Sunday 14 June 2015

Can You Fashion a Goose?

Aldo Leopold is one of the great names of nature writing and environmental thought. His classic, A Sand County Almanac, is still in print 66 years after its first publication in 1949. In the book, which encapsulates a lifetime of personal reflection, Leopold expounds a philosophy that he calls a land ethic.

[A pair of Canada geese]
He uses "land" to mean "soils, waters, plants, and animals" as well as the circuit of energy flowing between them. He summarises his land ethic thus.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. 

Essentially Leopold wants us to recognise that we have ethical obligations not only to other human beings, but also to entire ecosystems, including animals and plants, soils, water and air.

What gives Leopold such on-going authority is that he beds his philosophical thought in long and direct observation of nature.  

I have seen a thousand geese this fall. Every one of these in the course of their epic journey from the arctic to the gulf has on one occasion or another probably served man in some equivalent of paid entertainment. One flock perhaps has thrilled a score of schoolboys, and sent them home with tales of high adventure. Another passing overhead of a dark night, has serenaded a whole city with goose music, and awakened who knows what questionings and memories and hopes.

[Migrating geese, Sitka, Alaska] 
This is partly an argument for the economic contribution of species via their inspiration/entertainment “value”. But Leopold goes well beyond this. For him economic value – what you will pay in exchange for something – is not the be-all-and-end-all. For him life forms have an intrinsic value. If we were, for instance, to make it extinct, who would be able to “fashion a goose” from scratch?

His quasi-biblical turn of phrase is reminiscent of God’s quizzing of Job in the Old Testament.

Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread its wings toward the south? Does the eagle soar at your command and build its nest on high? (Job 39:26-27)

Both call for a similar humility in the face of living things. Sadly while humanity and humility might share many letters, that appears to be the extent of it. And so – despite the power of his words – I ask myself whether flocks of geese still thrill today’s schoolboys? And whether whole cities even notice their song? My instinctive answer is in the negative.

[Massed short-tailed shearwaters, Tasman Peninsula ... click image to enlarge]
But I try first to think of some Tasmanian equivalents. Is there anything that might send our school children scurrying home with eye-popping nature tales? Are they, for instance, thrilled by the arrival of millions of short-tailed shearwaters each spring; by their stupendous migration from the Arctic circle; or their effortless gliding flight just millimetres above the waves? Sadly if these incredible birds are known at all, they’re more likely to be observed on YouTube than over the ocean.

But turning to natural sounds, are there any that awaken something in today’s city dwellers? Are we, perhaps, captivated by the carolling serenade of the magpie; by “its silver stridency of sound”, as poet James McAuley put it? Just as I’m wondering this, my friend Paul posts a picture of singing magpies on facebook! There in suburban Melbourne, the magpies still have an appreciative audience.

[An Australian Magpie] 
And then my school teacher wife tells me a story of pelicans interrupting a recent music lesson. She’s been telling the 7 year olds about how birds have long inspired composers. In the middle of a lesson, one child calls out “Pelicans!”  Five pelicans are wheeling across the sky, making for the nearby bay. Lynne grabs the moment and rushes the class outside to take in the sight.

For long minutes they stare skyward, mouths wide open. For some there is immediate awe as the enormous birds fly over two or three times. Tellingly Lynne also observes how some of the more blasé students catch her enthusiasm and those of their peers. These are literally awe-inspiring moments, and worth a week’s worth of words about inspiration.

[An Australian pelican, East Coast Tasmania] 
So yes, I am convinced that Leopold’s land ethic, or something like it, is still called for: perhaps now more than ever. Could any of us fashion a goose, or a magpie, or a pelican if it dies out? And if I feel overwhelmed by the size of this ethical task, perhaps I need to consider that it might best be achieved one child, one bird, one street at a time.

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