, the priest for Marfa’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, for a contemplative hike. Jeremiah combined parts of the Modesta Canyon and Outside Loop trails to lead us on a 2 mile hike. Along the way we stopped to listen to Jeremiah read passages from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and John Muir’s Nature Writings. It was a beautiful morning, if a little windy, but made all the more complete when ruminating on beautiful ideas about nature while being amidst such gorgeous scenery.
I’ll let the photographs and some of the passages from our hike speak for themselves. I’ve cut some of the passages short for the sake of this post, however, if you are moved by the truth and beauty in their words, I urge you to read both of their works more extensively.
One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.
A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.
A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.
The geese that proclaim the seasons to our farm are aware of many things, including the Wisconsin statutes. The southbound November flocks pass over us high and haughty, with scarcely a honk of recognition for their favorite sandbars and sloughs. ‘As a crow flies’ is crooked compared with their undeviating aim at the nearest big lake twenty miles to the south, where they loaf by day on broad waters and filch corn by night from the freshly cut stubbles. November geese are aware that every marsh and pond bristles from dawn till dark with hopeful guns.
March geese are a different story. Although they have been shot at most of the winter, as attested by their buckshot-battered pinions, they know that the spring truce is now in effect. They wind the oxbows of the river, cutting low over the now gunless points and islands, and gabbling to each sandbar as to a long-lost friend. They weave low over the marshes and meadows, greeting each newly melted puddle and pool. Finally, after a few pro-forma circlings of our marsh, they set wing and glide silently to the pond, black landing-gear lowered and rumps white against the far hill. Once touching water, our newly arrived guests set up a honking and splashing that shakes the last thought of winter out of the brittle cattails. Our geese are home again!
It is at this moment of each year that I wish I were a muskrat, eye-deep in the marsh (Leopold, 18-19).
There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.
To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the weekend in town astride a radiator (Leopold, 6).
The great wilderness of Alaska, with its lofty mountains laden with glaciers and snow, its deep in-reaching fiords and flowery plains, and its boundless wealth of evergreen forests and islands, and shining, singing waters, offers a glorious field for lovers of fountain beauty, much of which is now within easy reach of the ordinary traveler.
The trip by steamer from Puget Sound to the head of the Alexander Archipelago is perfectly enchanting. Leaving scientific interests entirely out of the count, no excursion that I know may be made into any other portion of the wilds of America where so much fine and grand and novel scenery is so freely unfolded to view. Gazing from the deck of the steamer one is borne smoothly over calm blue waters, on and on through the midst of a thousand islands densely clothed with well-watered evergreens. The common discomforts of a sea-voyage are not felt, because the way is through a network of sheltered channels that are usually about as free as rivers are from heaving waves, and were it not for the brimy odor in the air and the strip of brown algae seen at low tide on either shore, it would be difficult to realize that we are sailing on salt ocean water; we seem rather to be tracing a succession of inland glacier-lakes. Day after day we float in the heart of true fairyland, each succeeding view seeming more and more beautiful.
Never, before making this trip, have I found myself embosomed in scenery so hopelessly beyond description. To sketch picturesque bits definitely bounded is comparatively an easy task – a lake in the woods, a glacier meadow, a cascade in its fell, or even a grand mountain landscape beheld from some clear outlook after climbing from height to height through veiling forests, these may be attempted and some picture more or less telling made of them; for in them we find place for beginnings, starting from which we may make efforts that we may hope to conclude. But in this web of scenery embroidering the northern coast there is such indefinite expansiveness, so great a multitude of features without any redundance that may be slighted or left out, so varied and at the same time so similar, their lines graduating delicately into one another in endless succession; while the whole is so fine, so tender, so ethereal in light and shade, that any pen-work seems coarse and unavailing. Tracing the shining ways through sound and strait, past forest and waterfall, island and mountain and far azure headland, it seems as if we must surely at length reach the very paradise of poets, the abode of the blessed (Muir, 649-50).
A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.
Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.
Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.
My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view (Leopold, 129-130).
All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.
This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skleter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. 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 spots, their continued existence in a natural state.
In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such (Leopold, 203-4).
References for quotations:
Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.
Muir, John. Nature Writings. New York City: Library of America, 1997. Print.