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In Praise of Restoration Ecology
In 2009, I produced a documentary radio program entitled, Aldo Leopold in the Southwest. In my travels, I met Estella Leopold, youngest of the five children spawned by Aldo Leopold and Estella Luna Bergere Leopold, herself a native of Santa Fe, and member of the revered Luna family that have lived in New Mexico for many generations. Estella the younger is one of America’s most distinguished paleobotanists, now professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle. She is also a wonderful folk musician whose repertoire includes dozens of Hispano folksongs recalled and sung by her family when she was a child.
When I recorded my interview with her in her home in Seattle, she recounted tales of her childhood that helped characterize both her father and mother, both of whom were wildly intelligent, deeply sensitive human beings whose commitment to family generated a model of conduct to which we should all aspire with mighty resolve. As we sat at her dining room table, Estella recounted the following recollection about how the seven members of the Leopold family reacted to the farm with its shack that Aldo Leopold bought in Sand County, Wisconsin where he wrote much of his magnum opus, A Sand County Almanac.
“…When we first got there it was a cold spring day. We had to drive around through the cornfield to get to the shack because the main road was under water and cold as heck. We got there and there was about three feet of manure in the corner of the cabin. We looked around and it was very bleak, lots of burrs. It was very open wasteland. The farmer had gone broke putting in corn after corn and left for Texas. And Dad got it for taxes at eight dollars an acre. So we got there and Mother looked around and said ‘Aldo, are you sure you want to bring the children up here?’ And Dad said something like ‘Yeah, we’re going to plant all this stuff. Put pinery up there on the ridge and put prairie out on the cornfield and won’t that be wonderful?’ And so it was. It was great. So we began work on the shack and it became our home away from home. No utilities, just our pump, and the Parthenon—the privy—down the way on the edge of the riverbank. Well, it was the edge of a terrace.
“We were there every weekend all the way through the ‘30s and the ’40s—just about every weekend. Absolutely lovely. We built the fireplace and we fixed the roof and we put in windows and screens. Finally we put in a floor because we had a clay floor first. Mother said we had to fix that so we did. We had bunks. We had a great time up there. We were doing restoration ecology, which was the beginning of restoration ecology. We put prairie plants into the cornfield and after a while there were enough weeds and these plants that we could burn it off. We set fire to it and right away the grasses began to expand because as the flames would come upwind, the grass would drop over behind the flames and drop the seeds on the fertilized ash and produce new plants. Pretty soon it became a tall grass prairie. It was wonderful.
“Then we began adding flowering plants to that prairie. But right now the deer get those, and it’s pretty hard to maintain that because you really need to live there and have a dog there all the time to keep the deer off. Otherwise you get what we have, which is a tall grass prairie. But at Nina’s [her elder sister’s] house where the dogs are, there’re many, many flowers. There’s 250 native species in that prairie, so it’s a gorgeous garden of flowers every spring and summer. It’s just marvelous.”
This is one of my favorite stories of thousands that I’ve recorded over the last half-century because it contains elements necessary to not only heal habitat, but also heal our badly broken culture, especially as we try to peer through the opacity that clouds our view into the immediate future.
Aldo Leopold came to the American Southwest in 1909 as a young forest ranger. Over the following years, he wandered by horse through the forest regions of the New Mexico and Arizona territories (they wouldn’t become states till 1912). He observed massive soil erosion and gradually came to attribute much of that to over-grazing by cattle and sheep, and to the presence of wagon trails carved through an arid landscape that is subject to seasonal torrential rains. Years later, he applied his growing ecological perspective to the farmer-burnt-out 80 acres that he had bought in Wisconsin, and thus, with the help of his family, initiated the practice of restoration ecology.
While Aldo Leopold may well have been the first within the context of Western culture to practice restoration ecology in America, he was certainly not the first to enhance habitat in the New World. Here in the Southwest, there are examples of habitat enhancement that extend into antiquity among cultures such as the Hohokam with their irrigation canals in the Sonoran Desert of yore, the Río Grande Puebloans with water catchment systems that restore water to aquifers, the Hopis with carefully selected multiple breeds of corn that work within the arid habitat of the Hopi mesas, the Zunis with their waffle gardens, and the Hispanos with their acequia systems, and recognition of water and land as common pool resources that must not be privatized for financial profit.
Part of Aldo Leopold’s genius was to comprehend the potential of ailing land abandoned by a farmer who had egregiously over-worked the soil, then study the surrounding habitat to identify the indigenous plant and animal life, then invigorate a family practice of restoration ecology that not only reinstated health of habitat, but instilled in every family member an understanding of the inter-relatedness of every aspect of the biotic community, and the absolute need for a system of ethics that includes the land as well as ourselves and other species within our cultural purview.
The profundity of this lesson is of such vast importance today that should we not heed its wisdom and contemplate its implications, we may fail to veer from our present course to disaster.
Restoration ecology is currently the next necessary step beyond conservation. In a way, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to employ a myriad of the unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s by creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to create rip-rap in arroyos to retard erosion, build fire-lookout towers, re-plant seedlings in the wake of the onslaught of the timber industry, and other modes of conduct that he regarded as vital for restoring a failed economic system, and aligning that with an attempt to ensure future health of the natural environment. He also re-invigorated the arts by funding artists of every persuasion to pursue their creative vision. Thus, Roosevelt sought a means to re-create the handcrafted lifestyles that harkened back to the earliest days of young America, when people worked rather than held down jobs.
Leopold took this a giant step further by putting the land first and involving his family in its ecological restoration. He did this in such a fashion that each family member not only adopted his perspective as their own, but also went on to evolve a collective body of work that remains an unprecedented contribution to a culture of practice that is itself culturally restorative. In the broader sense, restoration ecology and cultural restoration may be perceived as mutually inclusive, each vital to the other. And implicit in this clearly definable culture of practice is the de-secularization of habitat, the re-sacrilization of homeland.
