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  • Matt Breton

Reflections on a Land Ethic - Choices and Action

(All quotes in bold below from Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac)

“A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke [of his axe] he is writing his signature on the face of the land.”

Change is ever-occurring. Ceaseless. In society, much like the old maples in my yard, there are never truly still minutes, though the change creeps so slowly as to be imperceptible until the branch finally breaks from the weight of a summer rain. Slower than the axe Leopold mentions, but just as sure. When the branch broke from one my yard maples, the change seemed sudden. Thankfully the house escaped unharmed, brushed lightly in warning despite the shaking we felt, the walls and foundation threatened. The event shed light on the change in the rest of the tree, foreshadowing, perhaps, more drastic things on the horizon.

…nothing so important as an ethic is ever 'written'… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.”

There is often talk that we should have a land ethic. There is very little talk about the ethic we actually live with. Ethics are slippery; relativistic and full of personal preference. While it cannot, nor should not, be canonized, I think the “thinking community” that Leopold envisioned could do a better job of laying out a starting point upon which to act.

Do I cut the maple down and make firewood out of it?

Do I try to sell it log length?

Do I hopefully get another year out of it to get another season of sap?

Do I simply let it exist as itself and let the change happen?

Does the fact that It was planted by somebody a hundred years ago influence my decision?

Are these questions and answers my ethic at play or is the conversation around a single tree too small? I don’t think so, for this is where I begin the building, starting to lay down lumber that builds the structure of the ethic. I feel the need for a firmer foundation, one that won’t be shaken by a single falling tree limb. Trying to grasp this ethic is like holding the wind. And yet, as a system where we outline our values, there must be something firm enough to begin building on, knowing that, much like an old building, if it is to stand, the sills will eventually rot and need to be replaced.

An ethic is not a static enterprise, as much as I might wish it to be for the sake of simplicity. My personal ethic morphs with my experience; shaping itself between the splitting block of what is preferred and the axe of what feels distasteful. As a community, alterations to a larger ethic occur just as surely, though perhaps not as quickly. What we value over time is the ethic we live with, though perhaps not what we aspire to. The departure of the elm, the fear of loss of the ash and the beech cede the forest to the maple and birch – do I mourn the loss of complexity? Indeed; despite my ignorance of how complex it truly is.

All burn in my fireplace.

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace”

Thankfully, with that big maple limb in my wood pile, I know where my heat comes from. I wander through the snowy November woods following the track of a buck, hoping to secure my winter’s meat to know where that comes from as well. Ethics and decision making follow me there, too. I cannot escape the choices I must make to stay alive. This wandering connects me deeply to this particular landscape and the fruit it bears. Ties that bind. Blood spilled and the flesh of this land becomes me; the endless cycle continues. While I am probably not the farmer Leopold spoke of, I do feel my spirit shares in an ancient knowledge that involves sap from strong broken maples, potatoes from the earth, and meat from the woods. There is a resilience here on the land that seems less like resistance to change and more of a grudging shift, an ability to heal wounds and live with scars delivered by the axe of existence.

I desire to be part of the thinking community Leopold envisioned, but, maybe better, part of a community of action. When I listen to the book-smart people talk, I am amazed at the academic knowledge amassed around the ecology of our place; the depth and breadth of the information of the land they hold. And when I listen to the woods-smart people talk, I am likewise amazed at their knowledge; born of experience and time. Unsure of my role in the greater community, neither academic or wise woodsman, my ethic is a reflection of what I chose to do, the simple actions in my time and in my place. Among other things, I exist as a hiker, fisher, sugar-maker, hunter, listener, canoeist, fire maker; a hopeful caretaker of the land that exists under foot in my wandering.

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

I turn my ear to the wounded old maple. Its knowledge deeper and older than any of the rest I had considered, I wonder what it wants, where it sees itself. My sense is that it considers little, unencumbered by concerns for the past or the future, but perhaps it hopes. The maple has brought change to the place it inhabits for a century and has, in turn, been changed, likely accepting its role as part of that unending change. Planting, growing, firewood, heat, sap, and death… the give and take are merely swings of the axe that the maple and I share. I am struck by the depth of complexity that exists in this one moment, should I choose to see it. I rest easier knowing that the land is there, and that there will be other trees and other axe-wielders who will pause to consider what the tree might think. In the present, that seems enough.

So too my ethic. It is mine alone to shape by the decisions I make and the things I do. Choose to support timber management instead of wilderness there, old growth over successional habitat here. Doing nothing is not really an option; that choice is assuredly an action, too, for the change is unrelenting. The maple by the house stands untouched by my axe for now, but still changing. I decide it is neither right or wrong, for the moment, and hope I am correct. Acknowledging past wrongs and knowing that there will also be errors in the future, I try my best.

Achieving what is best is likely unattainable as it, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. The land is beautiful just as it is and as it will be, as long as it is there. At one moment a foundation with a house upon it, in a blink it will be an old cellar hole; a wound of sorts, reclaimed by a generation of backyard maples and apple trees. A source of wonder to those who wander by; a scar that softens and tells a story. Eventually even those trees will fall and the story vanishes. So too the road, the turbine, the dam, the high rise.

A land ever-underfoot, shaped by our axes and splitting blocks, full of wounds, changing scars, and beauty.

As if by prayer, through my ethic and chiefly my action, may it ever be so.


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