A Review of Curt Meine’s Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work on the Occasion of Aldo Leopold’s 136th Birthday
One could tick off details about Aldo Leopold’s life—born January 11, 1887, in Burlington, Iowa; educated as a forester at Yale; worked for the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico and Arizona for roughly two decades; married Estella Bergere in October of 1912; accepted an appointment to the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1924; and, in 1935, came into possession of “the shack,” near Baraboo, along the Wisconsin River, a place that figures as a hub in A Sand County Almanac, and on which property he died, of an apparent heart attack, while fighting a grass fire on April 21, 1948. Leopold was 62 years old, famous and revered in some conservation circles, reviled in others. He was buried in Burlington.
Curt Meine’s biography—over 500 pages of text, not counting notes, bibliography, and index—is a slow-read page turner. It’s slow because it’s so packed with vivid information and insights. It’s a page turner for the same reasons—not only Leopold’s interesting life but also the multifaceted conservation movement in America from the late nineteenth-century until the time of his death.
But I don’t want to wander in (or try to tug the reader through) the exquisite wilderness of Meine’s exposition. It’s too big and gorgeous to summarize. Or, to put it differently, there’s a buried perception in Leopold’s evolving consciousness that I’d prefer to focus on. It has to do—it’s a subtle underground stream—with spirituality. That spirituality lies at the core of Aldo Leopold’s accrued perception and congealed convictions. Stated as simply as possible, it’s this:
Aldo Leopold’s famous compaction—“land as community to which we belong”—could be the epigraph for an emerging theology that’s in process of shifting its devotion from sky to earth. That shift from extraterrestrial to terrestrial is—for all the space talk in the media—the defining and decisive feature of spirituality in our time.
Leopold married a woman—Estella Bergere—from a landed family in New Mexico. She had strong Hispanic and Catholic roots, and he vowed never to interfere with his wife’s religious convictions or the eventual churching of their children—all five of them. And yet, not long before he died, Aldo’s daughter Estella seized an opportunity “to find out what was going on inside her father’s mind. She veered the conversation toward religion, a subject about which he still never spoke. Estella asked him point blank whether he believed in God. ‘He replied that he believed there was a mystical supreme power that guided the universe,’ Estella recalled. ‘But to him this power was not a personalized God. It was more akin to the laws of nature. He thought organized religion was all right for many people, but he did not partake of it himself, having left that behind him a long time ago. His religion came from nature, he said.’ [Son] Luna gave a similar assessment of his father’s spiritual beliefs. ‘I think he, like many of the rest of us, was kind of pantheistic.’”
Perhaps the word “pantheism” is a way to build a conceptual bridge from land as community to which we belong to an emerging theology that’s in the throes of shedding the halogen glow of the eternal extraterrestrial for the natural radiance of the evolving earthly. Spirituality is coming home to the village and down to Earth. We are still in the early stages of that arrival, but the gravity of its descent is growing.
The thing we mostly don’t get—or we get it only in confusing flashes and inadequate glimmers—is that the world we live in, in terms of human inventions and infrastructure, is a world that’s been built of psychic materials (both veneration for Civilization and a worshipful religious attitude toward an extraterrestrial god) that we affirm as spiritually superior if not supreme This is worshipfully true as regards religion and infused with heavenly Platonic Forms as regards the civil state. The globalization of these psychic materials—what Stephen Larsen in The Fundamentalist Mind calls the “crystallization of our pathology”—occurs with the transformation of the bulk of the world’s population from rural folk to urban civilized as “pagan” spiritualities are crushed.
Self-sustaining folk culture, for the first time in human evolution, is dead. Or at least severely wounded. When folk culture dies or dries up, the shift in certain qualities of consciousness moves from folk to civilized, from body to head, from rural to urban, from village self-provisioning to atomized consumerism, from the daily arc of the sun and moon to the electronic clock on the wrist. The world Aldo Leopold dreaded—what he called the industrialization of everything—now forces us to engage the necessary steps by which we might learn to live in a community in which we actually feel we belong, moving away from personal salvation and private wealth accumulation and toward the cooperative and communal. The excessively private and religiously personal are psychological restraints on this cultural transformation.
The shift from heaven anticipation to Earth presence (a shift that Global Crisis is forcing on us, irrespective of our convictions) is a hard row to hoe for people whose spiritual sensitivities have been conditioned heavenward by centuries of nearly unassailable religious indoctrination. This crystallizing conditioning is hard to shake. It’s both internal disposition and external institutionalization. As our realizations awake—and new understandings can be exhilarating—we are confronted with the need for an urgent downsizing and repurposing of institutions. Spiritual realizations compel political action.