Restoration ecology in conjunction with cultural restoration and re-sacrilization of homeland must be enshrined as fundamental to our greater human culture of practice. How this is accomplished is up to each individual. It must certainly occur from within the grassroots of human culture; it lies beyond the ken of today’s corporate-dominated political systems that are proven antithetic to this way of being. Many, if not most, of today’s institutions are based on economic growth for its own sake, a principle that must be redefined.
Somehow, we must collectively foster a paradigm founded in a form of expanded consciousness that includes restoration of habitat, hard work on behalf of the greater good for the entire biotic community, and satisfaction with return to a hand-crafted lifestyle shaped by evolving imagination assisted by appropriate technology that is harmonious within the flow of Nature—all within a world of diminishing resources. This is a tall order in today’s political milieu that has shifted from that of a young, exuberant democracy of two centuries past, to the oligarchy that currently presides. Our present body politic is antithetic to the environmental standards that we must assume if we are to wend our way through the stormy times ahead.
In 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act was passed by both the Senate and House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States, and was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on January 1, 1970. Its purpose appears in the preamble as follows:
“To declare a national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man; to enrich the understanding of the ecological systems and natural resources important to the Nation; and to establish a Council on Environmental Quality.”
Since 1970, the human population of our planet has nearly doubled. Our species’ perceived needs have grown proportionately. We abide within an economic system based on limitless growth. Our natural resources dwindle in direct proportion to our growth, and today, economics overshadows sound ecology by magnitudes within the Zeitgeist of modern global culture. In our quest for natural resources we have left a wake of devastation through natural habitats vital for the maintenance of a viable biotic community. We have committed an immense number of fellow species to extinction. We have created a body of law that gradually erodes our National Environmental Policy Act, many laws designed to define and defend the Policy of Limitless Growth that our capitalist system demands.
What a de-spirited legacy we are embedding in collective human consciousness. By celebrating the privatization of common pool resources for financial gain, we have gone un-Natural.
What can we do?
First, we must individually and collectively ingest the level of jeopardy to which we have exposed not just ourselves, but the entire biotic community. Then we must determine the wellspring of the calamity, part of which resides in each and every one of us. Then, within the realm of regional and national politics, identify that which serves the greatest good for the entire biotic community and reject that which does not, honestly critiquing elected officials within our current two-party system, where truths are hidden in the shadows of hyperbolic rhetoric. Then we must vote accordingly.
Secondly, we must individually and collectively look to our respective homelands and seek both where jeopardy lies, and what homeland itself indicates to be the path to balance within. This is precisely what Aldo Leopold did on the family 80-acre farm in Sand County.
Third, we look to science to reveal and evaluate of our state of peril, and for the technology that is most applicable for our endeavor. Science is an essential tool for determining the truth, and its correct application is required if we are to clear the hurdles that lie immediately before us. However, although science is necessary for complete perspective, it alone will not save us from ourselves.
Fourth, after strengthening both our perspective and resolve as bulwarks vital for maintaining the state of mind and discipline necessary for the task at hand, we may then initiate restoration ecology as a culture of practice, and in so doing allow ourselves to celebrate our cultural restoration as well, as we consciously re-align ourselves with habitat. Thus, we re-sacrilize homeland.
The requirements for success include adopting a bioregional perspective from within which to operate as we intelligently proceed as restorers of homeland to ecological balance. For this, we can take a mighty cue from our Puebloan neighbors whose culture continues to survive relatively intact as it has have for centuries. We can look to traditional Hispano culture in the northern Río Grande watershed as a model of survivability and resilience relative to homeland. We can support local farmers’ markets and food cooperatives, wherein sound ecological practices are revealed in the arrays of homegrown foods in which we delight. A fine source of bioregional theory may be found in Gary Snyder’s superb book, The Practice of the Wild.
Fifth, we can only succeed by initiating a meaningful level of decentralization of political power relative to national and regional governing bodies that are largely under the sway of corporate economics. This may require civil disobedience. It may indeed involve a level of homeland protection that is not to be confused with Homeland Security. We must ever bear in mind that presently, political legislation often rules in favor of economics over health of habitat. In that sense, human law and Natural law are frequently at loggerheads.
If all of this seems overwhelming and beyond one’s ken, one can plant some tomatoes, set out water for the birds, and write a poem—and empower one’s self to interpret the voices of homeland in juxtaposition with what one reads in the Times or hears during the News Hour.
The level of self-discipline required of each of us as we proceed into the coming decade is profound. We must literally begin by becoming well informed. I highly recommend reading A Great Aridness by William deBuys, Tropic of Chaos by Christian Parenti and Let the Water Do the Work by Bill Zeedyk and Van Clothier. I also recommend listening to the 14-part radio series, Watersheds As Commons, produced by Celestia Loeffler and myself, available to be heard by visiting our website at www.loreoftheland.organd reviewing Audio Downloads in the menu.
The Internet itself is a tool of extraordinary magnitude that may be used successfully in behalf of home habitat. But it must be visited judiciously and not over-used. Rather, we must spend as much time as we can out of doors, swimming in the flow of Nature, working to restore habitat, while contemplating the great mystery that urged life and consciousness into being on this lovely planet Earth warmed by our Sun— grateful for our brief link with Eternity.
Jack Loeffler is the author of numerous books, including Healing the West: Voices of Culture and Habitat. He is the recipient of the NM Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the Edgar Lee Hewett Award for Writing from the NM Historical Society. He was honored as a Santa Fe Living Treasure in 2009. For more info, visit www.loreoftheland.org.
About the author
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