“Green Fire” introduces Aldo Leopold’s land ethic to a new generation

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” –Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), the conservationist, writer, and educator, and author of A Sand County Almanac, has long inspired those seeking to understand human society and its relationship with the land.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Curt Meine wrote his doctoral dissertation on Leopold. That dissertation was subsequently published as Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (University of Wisconsin Press). As a senior fellow at The Aldo Leopold Foundation, Meine continues to explore and communicate the legacy of Leopold to new generations in an ever-changing world.

Now Meine serves an the onscreen guide to Leopold’s life and influence in a new documentary, Green Fire. The Foundation produced the film in conjunction with the US Forest Service and the Center for Humans and Nature. See the bottom of this post for a longer synopsis of the movie. For a thoughtful article on Meine and Leopold, click here.

Watch the Green Fire trailer:

I’m looking forward to seeing Green Fire when it comes to town. The filmmakers also anticipate a national release on public television around Earth Day 2012. For more information, check out the movie’s website.

Two other items of note:

Leopold’s Vision and the Forest Service

The Forest Service has an informative podcast with the movie’s filmmakers, Steve and Ann Dunsky and Dave Steinke. Green Fire grew out an earlier project that the filmmakers produced to celebrate the centennial of the Forest Service in 2005. In the interview, Steve Dunsky speaks about how Leopold’s vision ties in with the evolving perspective of the Forest Service.

Well I think that was what was so exciting about doing this film is we didn’t just want to do a film about Aldo Leopold’s life, we wanted to talk about why he’s important today and the reason that this is in a way a sequel to The Greatest Good is that we see Leopold as being kind of the guiding vision of the Forest Service in the 21st Century. Gifford Pinchot and his colleagues in the early part of the 20th Century had a different idea about conservation: that nature was there to be used by people and it is. But Leopold’s vision is much more about people being part of a natural community, and that shift has been occurring in the Forest Service over the last twenty years. And I think that now is the time that we are really seeing the manifestation of that in the agency’s policy and our actions and so the timing is really perfect for Green Fire to be coming out.

The discussion also notes that one of the Forest Service’s priorities in Region Five (California/Pacific Southwest) is ecological restoration, which is what “Leopold was doing…before there was even a term for that activity.”

A transcript of the interview can be found here.

Leopold Out Loud

This past weekend, communities across Wisconsin got together to read from A Sand County Almanac. What started as a local gathering is now an annual celebration. In 2000, the Friends of Scenic Lodi Valley organized “Lodi Reads Leopold,” a 10-hour event during which 35 participants read A Sand County Almanac out loud, cover to cover. In 2004, Governor Jim Doyle (who served prior to the current governor, Scott Walker) declared the first weekend of March Aldo Leopold Weekend. The Weekend has spread to at least six other states.

Next year, after Green Fire has been screened widely, perhaps more communities will join the celebration.

The following is a long synopsis of Green Fire posted on the movie’s website:

Contemporary concerns about human impacts on the biosphere have made Aldo Leopold a powerful and increasingly relevant voice today.  His message of hope, curiosity, and critical appreciation of the natural world inspires people from many walks of life who are concerned about their own changing times and places.  In his own life, Leopold’s commitment to land, family, and community were inseparable. In light of the ecological challenges we face today, his story and ideas add depth to national and local discussions of the relationships between people and nature.

In Leopold’s more philosophical writing, he described nature—or, as he preferred to express it, “land”— as a biotic pyramid, “a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit” of soils, waters, plants, and animals as well as people. “Land health”—what scientists today more commonly term ecosystem health—implied a state of normal functioning in that land community and a high “capacity for self-renewal” or resilience. For Leopold a “land ethic” was an expression of individual responsibility to the health of the land, premised on the notion that human beings were “plain member and citizen” of the land community rather than “conquerors.” A land ethic was thus grounded in a sense of individual responsibility to the larger community of life.

