Expanding the Aldo Zone

Humans take pride in being adaptable, as well as in the capacity to adapt the world, which is usually thought of as “around,” though equally inside in every sense–from substance & water to breath. Yet we are also notorious wasters–from aptitudes, populations & civilizations to resources, lives, & opportunities.

In reality, any sustainable relationship requires a balance between adapting the world to our uses & adapting ourselves to the world that sustains us. Conservation is the practical search for that balance, starting with trying to understand how things actually work together in natural systems & what effect our interventions & influences actually have.

With postscripts & follow-ups to published columns, plus footnotes & after-thoughts, a deeper view of the human-nature interface may emerge, shedding light on ways of relating sustainably with the natural world…. The problem with not doing so is a function of time, & compounding. In any conflict between short-term & long-term, for example, long term must ultimately win, at least have the ultimate advantage. Sooner of later, later becomes sooner, and even faster, past.

There’s an argument to be made for the present, too, including the fact that it necessarily comes first. Without managing now, tomorrow’s meaning may be moot. Survival depends on it. An honest look at the territory, and we must admit it’s where a lot of the important action takes place. We couldn’t do without it, even if we don’t go so far as to claim the now is all there is. Sometimes, perhaps. Other times, maybe only seeming so at the time from the narrowed frame of viewing….. Nevertheless, economic systems–including organic ones–operate with mechanisms for energy consumption, processing, storage, transfer, exchange, elimination, etc.

In what we recognize as a healthy system, the vigor or well-being reflects the relative balance of all parts & sub-systems, including that between consumption, storage, and elimination. This applies to the organism, but also to the community, and environment. The human community is not unique in changing the environment to suit its advantage, except arguably in scale. Part of the human advantage and success over a relatively short period in planetary history may be traced to the cumulative effects of our ability to store & pass along cultural capital–know-how, tools, quite sophisticated machines & capacities, even disciplines like economics, which makes a clear distinction between consumption & re-investment of capital resources. “Those who eat their seed-corn, grow no corn & soon go hungry.”

In the case of wild capital, some observers make a conceptual distinction between conservation preservation. While the latter may suggest keeping things unchanged, more associated with specimens & processed fruit than living systems, conservation mainly implies not wasting, as when conserving energy to have available when needed. Nature both preserves & conserves, maintaining a record of past life on the one hand, &, on the other, wasting little or nothing. In nature’s complex systems, one creature’s waste is another’s feast.

Though presumably not unlimited, nature’s capacity to renew, recycle, change & adapt is far greater than our own. We might say life’s capacity, since that’s what concerns us most–the character, range, numbers & varieties of lifeforms, along with their relationships. One may argue that life on earth obviously did quite well for a few billion years without humans, thriving in a range of conditions, including many we’d have found untenable.

For most of the 100,000 years or so that human influences have been a significant part of the earth-life equation, conservation of resources was primarily a local matter, practiced by some groups more than others. Nor were groups mostly static or fixed in place, but in dynamic relations with other groups & new sources of resource. In one situation, conservation meant protecting a food source from competition; in another, seeing what l`ay beyond the horizon.

The play between these impulses gives rise to what’s studied in anthropology, history, and culture, shorthand for the sum of all influences, attitudes, beliefs & group practices.  Since any group is inherently plural, composed of diverse individuals, culture is something diffuse & changing, like a psychic cloud. It has no specific location; it has many centers. Members of the group are affected in countless different ways, changing with age, stage of development & media of transmission. Like consciousness (or life, for that matter), you can describe culture, but you can’t pin it down.

Nevertheless, like the medium in a petri dish, it profoundly affects all born into it, nurtured & raised within it, who may change it in turn. In our case, the petri dish is global, and cultures diverse, some perhaps more or less inherently (self-)destructive, some more or less explicitly predatory. That’s nothing new for living systems & individual life-forms alike through time. What’s new is the global scale & potentially runaway impact of our own effects.

By contrast, all the destructions wrought by most wars of prior centuries may be considered essentially local, even when the scope of localities spread widely out. Besides seeming far less so now, the limit does not apply at all to a phenomenon like nuclear winter. In the case of climate charging, even as specific localities are unevenly affected, the effects & sources of the expanded tornado, flood-surge, & temperature range are global. The specific effects are simply the result of normal chance, hitting in one place rather than another; the global situation is reflected in the changed probabilities shared equally by all–as re-calculated by insurance actuaries.


section from a Leopold pine...
section from a Leopold pine…


Understanding anything involves a combination of our senses, feelings & concepts. Words & related ways of shaping things in the mind can  promote active attention ever renewed with fresh perception. They can also encourage (or inhibit) fuller awareness of a multi-dimensional world that includes the engaged witness who notices, feels, thinks & more–part of life in & beyond the self.

