The Nature of the Imagination

by Carl Strang

[This is the script for the talk I gave as Aldo Leopold at Mayslake Forest Preserve last week. As in the introduction, quotation marks indicate direct quotes from Leopold’s writings]

My family bought an old sand farm some years back, outside of Baraboo on the Wisconsin River. It was relatively barren when we first bought it, but it wasn’t empty and I could see its potential. We spend weekends there as much as we can. We have put in many days of hard restoration work, work you here can appreciate, and it has paid off both in the plants whose variety has improved but also in the wildlife. Don’t forget the wildlife. In today’s restoration work we focus much of our attention on plants, just as early forestry did. But the sign of success is written in feathers and fur as well as flowers and ferns. To me the ultimate symbol of a return to health in our northern Wisconsin forest will be not the white pine, but the wolf: an animal, not a plant.

I consider those weekends at our farm the down payment for my retirement. My wife, Estella, and I were just there over the past weekend celebrating our 34th wedding anniversary, and thinking ahead to the house we plan to build there for our retirement habitation. I have to admit that these battles over deer and wolves in Wisconsin have me looking ahead to retirement, though I suppose I won’t give up my responsibilities entirely. Now I have valued my experiences in wilderness, but I also have learned to treasure the homely, the mundane, enjoying local areas and how they change daily or hourly. One of my true delights is to get up well before dawn, set up a pot of coffee outside the little shack at the farm, and sit out under the last stars of a spring or summer morning. I have my dog, but also my notebook, my light meter, and my watch. As each different kind of bird begins to sing, I write down who it is, the time, and the light intensity. I take special delight when a new species stakes a claim on a bit of our farm. Each little experience, each notation, each bird, is real, and is part of a larger story that connects the bird, the farm, my family, and me. We form a community with a growing history that changes by the year, by the day, by the hour. Every member of this community has a role, has a job to do. Our decisions clearly impact the whole. One of my jobs is to be a chronicler of this story. I have written a number of little chapters that I am thinking about assembling into a book. Part of it would be a kind of almanac, a Sauk County Almanac, but the overall title would be Thinking Like a Mountain and Other Essays.

If successful, that venture will not simply be an expression of ego. Such a book will be my quiver of arrows, and one of its targets will be the Nature of the imagination. The Nature of the imagination is a growing danger to conservation, and we need to recognize it and address it. Estella pulls me along to the movie theater from time to time, and like me you probably saw the movie that came out a few years ago from the Walt Disney Company, the movie titled Bambi. That movie had its delightful moments, and at its best it is a fantasy for children with animals representing children to tell a story of coming of age. The problem, amazing as it seems, is that, especially in the cities, people seem to regard it as being about wildlife, to represent animals as they are. That movie is actually influencing some people in their regard of game policy in Wisconsin. Its depiction of hunters, who never have real faces and who never speak except with their guns, properly should be regarded as symbols for danger, for challenge, but they are taken as literal representations of actual sportsmen. This, of course, is an absurdity. Sportsmen worthy of the name respect the game, the traditions, the values of fair play and restraint. Ironically it is certain shooters from the city who come closest to the frightening, soulless killers in that movie. Such men are sufficiently removed from the land that they think only of the kill, have no real connection to the land in which they hunt, no real understanding of the animals they pursue or the lives they take, those few who through luck rather than skill have a deer to drag from the field.

Nature has become an abstraction, a concept, a fantasy to many city dwellers. On the other hand, such tragic individuals are sufficiently removed from the land that they devote little attention to the policies and problems of Wisconsin’s rural landscape. The biggest challenge to establishing an effective wildlife policy is posed by people who live in the small towns, farms and forests, people who have just enough knowledge and experience to convince themselves that they are true experts. A close examination reveals, though, that their understanding is based on imaginations and abstractions at least as much, if not more than, solid observation and thought.

These people imagine a deer behind every tree, a herd in every meadow, and when they fail to find a match for this ideal they conclude that we need more deer. In the cartoons of their mental movie theaters they see wolves and mountain lions feasting on deer, and decide if only we could rid ourselves of these predators, then deer would achieve the abundance of their ideal. Many of these people are hunters, many are resort owners whose livelihood is based on tourists migrating into the north woods in the summer, followed by hunters in the fall. But they are not out there in the land throughout the entire year, and they have not learned how to read the signs in the vegetation. Those signs reveal that the deer have devoured their favorite food plants to the point where these can be hard to find. Progressively they decimate plants that are less and less palatable to them, so that browse lines have formed in plants that deer would not touch if they still could find their favorites.