Those who come to Leopold’s story and ideas have found varied meanings. For most, however, the experience inspires deeper reflection about the relationship between people and nature. Leopold’s personal story, his deep aesthetic appreciation, and his concepts of land health and a land ethic have influenced people across cultural and political divides and provoked robust debate. Leopold would be heartened by this, for he regarded a land ethic not as an individual’s expression but as a product of social evolution. “Nothing so important as an ethic is ever written,” he wrote. It evolves “in the minds of a thinking community.”  This perspective makes Green Fire an excellent vehicle for stimulating reflective discussion about community concerns and environmental ethics today.

Green Fire explores the themes of community and responsibility, both of which are pervasive in Leopold’s life and writings and in the work of many contemporary humanities scholars.  It will trace the evolution of these themes during his lifetime and in the broader American culture and explore them through contemporary efforts in communities, landscapes, and organizations across the nation that draw upon his work for inspiration.  From urban citizens in Albuquerque, Milwaukee, and Chicago to Western ranchers and farmers in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, and from the campus of Yale University to the wilds of the Apache National Forest in Arizona, these seemingly disparate threads come together through the story of Leopold’s life and ongoing legacy. Green Fire extracts these connections to help audiences think critically about community and responsibility and their own responses to today’s ecological challenges.

Leopold’s notion of an evolving land ethic provides the backbone of the narrative. It was the organizing idea that defined not only his personal, intellectual, and spiritual growth but in many ways the development of the American conservation and environmental movements over the last century. In particular, Leopold sought to resolve the long-standing (and often divisive) tension between the preservationist and utilitarian strains of conservation thought, policy, and advocacy. This essential dynamic in the history of American conservation remains problematic; meanwhile Leopold’s role in productively addressing it remains too little appreciated.

Green Fire also examines the theme of community–both within the natural world and in the social context of conservation. The related themes of sense of place, stewardship, and responsibility derive from Leopold’s notion of community and connect his story to creative contemporary expressions of an environmental ethic. His personal journey is part of a still larger, longer-term, and unfinished journey of Americans (and indeed people around the world) as their relationships to the natural world continue to evolve. The contemporary stories woven into the film illustrate Leopold’s continuing influence today, while also demonstrating a diversity of human relationships to nature.

The film frames Leopold’s life in terms of historical tensions that continue to shape our lives and landscapes: between nature preservation and the need to sustain healthy working landscapes, between the environmental impact of modern technologies and the practice of ecological restoration, between the proper functions of government and the creative role of experimentation by individuals and citizen groups; between urban and rural communities and interests; between local, national, and global concerns. Leopold was engaged in all aspects of these tensions and thought about them deeply. In illustrating the all-inclusive nature of Leopold’s ecological approach to politics, the film implies not one true or ultimate land ethic, but myriad ways and traditions of acting responsibly toward (and within) the land community.

Green Fire features commentary and insight from some of today’s most recognized historians and conservation leaders, including three of Aldo Leopold’s children (Nina, Carl, and Estella), numerous Leopold scholars, noted environmental scholars and writers, and respected scientists, public officials, and business and non-profit leaders. Historians Susan Flader and Curt Meine, and philosopher Baird Callicott have spent years explicating Leopold’s work. Additional scholars include historians Bill DuBuys and Sylvia Hood Washington, educator David Orr, and writer Peter Forbes, among many others.  Practitioners, like former Natural Resources Conservation Service chief Paul Johnson and International Crane Foundation founder George Archibald, return regularly to Leopold’s writings, while groups like Chicago Wilderness, the Southwest’s Quivira Coalition and Malpais Borderlands Group, and Vermont’s Center for Whole Communities draw heavily on Leopold’s inspiration and philosophy in finding new solutions to today’s conservation challenges. Other interviewees include ranchers, urban educators, Midwestern farmers, and students.   By challenging viewers to think about their own relationship and responsibility to the land community, the film inspires them to consider what a land ethic might look like in their own communities today.



Urban Bee

Kelly Brenner captured this wonderfully poetic image of an urban pollinator framed against the hustle bustle of the city.