There’s another layer here. As Curt Meine repeatedly documents, Aldo Leopold both welcomed and feared big government involvement in land ownership and management. He welcomed it for parks, forests, and big hunks of wilderness: blocks of land so important or immense that they needed protective, overarching governmental jurisdiction in a civilized society intent on the industrialization of everything.
On the other hand, it was precisely this civilized society that had, with astonishing historical speed, already trashed the landscape from sea to shining sea. In such a system, Leopold realized that conservation (in the fullest and broadest sense) could only be a living and cherished impulse if the people recognize, live, and do it. Government could protect; but, insofar as this protection was a shield against not only corporate rapaciousness but common greed and ecological stupidity, he understood that an enlightened citizenry was needed not only to honor and preserve that protection but deepen it in countless local and personal ways. Yes we need government oversight and regulation; but unless everyday, ordinary people love and cherish the land and landscape, government oversight will thin and become increasingly threadbare as it gives way to the impulses of private wealth and corporate appetite. That’s the grim trajectory of “democratic” consciousness in a civilized society fully saturated with the private consumption and corporate industrialization of everything. A major shift in conservation consciousness could slow and even reverse this trajectory; but politics without a change in consciousness was bound to be defensive. The older he got, the more Leopold realized the necessity of that shift in common consciousness—its necessity and its frustrating sluggishness.
And that’s why land as community to which we belong is the epigraph of an Earth-centered theology that’s slowly and even painfully recognizing how civilized it’s been—and mostly still is—and what a difficult and even humiliating step it is to kiss the feet and face of the earthy pagus (“country district”) we’ve been conditioned, by both civil and religious authority, to surpass and suppress, and which we treat with technological contempt and political condescension. Turning toward the welcoming embrace of pagus—for pagus does not hate or reject refugees from civis—is both liberating and deeply confessional. Liberation is linked to confession: recognizing the rapacious system we’re part of and whose First World benefits we’re so used to that we take our imperial lifestyles as normal and deserved.
Aldo Leopold saw all this. He saw it in his family’s life. But he’d vowed to keep his mouth shut about religion. He kept his vow. But a vow of silence did not stifle his perception. Perhaps that vow was even beneficial as a goad to sustained observation and accrued reflection. He saw how the whole structure worked, from top to bottom. He recognized that the necessary shift, while certainly psychological, rested on a spiritual condition with an associated economic ideology operating as a field of commercial ethics. Well, it may be impossible to know how clearly or how fully Leopold discerned the religious role of heaven in diminishing, dulling, and deadening the earthy folk consciousness of the indigenous and peasant. Or how the extraterrestrial model provided a template for skyscraper utopianism as the industrial ideology of the world.
Aldo Leopold not only loved wilderness as a cultural and spiritual necessity for human wholeness, he experienced wilderness in Mexican mountains so devoid of human presence or civilized meddling that, with his decades of ecological perception and spiritual sensitivities, he recognized a self-sustaining organism of coherent ecological evolution. He got to “Gaia” decades before James Lovelock gave our battered earthly organism the name of an old Greek goddess. Leopold actually saw it and felt it and wrote about it. He called it a “vast pulsing harmony.”
Mutually Assured Destruction and Anthropocene Extinctions should be telling us that civilization—which is not too big to fail—is cracking up simultaneously with its derangement of Earth’s ecology and folk cultures. Arnold J. Toynbee, in his Civilization on Trial, said Civilization runs on two diseased, ironclad legs of Class and War, and that no civilization to date has ever chosen to cure those diseases with a steady massage of servanthood and stewardship. Any god that blesses violence and theft—well, that takes us Christians back to Yahweh at Jericho, doesn’t it? And that religious model, as the Indigenous scholar Steven Newcomb has shown in Pagans in the Promised Land, is the foundation, the rock-bottom justification, for the Right of Christian Discovery. And the walls came tumbling down. Death to every child, woman, and man who stand in the way of a Chosen People and a Supreme God who authorizes such chosenness.
When our religious and civilized walls come tumbling down, will we be able to discern the earthy spirituality in the lifeforce of which we are only a part, one species among many, on an Earth of overwhelming complexity and beauty? We had better be able to, for that’s the only way out of our evolutionary predicament. Once we glimpse that immense and immediate wholesomeness, we can learn to recognize it with greater frequency, attention, and commitment—and begin to live it as we work to undo the industrialization of everything.
We’re in a critical—and very dangerous—transitional stage, even though things (for those of us in the protected First World) remain in pretty good shape. There may be lots of crises in the world, but we’re okay. This is going to change. Things are going to get a lot rougher and tougher in the coming decades. Getting to cooperative—and ecological—economics is crucial. Land as community to which we belong is the mantra. It’s time we took Aldo’s epigraph to heart, both personally and politically.
Curt Meine’s labor of love shows us a real Aldo Leopold. It is a wonderful revelation.