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One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds–Aldo Leopold

I am lingering in a Sunday morning window, facing east. The sky is bright with attenuated daylight but the sun still hides herself behind the timbered ridge on the near eastern horizon. I am up and dressed and contemplating the day, but my rhythm is off. Were I at home, I’d be getting ready for church. I have a lifetime of reserving Sunday mornings and the momentum is hard to evade. Lent begins next week—a time for contemplation. Out my window on the budget hotel district of this Mississippi River town, parking lots are full of SUVs and minivans and a scattering of prematurely battered work trucks. There’s a kids’ hockey tournament in town and the pool was crammed last night with joyful rowdiness. But all’s quiet now. Thick frost covers the windshields and the shingles of the hotel roofs despite a forecast for unseasonably warm temperatures for late February in Wisconsin.

This is river break country. Coulee country. Driftless. This region escaped being ground into clay and gravel during the last glaciation (aka driftless) and, hence, its topography is one of ancient eroded sandstones where steep–sided ridges are dissected by deep fissured valleys (coulees). Ridgelines out my window, like ridgelines all over this region, are populated by oak trees now stood bare against the late winter sky. Backlit, those oaks bristle like a five-day stubble on the chin of the landscape. Yesterday, I hiked across one of those coulee bottoms in the bright sunshine and felt newly thawed soil slide under my boots. I caught the sun-warmed acrid smell of moldering oak leaves and the nutty sweet scent of forest mud. I also smelled a characteristic oniony smell—invasive garlic mustard, evergreen under the old snow and crushed in my boot prints.  

Roads disappear around blind corners and wind sinuously up the coulees under nearly complete tunnels of ancient craggy oak limbs. Oaks in forest interiors stand against the sky straight and austere, puffing out their chests and intimidating lesser trees with purpose and permanence. By contrast, ancient oaks at the roadside assemble their bulk into great stoop-shouldered overstories composed of wild and convoluted limbs and deep fissured bark. These are blue collar trees. Exceedingly tough and resolute in the face of thin weathered soils and the sweep of seasons. This is their country by right of ancestry. Upslope, the interior oaks lock their arms and keep the coulee soils from sliding off to the Gulf of Mexico.

Daylight arrives late in the coulee bottoms and peering deep into Gothic oak corridors draws on one’s imagination as bottomland roadways vanish otherworldly into fog and half-light. Like any ancient castle, the coulees are haunted by their familiar ghosts. The icy near-silence of a late winter morning is broken only by the chatter of chickadees and juncos and the odd early-bird robin. But, when you listen with your imagination, the empty corridors howl across a century of ecological loneliness, a lament for the missing. When Wisconsin became a state, passenger pigeons were the most populous vertebrates in North America, likely, the world. Passing flocks darkened the sky for days as they swept over the oak regions of the upper Midwest seeking acorn mast and roost sites. Aldo Leopold poetically described them as a biological storm “sweeping a path for spring across the March sky, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.” We can read about passenger pigeons but we can only half-imagine the majesty and the scale of the biological spectacle and the wonder it invoked. They were “lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air.”Comparing the pigeon flocks to storms was not hyperbole. Pigeons roosted in immense densities, their collective weight breaking oak limbs and causing sunlight to hit the forest floor, enabling eternally patient saplings an opportunity to race for the sky. “Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down, and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life.” When Leopold wrote in the 1940s, there still were people who remembered pigeons. Today there are none. The last pigeon died in captivity in 1914. I know of passenger pigeons only secondhand and then only because of my training in the natural history of the Midwest. I wonder how many of my fellow travelers have stood in this window contemplating pigeons.