Rather than going against the flow, bees in the city make sense. Studies suggest that bees often thrive in urban areas, which host a greater variety of plants than suburban yards or agricultural tracts. While pollinators — including bats, birds, bees, moths and butterflies — face many threats, urban beekeeping is growing rapidly. City dwellers (humans) can also help bees and other wildlife and conserve biodiversity by supporting wildlife gardens.

Kelly has a nice post on urban bees in her excellent blog, The Metropolitan Field Guide. She has also started the Seattle Urban Wildlife Group.

Photo credit: Urban Bee © Kelly Brenner/The Metropolitan Field Guide  (Many thanks to Kelly for permission to post her photo. You can find more of her photography on her Flickr page.)


Wetlands + NCAA Basketball = Marsh Madness (aka Brackishology)

If your interests run towards sports or towards nature – or even both – then I hope you’ll like this. May you will even be inspired to get involved during the next few weeks.

I like to learn about ecology, conservation, and the world around us – and I happen to love the NCAA (US) college basketball tournament.

So last year, Marsh Madness started out as a personal exploration of wetlands – marshes, bogs, fens, swamps, prairie potholes, vernal pools – during the course of the annual NCAA tournament.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, “Marsh Madness” is a play on “March Madness” the (trademarked) nickname of the NCAA tournament. Over the course of three weekends, teams from across the nation vie for the national championship. It’s one of the most watched events in the United States. According to Nielsen, more than 135 million viewers watched some of the NCAA tournament on television in 2008.

I like the NCAA tournament both for the drama of the sport and for the geographical aspects. For many, myself included, what makes March Madness fun to watch is the diversity of play and the matchups between teams that never meet during the regular season. The selection process for the tournament ensures that virtually every region of the country is represented. Some teams represent huge schools with long (in the relative sense) basketball traditions; others come from small colleges with several hundred students. Talent level and coaching styles vary widely. These pairings set the stage for unpredictable games and crowd-pleasing “Cinderella” stories. Last year, Butler University surprised most viewers by getting to the Finals.

Marsh Madness is everywhere

The phrase “Marsh Madness” came to me independently – but as with many things, others have thought of this as well. Marsh Madness is a fishing guide service in Louisiana, a local conservation group in Massachusetts, a fundraising run in California, and – this weekend – a celebration of wildlife in Greene County, Indiana. Marsh Madness has apparently captured imaginations everywhere. More on my Marsh Madness below.

Wetlands are threatened everywhere

Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, providing critical habitat for migratory birds and spawning grounds for fish, maintaining water quality, and preventing flooding. Coastal estuaries help to provide food, attract tourism, and support key economies.

Wetland loss, however, is a low-profile ecological catastrophe. According to Ducks Unlimited, the United States loses about 80,000 acres of wetlands annually, equivalent to a football field every nine minutes. Even though Marsh Madness is inspired by an American sporting event, wetlands loss is a global phenomenon. Wetlands International estimates that 50% of wetlands worldwide have disappeared since 1900. Last year’s Deepwater Horizon debacle highlighted the fragility of already degraded Gulf Coast wetlands.

For general information on marshes, you can start by checking out the EPA’s website.

A virtual journey across America, wetland by wetland

So my challenge was to look up a wetland near each college represented in the NCAA tournament. The tournament started with 65 teams and progressed through elimination rounds. Since a team reaching the finals plays six times, I eventually had to look for six wetlands each around Duke and Butler. Finding a wetland for each team playing in a game for each round, plus finding a wetland for each host location (why not), entailed researching approximately 140 wetlands.

Continue reading

The Big and Little Things of Life

“Little Things” is a beautiful video meditation on the value of nature created for The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study.

Hosted by the UNEP, TEEB convened a range of partners to assess and communicate “the global economic benefit of biological diversity, the costs of the loss of biodiversity and the failure to take protective measures versus the costs of effective conservation.”

No small challenge.