Even in the winter the critics of targeted management fail to go into the yards where the deer are thickest, and so they do not see the weakened and starving animals that tell the true story most directly. Part of this problem is not their fault. Wisconsin’s politicians insist that game laws and limits must be the same throughout the state. If deer could be managed regionally, with different limits and regulations to match to the herd’s need, we could improve the situation. On the other hand, this would require the killing of does, and some cannot stomach this necessity. Some of my colleagues and I have begun leading groups into the most affected yards in winter, and shown them the starving deer, and this has some effect, but so far it has not been enough to sway the many who have not accompanied us and who cling to their imagined image of Nature. All they know is that they are not seeing enough deer, and instead of understanding that the deer are starving or that poaching is encouraged by too much limitation on legal hunting, they blame the policies of herd reduction. “There is an important lesson here: the flat refusal of the average adult to learn anything new, i.e., to study. To understand the deer problem requires some knowledge of what deer eat, of what they do not eat, and of how a forest grows. The average deer hunter is sadly lacking in such knowledge, and when anyone tries to explain the matter, he is branded forthwith as a long-haired theorist. This anger-reaction against new and unpleasant facts is of course a standard psychiatric indicator of the closed mind.”

We need a wildlife policy that is grounded in observation, in experience, in science. Theory has its place in science, but not as an end but rather as a framework for observation and experimentation. When the data conflict with the theory, it is the theory which has to give way, either by being abandoned or at least by being modified.

What happened today in your life that was interesting? [pause] I ask this question of my children each evening at meals. Part of what I am trying to teach them is the discipline of paying attention, of engaging with the world as it is rather than what they imagine it to be, to observe, to act and note the consequences of those actions. Having established this discipline, they then can imagine in a supported way. They learn not to commit absolutely to some ideal but always to hold it lightly. In this process they also learn to find beauty in familiar surroundings. To someone who pays attention, each year, each month, each day, each hour brings its changes.

This discipline came to me the hard way. I held certain ideas, certain ideals in my youth that I defended vigorously. Fortunately for me, when the land’s true function was in opposition to my ideals, I was paying attention enough to see it. Earlier I mentioned how I have had to change my absolute ideas regarding fire. I also thought that we needed to eliminate the predators, that the Southwest would be a paradise for game if we did so. We made this our policy, and we were successful. We killed the wolves, killed the mountain lions. But the hunters did not remove enough deer to keep the numbers in bounds. The deer ate the plants to excess, their populations increased so much that the land was hurt, and the deer starved. So I learned the hard way the necessity of defining my assumptions and imagined mechanisms of Nature, and observing and testing them scientifically.

Those experiences taught me something else: the lesson of ecology, that deer and wolves and grass and pinyon pines and people cannot be understood separately. They are tied together, together build a living entity, a community, an organism composed of many interacting parts, and a disturbance in one will affect all. When we hear the word “community” we are practiced in applying the word to human beings alone. The land has taught me differently. Our material needs tie us to the land, the weather, the soil and plants and animals, and so like the deer, a disturbance in one part affects us as well. We have other needs, which have been called spiritual, whose hunger cannot be fully satisfied without immersion in the reality of Nature. Not Nature of the imagination, but the detail of leaf and flower, feather and wing, air and breeze and storm, soil and rock and mountain.

We continue to learn, and to need to learn. You at Mayslake clearly understand fire and its value in land management. I hope your views will spread to the rest of the conservation field, because the prevailing attitude is that fire is always bad. Here again, we have taken an idea and clung to it like a life ring, never bothering to see if there might be something more secure just a few swim strokes away. [Note: this last sentence paraphrases a Leopold quote].

I have hope for our farmers and people of rural communities. The main obstacle there is not too much imagination, too much of an esthetic culture, but too little, and a narrow focus on profit. “I doubt if there exists today a more complete regimentation of the human mind than that accomplished by our self-imposed doctrine of ruthless utilitarianism. The saving grace of democracy is that we fastened this yoke on our own necks, and we can cast it off when we want to, without severing the neck. Conservation is perhaps one of the many squirmings which foreshadow this act of self-liberation.” Economics is itself an abstraction, a system of the imagination. Those who allow themselves to think entirely in its terms lose sight of the fact that economics is based on the land. It seems to become a thing in itself, rather than its original status as a simple means of conveying value, the true basis of which is in the soil, the Earth and its products. “We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.” Our relationship to land needs to be esthetic as well as utilitarian.