The study of conservation focuses on the inter-tidal zone between humans & the rest of the natural world. It necessarily has a dual-focus, therefore–on the given, natural world, in all its dynamic richness; & on the effects of human practices (direct & indirect) on this world. A third key element, mostly implicit, is the effect of such effects on humans.

One who articulated the range & importance of such effects was pioneer conservationist Aldo Leopold. Observation-tuned awareness of the detailed natural world (e..g., forestry, ornithology, the ecological sciences) provided touchstones for practical land-&-wildlife managers to track changes &, where human practices were factors, to adapt accordingly. That meant learning from mistakes in time to correct them, even when that contradicted conventional wisdom (i.e., an established distortion of reality). He revealed many aspects of the true economics, as well as the cultural implications embedded in the choices faced.

He was among the earliest to see the emerging dilemma of potentially runaway technology, and its spreading delta of implications. The more rare wild places became, he realized, the more they’d attract crowds, requiring more roads & toilets, obliterating the source of attraction. The idea of setting aside some wild places, if only as a reference point for future generations, what scientists call a “control,” took hold, giving rise to the modern “wilderness.”

One might “draw a line around” some wild places, but one could not draw a line around our relationship with nature in the world at large, ultimately the source of all that sustains us, not just in physical terms, but in all aspects of our lives–culturally, emotionally, aesthetically, intellectually, spiritually, economically, all more or less woven together.

Whether managing a national forest for present & future generations or planting with wildlife in mind, Leopold recognized in himself, his family, friends, colleagues & students that the most valuable crop cultivated or harvest produced might just be the sense of stewardship developed–& all the more so shared. By their getaway “shack” along the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, the family planted tens of thousands of trees, mostly pines, on land once over-cut & depleted. The cross-section above was a gift from Nina, one of the offspring there.

Needed thinning since has produced various buildings for conservation study centers, the main crop &/or product of which is expanded (& expanding) awareness. You might accurately say that conservation awareness begins at home, meaning wherever one lives or is, whether backyard bird-watcher or backwoods hunter, wildlife scientist or recreational visitor. Its main product is not information, however useful that can sometimes be, but 1st) connection; 2nd) pleasure; and 3rd), the benefits of stewardship on both sides of the equation–land & people, starting with oneself.

Conservation awareness grows mainly from direct & personal experience  of “ecological values,” in other words, an abstraction derived primarily from concrete experience. To understand abstractions like natural beauty, health, vitality, biodiversity, resilience, we must draw from direct experience of what’s represented. On the one hand this means the presumably objective world observed seemingly externally; on the other, it means observing effects on personal experience.

Some understanding of awareness–what it is, its qualities, levels, types, & methods for extending–is as basic as some understanding of nature. Like most abilities, ranges of awareness develop with use, practice, exchange, additional perspective, intentional inquiry. Looking in ways that seek to understand more fully can become ingrained, progressive & cumulative, continuously renewing the journey of discovery.

The experience of looking & effort to describe what is are partners for scientist, manager, artist, thinker, &/or friend in & of the world.  Encouraging appreciation of ecological systems enhances personal experience for oneself & others, in other words. Whether we’re talking of Aldo Leopold, Yours Crudely, or you, personal effort to see more clearly, deeply & completely raises the possibility of contributing to the shared level of awareness in the world. A sense of being in this together adds to the satisfaction of passing along what’s been given.

Not wanting to waste your time or mine, I won’t try to cover all the ground, not even most, not even much where technical expertise is involved, leaving those aspects to the specialists (i.e., people who know what they’re talking about). Even a technical ignoramus like Yours Crudely may develop some more or less useful awareness from contemplation over time, especially when exposed to the multi-dimensional awareness of others.

Some thought explorations may have more likely value to certain readers than others, though even the least can have value to the writer, in the exercise, if not the harvest. Some lead nowhere, best not uploaded; others may go up before being ready, their values (if any) brought out more clearly only with later editing–prompted by being re-read, which is more likely to happen if uploaded.

It should be evident that what follows is less like a text (despite the title) than a series of footnotes expanding on the conceptual foundations Leopold laid out most succinctly in the essays that make up “Part III. The Upshot,” in his posthumously assembled Sand County Almanac: Conservation Esthetic; Wildlife in American Culture; Wilderness; & The Land Ethic; plus a few others (e.g., “Thinking Like a Mountain”) earlier in that collection. His approach, including ways of pondering issues through to new perspective, as well as his many insights, have inspired generations since.

This is only fitting in a sense, for future generations inspired Aldo–to plant, to teach, to learn, to discover, to think through, to write down. Even in the Leopold family, discovering, learning & teaching was never a one-way street. I know this first from having been introduced to Leopold’s work by my daughter, a senior ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Arizona. In the mid-1990’s, she got me to bring Leopold’s legacy off the page in a series of presentations developed with New Mexico Humanities Council sponsorship, later more or less widely performed out-of-state, including at Aldo’s shack & at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia, with two of Aldo’s offspring (& two of mine) present.