After consulting with over 500 experts from across the globe to discuss biodiversity loss and potential responses, TEEB produced reports directed at five categories of “distinct end-users”:

  • ecologists and economists
  • international and national policy makers
  • local governments
  • business
  • citizens

In October 2010, TEEB released its Synthesis report, “Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature,” at the Nagoya Summit on Biodiversity.

For citizens (granted, a rather broad category), TEEB launched a website, The Bank of Natural Capital. TEEB also sponsored a video competition which asked participants to communicate “Why Nature is so precious to me.” “Little Things” was the winner of this competition.

More recently, TEEB sponsored a contest in conjunction with Visualizing.org and Challengepost.com to challenge designers to visualize and communicate the value of nature and use of natural capital.

Today, TEEB announced that Jacob Houtman’s entry (click on the image above for an interactive version) was the most effective visualization:

The Value of Nature – Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity visualization was deemed the most effective at showing how we are using our natural resources and provided an informative and fun tool for people to explore the issue by country and by sector. The interactive map covers each country around the world, visually depicting the difference between the country’s capacity and footprint. Unsurprisingly, the States has a deficit given it’s footprint is much larger than its capacity!

What you have here are complementary ways of looking at nature’s services. Some appeal to the emotions and some to reason. Each is a part of an effort to align all of our interests so that, ultimately, everyone will take action to conserve ecosystems and life across the planet.

No small challenge.

The scale of this necessary endeavor brings to mind the Breton Fisherman’s Prayer, a version of which President John F. Kennedy kept on his desk in the Oval Office.

H/T to Maria Popova (@brainpicker) for the “Little Things” video. You can also follow TEEB on Twitter @TEEB4me

Photo credit: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Conserving Nature, or Learning to Love the Pigeon

“Rats with wings.”  Is that how you think about pigeons?

If ecologist Matt Palmer from Columbia University has his way, you’ll look at these urban dwellers (and maybe even rats) with new eyes. A handful of new phone apps can also help us to connect with and think differently about wildlife in the city. And that change of mindset may be a vital and necessary step towards conserving the world’s resources.

The Pigeon Paradox

At a conference on biodiversity sponsored by Columbia’s Center for Environmental Research and Conservation this week, Palmer spoke about the “Pigeon Paradox,” a concept proposed by Robert Dunn and colleagues in 2006.

The tremendous human footprint on the Earth’s resources is one of the hallmarks of this new age, dubbed the Anthropocene. Current conservation efforts are not sufficient to keep pace.

Palmer discussed the impact of urbanization on biodiversity. Most people across the planet now live in urbanized areas. Even though urban areas cover only 2% of the Earth’s surface, they account for 75% of resources consumed by humanity. Many rapidly growing cities, such as Delhi, Sao Paulo, and Jakarta, directly affect highly biodiverse regions through land use changes. And recent research by Eric Sanderson of the World Conservation Society indicates that the indirect effects of urbanization — through urban consumption — also impacts areas of great biodiversity.

Next, Palmer pointed out that direct exposure with nature shades perceptions of the world and contributes to a “conservation ethic.” This mentality broadly influences consumption, spending behaviors, and voting patterns. As more people live in cities, environmental leadership — for both local stewardship and global conservation — will have to come from urban residents.

The problem is that the growing numbers of people living in cities will also have less contact with nature. Out of sight, out of mind. Even though conservation efforts can preserve and even restore some habitats around urban areas, the range of urban flora and fauna will remain limited and certainly be less “charismatic” than those shown on nature programs on TV.

The “Pigeon Paradox” then means that fostering a “conservation ethic” — and conservation behaviors — may rely on developing a direct connection with what wildlife there is in urban areas.

So where to find wildlife in the city? Here in New York City, Palmer noted that one has to look at the parks and beyond — backyards, community gardens, street trees, highway medians, even cracks in the sidewalks. Other resources include institutions such as nature centers, zoos, and science museums (New York is blessed to have many), and activities specifically directed at celebrating local nature, such as NYC Wildflower Week.

Continue reading