A couple of weeks ago now, Watershed Committee Executive Director Mike Kromrey and I traveled up to Baraboo, Wisconsin on a very special trip. Today, our trip was even dubbed “a pilgrimage”. We were privileged to attend a two-day workshop at The Leopold Center, home of the shack from which Aldo Leopold drew inspiration for his writings in A Sand County Almanac. If you are unfamiliar with the text, please allow me to elaborate. Aldo Leopold was a forester, professor, scientist, and nature lover. He is viewed as the father of wildlife conservation and has published numerous papers and articles. He and his family bought a piece of farmland in Sand County, Wisconsin where they immediately and steadily set about planting pine trees, restoring prairie, and managing the game populations. Today, the shade and unique whisper of wind through pines can be enjoyed by many because of the work he completed in the 1930’s and 40’s. Leopold was also a passionate teacher and mentor. His graduate students, as well as his children, went on to do wonderful things in the name of caring for our natural world. He wrote in such a manner that his words stir emotions as well as intellectual conversation.

Perhaps the most important mark he has left upon our society (as if any impact can match the beauty and pleasure derived from the dappled dancing light show on a mature pine forest floor) was his discussion of what he termed “the land ethic.” He argues that, just as we find ethics in philosophy that guide the ways that we behave toward one another, we should also find an ethic to shape our relationship to the land. This land ethic seeks to expand the thoughtfulness of human interaction to the way that we treat our society and our non-human environment. The idea of community is critical to this ethic. We all live in a community composed, not only of other human beings, but of animals, plants, rocks, soil, water, and air. Each member of the community is affecting the others, and it is our responsibility to ensure our effect is balanced and sustainable; in other words, our use of the resources around us must not lead to the irreversible degradation of the community we live in.

The aim of the conference we attended was to explore our own land ethic through dialogue and group discussion. Along the way, we learned very tangible skills for guiding our own discussions here in our own community. We also inherited a generous supply of written resources from the conference, as well as an extensive network of professional contacts; men and women from across the country doing the same kinds of things we do. The experience was exceptional, to say the least. What we were left with was a fresh breath of air and two brains full with new ideas of how to engage the community, how to utilize the Watershed Center, and challenge ourselves and our peers. However, one of the most powerful ideas arose from a singular quote, found near the end of Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” which can be found in A Sand County Almanac. He said, “I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written.’” He said that a land ethic will evolve, “in the minds of a thinking community.”

The meeting room at The Leopold Center. All screen windows.

Who is the “thinking community?” Who is being excluded from it? Who do we need to bring into the conversation? These ideas of stewardship and harmony, of use and preservation, bring us into a discussion that may not have answers. However, there is no shortage of questions. As we find our questions, we will find those who share the same concerns and questions and we can begin the discussion together. Many who are reading this likely find themselves in the role of educator, land manager, environmental specialist, or some other like category. We are rarely lacking in projects or ideas, but we sometimes neglect the questions of “why?” Let’s ask each other “why?” Let’s continue the discussion here in Springfield, in the Ozarks. Let’s strive to be a thinking community.

If you want to hear more about the pilgrimage to Sand County, and if you would like to see some newly acquired facilitation skills in action, please join us for our July Monthly Meeting, this Friday, July 12th, at 7:30am in the Midtown Carnegie Library. We would love to have you. Thanks for reading.

Rob Hunt, Watershed Center Coordinator

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