It isn’t as though we haven’t heard powerful voices through time extolling both the wonders of nature and the importance of preserving those wonders. Although Henry David Thoreau lived but 44 years (1817–1862), his abundant writings reveal his depth of concern for the natural history of the landscape around Concord, Mass., and for the need for civil disobedience when the governing body governs awry. Thoreau steeped himself in the countryside around Concord. When he entered the path through the woods, he endeavored to be in the woods whole-mindedly, savoring the flavor of nature, working assiduously to leave his concerns with the civilized world behind. Walking was a sacred act—“I have met but one or two persons in the course of my life, who understood the art of walking…” He immersed himself in the flow of nature, returning to the affairs of the day to write down his realizations for posterity and to craft some pencils to subsist. Indeed, he lived a handcrafted life, living his dreams as best he could. He lived consciously and simply. He took great umbrage at a society and a government that condoned slavery. “If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice, then I say Break the Law.”
Thoreau’s love of nature and his ethical standards are well-revealed in his collected writings. He penned many an apothegm; he was the master of the one-liner. To my way of thinking, he was America’s greatest 19th-century philosopher. He was fiercely opinionated, both condoning and practicing civil disobedience. He was loyal to his precepts. “Be true to your work, your word and your friend.” He died during the second year of the Civil War, never knowing its outcome. His influence extends deep into the present, having planted seeds long ago whose perennial yields are still being harvested a century-and-a-half after his death.
The lives of Thoreau and John Wesley Powell (1834–1902) overlapped in time for 28 years. Powell fought for the North during the Civil War and lost his right arm from the elbow down to a Minié-ball wound at the Battle of Shiloh. Like Thoreau, Powell was something of a loner who loved the natural world. Unlike Thoreau, Powell was also a capable bureaucrat. After the Civil War, he headed west, traveling through the arid landscape west of the hundredth meridian. He descended the steep canyon walls of the Colorado River, his party of stalwarts the first non-Natives to have done so, as far as is known. He recognized that Manifest Destiny had cleared the way for westward expansion after having rid the landscape of Indians hostile to interlopers from the East intent on carving fame and fortune by turning the habitat of the American West into money. Powell, himself, traveled unarmed among Indians regarded by others as hostile, riding his horse, looking into the vast and varied beauty of the American West. He explored watersheds, and, as the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey, valiantly lobbied the U.S. Congress to recognize the West, divided watershed by watershed, each a commonwealth owing fealty to the U.S. Government but otherwise being largely governed from within by each watershed’s human inhabitants. His plea was disregarded, and the West was organized geopolitically by the arbitrary state boundaries that continue to uphold. Had Powell’s proposal been accepted, the American West would be populated with folks who might well have had a much broader understanding of nature’s flow. But Powell was too late. American culture had opted vigorously in favor of economics as its guiding principle. Still, Powell’s reach continues to extend at least into the present day.
John Muir (1838–1914) was yet another great pioneer whose life overlapped with the lives of Thoreau and Powell. Muir was born in Scotland but migrated with his family to a farm in Wisconsin when he was 11 years old. His family members were deeply religious, and indeed Muir himself was a spiritual being. But his original Christian persuasion seems to have been subsumed by the spirit of nature. In 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War, Muir took his “thousand mile walk” from Indiana to Florida, following “the wildest, leafiest and least trodden way I could find.”
Muir arrived in California in 1868 and soon discovered the splendor of Yosemite. He hiked around the Sierra Nevada, absorbing the flow of nature and aligning himself with nature’s mystique, and gradually became one of America’s all-time, most powerful advocates for wilderness preservation for its own sake. Today, he is regarded by many as the “father of our National Parks.” Indeed, he worked closely with Gifford Pinchot, who was director of the National Forest Service. Muir and Pinchot bitterly disagreed over the fate of Hetch Hetchy Valley. Pinchot strongly favored the damming of the Tuolumne River that drains Hetch Hetchy Valley in the northern part of Yosemite to provide water to San Francisco. Muir countered by saying, “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has been consecrated by the heart of man.” Muir, then leader of the Sierra Club, fought for seven years and lost the battle to save Hetch Hetchy. Within a half-century, another sacred canyon would be drowned to serve human interests. The Glen Canyon Dam would stopper the Colorado River and flood Glen Canyon, yet another of nature’s marvels. If we continue in this trend, it won’t be long until we will have lost all our marvels to the insanity of elevating presumed human needs above the needs of natural ecosystems.
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was born when John Wesley Powell was 53 and John Muir was 49. Thoreau had been dead for 15 years when Leopold first peeked into the light of day. Young Leopold wanted nothing more than to be a forester. He spent as much time as he could outdoors, observing, hiking, listening to the sounds of nature, boating on the river near his home in Burlington, Iowa. The aforementioned Gifford Pinchot had donated money to Yale University to fund a graduate school of forestry, and young Leopold attended that school and was awarded an advanced degree in forestry. After graduation, he was assigned first to the Apache National Forest in Arizona and, later, to the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, where he soon became forest supervisor, thus achieving his life goal by the age of 25. It was here that he observed human impact on natural habitats and soil erosion due to the presence of cattle and sheep.
He was riding his horse from Durango, Colo., to Tres Piedras, New Mexico, where he lived in the cabin that he, together with his newlywed wife, Estella, constructed as both supervisor’s headquarters and their first home. Leopold was caught in a storm, and barely got home before he came down with a malaise that nearly carried him away and kept him from his work for two years. After he had sufficiently recuperated, he took the paid position of secretary to the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. He met a young insurance agent by the name of Clinton Anderson. Leopold convinced Anderson that certain areas of National Forest should be designated wilderness areas, forever off limits to roads, structures, logging and mining. Anderson became a U.S. senator from New Mexico, and, through Leopold’s guidance and Anderson’s political skill, the Gila Wilderness was established as America’s first preserved wilderness in 1924. Forty years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on the watch of then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.
Leopold’s original role with the U.S. Forest Service included the killing of bears, wolves and mountain lions. He came to realize that this incurred enormous damage to the overall ecosystems, depriving habitats of their natural predators. Thus, in his mind’s eye, he came to perceive wilderness areas as biotic communities that must remain intact in order to preserve their integrity. He authored many publications including his magnum opus, A Sand County Almanac. The final essay in this classic work is entitled “A Land Ethic,” wherein he wrote, “…quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Aldo Leopold died 22 years and one day before our first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
From where I sit in the high country of northern New Mexico, looking out my western window over 10,000 square miles of piñón-juniper grassland verging into ponderosa pine forest, where coyotes serenade each night sky, where bobcats and myriad other wild creatures pass through our little preserve in safety, I think of these four great men—Henry David Thoreau, John Wesley Powell, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold—and I doff my hat to them and silently give profound thanks to their memories for having sewn their perspectives into the commons of human consciousness. Collectively, they provided great insight, each proceeding with the courage of hearty pioneers, thus leaving four powerful buttresses to stabilize a foundation from which the modern environmental movement could proceed.
It was from that milieu that Ed Abbey, Gary Snyder, Dave Foreman and many others have taken much of their intellectual and spiritual cues to work as activists on behalf of our planet Earth. May we all take courage to proceed relentlessly and ethically to thwart human legislation, governance, and practices that violate the laws of nature by turning habitat into money for the sake of power and growth.
Author and bioregional aural historian Jack Loeffler is project director and moderator of Thinking Like a Watershed, a series of monthly panel discussions on the preservation of endangered ecosystems, through June, 2014 at the KiMo Theater in Albuquerque. 505.768.3522