Of all the memories from those days, playing “the wise old ranger,” using mostly Aldo’s words, none was more magical, or provoked more attentive thought, at least for the presenter, than a series over a period of years for more or less the same group, an annual Pro-Am Forestry Camp held out in the Jemez mountains between Fenton Lake & Cuba. Campers, counselors, and experts in the related sciences came from around the state. Counselors were usually returning campers. The experts usually worked for related agencies, ran nature centers, or taught at universities, but were here mainly as volunteers, to encourage teens interested enough to have applied.

There was a certain magic around the campfire, in a mountain clearing under the stars, with such a group. One doesn’t have to know anyone’s name to feel the good will, bonds of affection, love. Add Aldo’s tuned-in words, and there were times of such beauty, tears ran down a cheek or two. Coming back to a group with 1/4 or more of the same people, though assured I didn’t have to change a thing, gave added incentive to new programs based on the same material.

What had been, an evening with Alias Aldo on “The Value of the Wild,” eventually turned into “Becoming More Aware” as a result, part workshop with insight-provoking activities, and part performance-conversation under the stars. Wanting to serve folks like these made me a more serious student of Aldo’s teaching, including how functional awareness may be encouraged….

Here’s a first chapter on a few FUNDAMENTALS OF CONSERVATION, starting with one of its core elements: Awareness, without which where are we?



CHAPTER TWO could be on “Knowledge as power: shaping tools to uses (leveraging the mind).” All tools leverage power, the potential to effect. The mind is a tool-making tool, a Swiss Army Knife with many functionalities (& potential dysfunctionalities). The cutting edge is where perception meets language.

If perception starts with pure awareness, it is quickly shaped by the language learned for organizing the world. Knowledge, too, starts with language, the word, concept, idea & category, around which observations (one’s own & others) may aggregate. Levels or kinds of knowledge develop with more or less corresponding levels of understanding, knowing not just more information, for example, but ways of looking informed by an expanded sense of the dynamic connections, processes, and implications of what’s at work. These in turn make wiser management, policies and practices possible.

Language matters in terms of what is observed as well as what is reported, helping us choose our terms & inform our practice. Trying simply to report what is, original existence, living nature, the human mind, we are always working with what may be called understanding in translation. On the one hand are the realities; on the other, representations, seemingly quite a different thing, though representations also have their own realities, while realities include fictions and delusions.  

“The coherence of human language is inseparable from …the surrounding ecology…the expressive vitality of the more than human terrain. It is the animate earth that speaks; human speech is but a part of that discourse.” –David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

Modern humans have developed a terrible power to drown out all but the noise of their machines, amplifying the screech level beyond the eardrum-shatter & Charles Munch “Scream,” whether by weapons of mass catastrophe, in the maws of the devouring beast, or as inadvertent by-product of scale and overwhelming level of traffic.

Nor are there antidotes beside self-renewal at the original fount, listening to what the water has to say, & the storm, if only to clarify our hearing. There’s no way to kill the beast that now also sustains us, even as we identify aspects with enmity to life, including our own. That means not feeding its worst, however, as our only choice left is to transform it.

Rachel Carson didn’t propose the end of chemistry or industry, only reasonable safeguards that put health and life first. Aldo Leopold didn’t propose the end of grazing,  just the reverse in a sense, in limiting it to what a healthy range can sustain. Respect for such limits is part of one’s stake in the longer term.

Pioneers of conservation were simply among the first to respond to the emerging dilemmas, including the rapidly escalating power of the machines to destroy all that sane people hold most dear in city and country alike. They saw that human systems could inadvertently make such destruction profitable, or even necessary, as in the bombing of others to protect ourselves, or building ever more roads & toilets to accommodate the increasing crowds driving out to enjoy remnants of nature.

A century ago, various waves of social consciousness came together as if from a collective immune system. One wave sought for both practical & ethical reasons to impose a utilitarian & functional reason on what were otherwise unsustainable & wasteful practices that might enrich a few currently at the expense of impoverishing many, including future generations. Another saw the threat in more artistic & spiritual terms, the effects wild country had on feelings & the human spirit.

Having experienced all of these for himself, Leopold articulated another basis for setting some wild areas aside to remain without roads & human machinery, namely as scientific controls of how natural systems functioned when so managed, including how they sounded…. Otherwise, the more rare wild places became, the more crowds would flock to them, meaning more roads & toilets, meaning the less wild they would become or sound….

“The song of a river may ordinarily be thought of as the sounds that water makes on rock and root and rapids…audible to any ear that stops long enough to pay attention. But there is other music here, too, not heard by all. On a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed the rimrocks, we may sit quietly and listen until we hear it–a vast pulsing harmony, its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning seconds and centuries….” –Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac

[“That’s’a some listening!” –Harpo, as interpreted by Chico]