What Would Aldo Do?

It was mid morning and I was pondering the grits I had left on the stove, when a crash in the leaves over my right shoulder caught my ear. Apparently, mine was not the only ear caught as what had been a cacophony of foraging squirrels stopped in an instant. I could hear nothing. My first thought was that the red-shouldered hawk who frequented this corner of the farm must have taken one of the squirrels. Slowly I turned to look behind me, hoping to see the mantled wings of a hawk guarding her prey.

I scanned the eerily quiet woods. Something moved fifty or sixty yards out. It was not a hawk. This was a mammal, but too small small to be a deer. Coyote, perhaps?

A couple steps was all I needed for a clear, positive identification. Bobcat. The feline moved slowly but without apparent concern through the woods on a line which, if unchanged, would bring her within twenty yard of me. The squirrels remained silent. I had forgotten my binoculars that morning, so if I wanted a closer look, my rifle scope would have to do.

As she passed behind a large oak, I lifted the stock to my shoulder and took aim. She walked with her mouth open, her head low in a perfect line. I wondered what the occasional flick of her short tail was communicating. When she paused and turned her head towards me, I froze. She seemed to look right through me, her tufted ears poised to gather evidence of any move I would make. She turned her head the other way revealing large white eyespots on the back of her ears. Looking back to her front, she continued on her way.

Coming even with me she entered a blackberry tangle, disappearing. When she reemerged, she was thirty yards away and passing me. Through the scope she felt close enough to touch.

Her path angled towards me, crossing broadside in front of my stand. I was taken by the mechanics of her shoulders, how her head remained steady, her large feet silent.

When she looked away from me, I became acutely aware that the crosshairs of my scope were squarely on her vital organs, just behind her shoulder–the kill zone. My finger was on the trigger. I pulled my finger away, out of the trigger guard, and reached for the safety. It was off. I did not risk clicking it back on and attracting her attention, but gripped the stock with my full hand, finger safely away from the lever that could take her life.

In that moment, I remembered a note Aldo Leopold made in his shack journal about shooting a bobcat while deer hunting on his farm along the Wisconsin River. He made the entry a couple decades after seeing a “fierce green fire dying” in the eye of a wolf he shot in New Mexico, an incident he used to illustrate the need for change in our relationship with predators in his essay Thinking Like A Mountain.

It is hard for me to imagine the same man who wrote such impassioned words about what “tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day,” pulling the trigger on a bobcat, but he did. Then again, I had just had my finger on the trigger.

Like the rest of us, Leopold was a complex man. He was a hunter and a conservationist. He recognized the the importance of “every cog and wheel” that keep the biotic community running smoothly, and he enjoyed taking not only his “meat from God,” but the shooting of non-game species as well.

WWADI did not pull the trigger that morning, but for just an instant perhaps I could have. Some instinct had me ready, even if my rational and emotional minds pulled me quickly back. To run my fingers through the coat of a bobcat is compelling. To take its life for that opportunity, was not something I could do.

How Leopold, so late in a life so rich with evolving thought and understanding as to lead to his Land Ethic, was able to pull that trigger, I don’t understand. Yet, he did. Like I said, Leopold was a complex man.

The bobcat’s path changed again. She turned to move directly away from me. Five yards on her new trajectory, she pause, crouched, lowered her head and sniffed at something in the leaves. Perhaps she smelled the deer I had dropped there a week ago–my “meat from God.”

ImageAnother ten yards away from me, she jumped effortlessly onto a thirty inch downed oak. A second tree of similar size lay perpendicular across the first one like a pair of pickup sticks. She reached forward and pulled herself up until she was nearly vertical, then looked back over her shoulder for a moment, this time right into my scope. A quick jump onto the top log and she disappeared over the other side. I clicked on my safety, lowered my rifle, and lifted my cup. The tea was cold. As I stared into the woods in the direction she had gone, I heard leaves rustling behind me, then more to my right. As the woods came back to life, I climbed down from my perch and walked back to the house for breakfast.

Some Thoughts on Wilderness

I must have been about ten years old when I peered from the windows of my parent’s Ford station wagon on a late evening drive home from Grandma’s house. Asphalt, neon lights, and power lines passed by. From the windows of other cars and businesses, silent figures watched me watching them.
As we made our way down that thoroughfare, I imagined trees, wildlife, and darkness. I wondered how that place might have appeared a hundred, two hundred, a thousand years before, and why we needed so much light in the middle of the night, why we paved so much. A deep sadness sunk in. That night I prayed with the fervency of a young boy who knew his God would answer a prayer of faith for an opportunity to turn back the clock. I didn’t know where we went wrong, or even how, but I knew that somewhere along the line we had taken a wrong turn and the only way my young eyes could see righting that wrong was through an act of God. That was neither the first nor the last time I prayed that prayer.
Over the next decade I struggled with the God whose answers never came, and with a deepening sadness over the disconnect I felt every time I walked on paved streets, watched a bulldozer level another woodlot lot to build another business or house, or strained my eyes for constellations lost to light pollution.
I wondered why I didn’t hear the adults around me addressing these issues. Surely, they must feel the same things, I thought. Surely…
Then, somewhere around my twentieth birthday, I was introduced to Aldo Leopold’s book A Sand County Almanac. In the foreword to that book, Leopold spoke of “a shift of values…achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined…”  Later, in his essay The Green Lagoons, Leopold wrote “Man always kills the thing he loves. And so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”
For the first time in my life, I felt as if someone else felt the things I felt, shared in my sadness, understood.
As  middle-aged man, I now understand that regardless of prayers, God will not turn back the clock, we will not be granted a do-over. It is up to us.
I recently looked over a map of all the federally designated wilderness areas in the United States, and was shocked at how little there is. In 1924, largely due to Leopold’s urging, the Gila Wilderness was designated in New Mexico. Forty years later, the Wilderness Act was passed and since then almost 110 million acres have been given that highest level of protection.
One hundred and ten million acres sounds like a lot, but of our total land, it is only about 5%, and nearly half of that is in Alaska. In the contiguous forty-eight, total wilderness is equal to about the size of Minnesota.
When Leopold returned from school to find his boyhood swamp drained, he wrote. “My hometown thought the community enriched by this change. I thought it impoverished.” Jesus and John the Baptist went to the wilderness to fast and pray. And Henry David Thoreau wrote that “In wildness is the salvation of the world.”
My beliefs have changed a lot since the days of riding in the back seat of my parent’s station wagon. Perhaps that young boy was wrong about God answering his prayers. Maybe he just needed to go to the wilderness to hear the answer. Maybe the answer was that he needed to do something about it, that it is up to us.
Currently, there is a bill before congress that would designate about 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest in East Tennessee as wilderness. It wouldn’t cost anything. In fact, it is all currently being managed as wilderness anyway. Don’t we owe it to our young people and young people to come to pass that legislation? Mustn’t we ensure that the young always have wild places to be young in? After all, their salvation just might depend on it.
Contact your representatives in Washington and urge them to pass the Tennessee Wilderness Act.