Science to Live By: Mountain Thinking

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© J. Dirk Nies, Ph.D.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes–something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.—Aldo Leopold.

Stella and Guinea Hen Keet
Stella and Guinea Hen Keet

Carmen screamed. I knew from the tenor of her frantic call for help that she was OK. Something else must be terribly amiss. I rushed outside to find my wife in the front yard anxiously waving a garden shovel at the metal cage holding our rasp of Guinea Hen keets. A large Black Rat Snake had slithered its way in and coiled itself around a now lifeless, strangled bird. The other keets were hysterical. A quiet, early June morning outing from the hatchery into the sunshine to feast on clover and insects suddenly had turned tragic.

Weeks earlier, these keets were a clutch of eggs being rocking back and forth in a humidified incubator warmed to 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit. At 5 a.m. on a frosty morning in May, much to the delight of our granddaughter who was spending an overnight with us, the first of the clutch hatched. The miracle of new life coming into the world is a sight to behold. For a few anxious minutes, however, our diminutive hatchling almost did not make it. After taking its first sip of water (at my prompting), it went completely still. No chirps, no movement, eyes closed. Carmen held it close to her breast against the morning chill, singing a prayer as she gently stroked its tiny wings. We were thrilled when, with a little peep, it opened its eyes again. Such are the daily adventures of life and death on our mountain farm in Blackwells Hollow.

As much as I might like to, eliminating all risk of predation in the name of maximizing efficiency is not an appropriate goal for our farm. Predation is a natural and necessary phenomenon that governs the flow of energy up the food chain and across the web of life. Predators play a pivotal role in maintaining biodiversity and environmental quality. For example, deliberate extirpation of wolves from Yellowstone National Park resulted in greater than normal populations of deer and elk. This overabundance of large herbivores led to over-grazing of woody plants, which, in turn, effected beaver populations, degraded riparian water quality, and eventually weakened the deer population too. Today, the wolf is back in Yellowstone, in large part thanks to the pioneering insights and inspirational writings of Aldo Leopold; and the Park is healthier for it.

Aldo Leopold was one of America’s premier wildlife managers and conservationists during the first half of the 20th century. After graduating with a Masters in Forestry from Yale in 1909, he began his professional career with the U.S. Forest Service assigned to the Arizona and New Mexico territories. A major focus of his early work was to hunt and kill bears, wolves, and mountain lions that preyed on livestock. While at the Forest Service, Leopold wrote its first game and fish handbook, developed its first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon, and proposed that portions of New Mexico’s 3.3 million-acre Gila National Forest be managed as wilderness areas to remain wild and unaltered by the intrusion of roads or other evidence of human presence. Later in his career, he became the first professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department of the University of Wisconsin where he was recognized as the nation’s leading expert on wildlife management. In 1935, Leopold purchased an eroded, played-out farm in Sauk County (one of several so-called sand counties of central Wisconsin). In a shack on his farm, he collected his thoughts on paper into what was to become his landmark work, A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949 by Oxford University Press a year after he suffered a fatal heart attack fighting a wild fire on his neighbor’s property.

My opening quote comes from an essay that appeared in the A Sand County Almanac titled “Think Like a Mountain.” For Leopold, to think like a mountain (as opposed to thinking in a short-term, self-interested way) is to cultivate a deep appreciation for the long-term workings of the interrelated web of life.

I wish to turn our attention now to “The Land Ethic,” perhaps his most influential essay from the Almanac. His maxim for ecological wellbeing—“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise”—has served as a beacon and guiding light ever since “The Land Ethic” was published. In this essay, Leopold envisioned community as more than people. Community, which he collectively called “the land,” includes soils, waters, plants, and animals to which we are intimately connected and ethically responsible. He wrote, “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”

It is for the purpose of strengthening our ethical relationship with the land that I present two critiques of his landmark essay. They both have to do with energy. The first concerns his use of the “circuit” metaphor to describe the circular flow of energy from the soil through the food chain and back again to the soil. The second and more important critique has to do with the impact of generated energy on the food chain and “the land.”

“Energy flows through a circuit call the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers. The bottom layer is the soil,” writes Leopold. “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil.” Based upon Leopold’s perception of “the flow of energy through plants and animals and its return to the soil,” he asserts that “fertility is the ability of soil to receive, store, and release energy.”

I am uncomfortable correcting this distinguished Yale graduate and true giant in the field of ecology, but this simply is not true. Fertile soils do not release energy to plants. Energy does not flow through soils back into the food chain like electricity flows in an electrical circuit. Food chains do conduct energy originally derived from photosynthesis, but as energy flow through the web of life (biota), almost all of it gets expended via metabolism and ultimately is lost as waste heat to the atmosphere. As a better analogy than a circuit, I suggest a fireworks of plants, animals, microbes and fungi. The energy within a firework (plant) is expended going up (predation) and coming down (decomposition). By the time the remnants of the fireworks display reach the ground again, the initial store of energy is pretty well spent having been released as heat, light and sound into the atmosphere.

The second critique pertains to his silence on the impact of generated energy upon the community of life. All forms of life expend energy. However, in stark contrast to all other living creatures, we humans dramatically augment our natural, innate strength with enormous quantities of exogenous power. We are the only organism on the planet to do so. We are unique in generating energy outside of our bodies and directing this energy to extend the work we do. Both the current human population and our standard of living are made possible by this technological enterprise.

The natural world has a finite amount of energy flowing through the food chain that supports the web of wildlife. Unlike the stable energy budget of the natural world however, human consumption of generated energy has risen more than 500 percent since 1950. We have used generated energy— from wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, fossil fuel, nuclear—to appropriate and transform natural habitats for human purposes such as agriculture, business, transportation, and homes. We have used this generated energy to co-opt for ourselves—through commercial and recreational hunting and fishing—a large fraction of the biological energy flowing through the food chain. In effect, we have become unnaturally ravenous predators possessing supra-human energy.

Our use of generated energy to conduct the global economy has resulted in a shocking diminution of the biotic community. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, on average, global populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish in 2010 are roughly half their 1970 numbers. Over this 40-year time frame, Latin America experienced the most precipitous drop—a decline of 83 percent!

Governmental, financial and corporate plans are in place to increase the rate of expropriation of the natural world on a massive scale, especially in Africa. This internationally sanctioned policy to commandeer a greater share of the energy flowing through the natural food chain guarantees wildlife populations will continue to decline across the globe. I grieve their loss; I fear unforeseen consequences.

I close with perceptive warnings from ‘The Land Ethic’ that call upon us all to think like a mountain and take personal responsibility for the land community in which we live. “A system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts. It tends to relegate to government many functions eventually too large, too complex, or too widely dispersed to be performed by government.”

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