Monday, January 13, 2014

Happy Birthday, Aldo Leopold...and Ultrarunning

[image credit here]

Saturday (11 Jan 1887) was the birthday of the person--Aldo Leopold--who more than any other shaped my views of the natural world. 

Mr. Merritt, a prescient college professor at my alma mater, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was my instructor for an ornithology course, and recommended the book A Sand County Almanac to us (Merritt also posed the question "Why do birds sing?" and answered it thusly: "Because they are happy.").
Anyway, I got a copy, immediately read it from cover to cover, and make it a point to read it again every single year.  For me, A Sand County Almanac still remains the single most important--and interesting--book I have ever read.
From the Writer's Almanac, which recognized Leopold's birthday: 

He defied convention in his work. Assigned to hunt livestock predators in a New Mexico national forest, Leopold began to feel that these bears, wolves, and mountain lions shouldn't necessarily be sacrificed for the sake of local ranchers, and he made the point that removing them had a broader impact on the entire ecosystem. His philosophy ultimately came to argue that humans ought not dominate the land; he popularized the term "wilderness" to mean not grounds for outdoor activity but nature in its own, untended state.

After 15 years in the southwest — during which time he developed the first management plan for the Grand Canyon, wrote the Forest Service's first game and fish handbook, and succeeded in designating the nation's first wilderness area — Leopold started and chaired Wisconsin's graduate program on game management. In 1935, Leopold formed The Wilderness Society with other conservationists.

He bought a worn out farm for $8 an acre near the Wisconsin River, barren and nearly treeless from years of overuse and degradation, in an area known as the "sand counties." With his wife and children, he set about tending a garden, splitting firewood, and eventually planting more than 40,000 pine trees. The farm came to stand as a living example of Leopold's life work and ethic, that peaceful coexistence with nature could be possible, and that the same tools used to destroy land could help to restore it.

Anyway, give yourself a late Christmas present and go get A Sand County Almanac.  In honor of Leopold, I'll rerun my very first post ever here at Mister Tristan, from Dec 2009:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Sand County Almanac
This is my inaugural post for this new blog, Mister Tristan.

Like a recurring pilgrimage, I have just
completed my annual re-reading of the ecological classic, "A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold. My initial reading was prompted some years ago by a college biology professor who recommended it. I became hooked, and for each of the last 30+ years, Leopold, who has been in his grave for 60 years, speaks to me and touches me with new and different insights into the nature of things wild and free. I now see Leopold's writings in a way which he never anticipated, but would certainly have approved of--from an ultrarunner's slant.


I continually examine my motives for endurance running (since I spend so much time doing it), and have for some time held the belief that we as a "civilized" species are now so far removed from the moment-by-moment struggle for survival that formerly ruled virtually every waking minute, that we now create for ourselves various means to simulate that intensity. I presume we do this because of some deep-seated need to experience life on the edge, to grab for that gusto and intensity. Thus I run ultras, to physically and mentally go to the edge and see what I can learn there about myself. And I like best to do this running in areas that are preferably wild and remote because there I somehow feel more connected. Simplistic, perhaps, but I suspect not far off the mark for many of us.

The tie-in with Leopold? Here are a couple nuggets: "Physical combat for the means of subsistence was, for unnumbered centuries, an economic fact. When it disappeared as such, a sound instinct led us to preserve it in the form of athletic sports and games...reviving, in play, a drama formerly inherent in daily life." Also, writing about outdoor recreation: "Recreation is valuable in proportion to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life."

And on wilderness, Leopold wrote: "Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility. The shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage in the land assumes that he has already discovered what is important; it is such who prate

of empires, political or economic, that will last a thousand years. It is only the scholar who appreciates that all history consists of successive excursions from a single starting point, to which man returns again and again to organize yet another search for a durable scale of values. It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise."

Anyone who values the notions of wilderness, solitude, self-reliance, and of communion with nature that many of us ultrarunners seek, as we use the backcountry as a route to our psyches or souls, should check out Leopold's book. It's commonly available in
paperback in bookstores in the Natural History section.


No comments:

Post a Comment