I spent some time in a workshop this week, the Leopold Education Project. As a naturalist, it would be difficult not to love Leopold, and I have since the first time I read A Sand County Almanac. But I came away with a different understanding in this workshop. In being reminded of my love for wilderness, which I relate to solitude, I saw a side of Leopold I had not considered before. His efforts to encompass all of nature into one community, and treat all natural things with the same respect, are reminders of how and why we seek wilderness and solitude.
When Leopold speaks of wilderness, he agrees it is an “adversary to be conquered.” Pioneers traveled dangerously across our adversary continent seeking favorable grounds to set up a home. Outdoor enthusiasts seek to conquer wilderness by traveling through it and living to tell about it. Mankind today seeks to conquer outer space as our next frontier. We have conquered our wilderness areas, trampling on the raw materials we found in order to set up cities and communities. We have traversed the land single handedly using up all resources, and lived to tell about it. And we have populated the wilderness of space with our satellites and space ships. But in Leopold’s words, “that same raw stuff is something to be loved and cherished, because it gives definition and meaning to life.”
That is what I found in this recent study of Leopold; definition and meaning to life. I always agreed that ethical use of land could only come from love and admiration for land. In this study, I heard Leopold’s definition of land ethics as it relates to philosophical values, and I discovered that this is why I seek wilderness and solitude. It had not occurred to me before to define why I loved to seek out and protect wild places, but I think this yearning is in all of us. There is a certain peace found in the study of nature and therefore the study of our origins as Leopold puts it.
“We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Aldo Leopold
Reading again some of Leopold’s wonderful descriptions of wilderness moments he experienced, reminded me of my own moments of wildness. Here is one of my favorite quotes of his: “A dawn wind stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass. Like the white ghost of a glacier the mists advance, riding over phalanxes of tamarack, sliding across bog-meadows heavy with dew. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon.” His writing is inspirational to me because I have experienced sitting in a place just like this, feeling, tasting, and breathing in the mists, and being thankful for the silence of the moment.
But my recent revelation is in the why. Why have I sought out wild places and solitude? I discovered that it is, and has always been for me, giving meaning to my life. When I sit quietly alone among the tall grass of a prairie and use my senses to listen, smell and see the sights all around me, I live. When I walk a forest trail, absorbing the freedom to wander at my own pace, I live. When I sit on a beach and ponder where the waves go when they hit the shore, I live.
Wilderness and solitude are to me a way to live life to its fullest. Only by living among the wild-ness of nature can I survive living in the modern world. Everything I learn from studying natural communities, gives me methods to deal with human influences on my world. Most importantly, taking time to find wilderness and solitude renews my spirit, increases my faith, and energizes my psyche.
I come away from my nature encounters full and satisfied. I have a deeper understanding of why I should play a role in preserving each piece of the natural communities God has given us. Leopold says finding the cultural value of wilderness boils down to a question of intellectual humility, “It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise.”
I know I will never be called a scholar. But I also know that, regardless, I will continue to seek out wilderness and solitude as a way to keep increasing my love of nature. From this love of nature will come enough knowledge to at least be counted among the naturalists of this world.