At least people in rural communities and on farms have ready access to the soil and vegetation and wildlife. Their work and their recreation keep them in contact with the land, at least on an intermittent basis. What of the people in the cities? Cooped up in a world of buildings and pavement, can they even identify the need they must feel, the need within us all, the atavistic yearning for open skies above, soil and rock below, and wild plants and animals on all sides? Some might say that civilization represents a positive move away from such atavistic need, but that is a delusion. Our American character was built through the most extreme testing in wilderness. If we do not go back from time to time, spend weeks preferably but at least days or hours in the land, a part of us, an essential and characteristic part, will be lost to our spiritual detriment.

I value wilderness greatly, and the wilderness system we have developed in this nation is a most precious recreational and scientific resource. Unfortunately we developed it too late. When I argued, along with my allies, for the development of a wilderness system, our dream was to have true wilderness within reach of everyone, regardless of means, and regardless of geography. Our ideal was an area big enough to support an extended pack or canoe trip, in which a man could escape the sight and sound of so-called civilization and taste some of the pioneering experience that made this nation what it is. We were only partly successful in this, because the East had developed its wilderness by the time we got the system in place. All is not lost, however, and a two week pack or canoe trip is not needed by everyone. Places like your Mayslake, and other publicly owned parks, forests and range lands can be just the antidote to save the city dweller from his amorphous ennui.

Will he seek this experience? Seeking real experience of the type I am describing will not occur to someone immersed in the cultural advantages and removal from the land that characterize urban life. Those who stand to profit from more superficial experiences, the boosters of pretty scenery who encourage people never to go more than ten steps from their Fords, and who push for more and more roads through the wild places, have loud commercial voices that drown out the quieter calls of cranes and of loons, the winnowings of snipe and peents of woodcock. But there is another way to authentic experience that makes use of time, rather than space. I would like to read a bit of draft from this almanac that I am writing, which I think will go in the chapter for October. It is titled, “Too Early.” [Here I read that excerpt from A Sand County Almanac. When I gave the talk at Midewin in March I read the “Sky Dance” chapter.] That is the truer kind of outdoor experience people need. A true liberal education provides such experiences. They are the antidote to the Nature of the imagination. I provide them to students in my Wildlife Management 118 course at the University of Wisconsin, and your forest preserve educators provide them here. “The objective is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands. I say land rather than wildlife, because wildlife cannot be understood without understanding the landscape as a whole…Land ecology discards at the outset the fallacious notion that the wild community is one thing, the human community another.” If we succeed, people go on to seek more such experiences on their own. For that to be a viable option we need more than just a few parks. “Parks are over-crowded hospitals trying to cope with an epidemic of esthetic rickets; the remedy lies not in hospitals, but in daily dietaries.”

It is important to listen, and observe, during this process. Back before the war I had the opportunity to see how forests are managed in Germany. They were in the process of learning the harmful consequences of imposing a management scheme based on an abstract Nature of the imagination. They practiced “cubistic forestry,” simplifying their landscape to geometrically shaped pure stands of spruce, looking for all the world like a painting by that Spanish artist, Picasso, with an eye here, an ear there, but never a complete and functioning whole. They removed their predators, wanting to favor the deer. Their management drained the wildness from their land, and their simplified forest could not sustain itself. Forest production went into decline. Their people became starved for true experience of wildness, “a certain exuberance which arises from a rich variety of plants fighting with each other for a place in the sun.” Here in North America we at least have the luxury of a less crowded landscape which still retains much of its wild quality. Our wolves and mountain lions are diminished but not gone. We still have pasque flowers and ladyslippers.

Restoration practices on public lands, and enlightened farm management plans, provide hope that we can create a truer esthetic production, one based on complete communities that are healthy because the elements of soil, plants and animals all have been saved. With such living laboratories in place we can continue to learn from them and to be inspired by them. “Possibly, in our intuitive perceptions, which may be truer than our science and less impeded by words than our philosophies, we [will come to] realize the indivisibility of the earth – its soil, mountains, rivers, forests, climate, plants, and animals, and respect it collectively not only as a useful servant but as a living being, vastly less alive than ourselves in degree, but vastly greater than ourselves in time and space – a being that was old when the morning stars sang together, and, when the last of us has been gathered unto his fathers, will still be young…” I can look to the day when the Nature of the imagination will be understood to be a childhood fantasy that we in our maturation have set aside as a fondly remembered but discounted element of our past. “Two things hold promise…One is to apply science to land-use. The other is to cultivate a love of country a little less spangled with stars, and a little more imbued with that respect for mother-earth – the lack of which is, to me, the outstanding attribute of the machine-age.”


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