I arrived road-weary, after dark on Friday. Alone and not feeling very adventurous, I chanced the hotel restaurant for supper. At 7pm, the dining room was mostly empty, so I chose a table by the window. Outside, moonlight illuminated a Mississippi backwater and beyond that, lights on the bluff on the Minnesota side. I glanced at the menu. Local IPA? Good. I’ll have one. Beef, chicken, or pork? Not feeling it, and I thought I could do better to reduce my carbon foot print. Fish fry? Well, yes…at least in terms of choosing to eat meat, a better choice. The Friday fish fry is a cultural staple in the Great Lakes region owing to a Catholic tradition for abstaining from meat on Fridays and a papal rationalization that fish wasn’t really meat. The waitress told me that the fish could either be fried or broiled and that I had a choice of two sides. So to spare myself a few calories, I ordered the broiled fish “fry,” a salad, and “seasonal” vegetables—wondering what vegetables were seasonal during February in Wisconsin.

Outside, the backwater was ringed by seasonal cottages sealed up for winter and a couple of ice fishing shanties stood near the mouth. I took graduate students here one summer on a field trip and the best value we could find to house our group turned out to be a little mom-and-pop resort consisting of similar cottages on another backwater just south of here. As the sun set on a sweaty busy day, we built a little fire in the waterside fire pit and fell into a backwater evening’s embrace as we methodically emptied our cooler of icy beers. Fortunately, the mosquitos were tolerable, but the big river, with all its floodplain mysteries and wetlands, asserts its own reality. As evening cooled, a thick warm breeze drifted in almost imperceptibly off the water and bathed us in clouds of friendly midges. Every surface near a light source became a landing pad for squadrons of spindly crane flies. Bats darted in and out of our view. Pale moths flirted ghost-like with flames at our feet and danced in the aura of backlit airborne pollen swirling in the yard light like Van Gogh’s Starry Night sky. As conversation trailed off, I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath of fragrant backwater air. I could taste the sweet mud, the algae, the duckweed, the perfume of sunbaked shoots of horsetails, reeds, and cattails. Riverine life, extravagant in its opulence and productivity, was washing over me. Beer in hand and sleepy, I was baptized by the grace of the great river.

My meal came. The salad was simple, but fresh: romaine lettuce, shredded carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Winter tomatoes are what they are—perpetually under-ripe. Seasonal vegetables were a “medley” of lightly steamed cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots. Nothing fancy, an honest and unpretentious selection of vegetables that are cold–hardy and travel well. I appreciated the crunchiness of fresh produce during late February in Wisconsin. The fish was haddock and it was overdone. I love to fish with my Dad and brother, and I love to catch, clean, prepare, and eat the fish we catch—so I can be a fish snob and I try not to be churlish. I like the taste of self-procured fish and I like to run the newsreel backward as I eat—from plate to frying pan, to fish house, to cooler, and to the tug at the end of my line. The meal thereby becomes a remembrance, a fond communion with family, the boats, the sunshine, the lake, and under it—ancient cycles of death and rebirth supported ultimately by sunlight and the chemistry of the good earth. The haddock on my plate is a north Atlantic species and running the newsreel backwards likely reflects unsentimental economics. Haddock are caught in quantity, cleaned in a factory and frozen before being shipped half-way across the continent to the kitchen of this restaurant so I can order a broiled Friday fish “fry” for twelve bucks a plate. Outside, those ice–fishers are after our native panfish, northern pike, and walleye. Here I sit, literally a stone’s throw from what may be the continent’s most productive riverine system, here in a state that borders two of the magnificent Great Lakes with their own sustainable fisheries, here in the middle of the continent eating salt–water haddock instead of a native freshwater species. How is it that we’ve constructed an economy that makes haddock the unremarkable choice?

About an hour south of here, the country’s “hardest working river,” the Wisconsin, meets the Mississippi at Wyalusing State Park. Wyalusing is Wisconsin’s oldest state park and features a magnificent view of the lowland forest delta at the confluence from an oak-covered bluff.  The Wisconsin is my adopted hometown river and indeed most of Wisconsin is drained by the Wisconsin River’s watershed. Not far upstream, another seasonal cottage sits on the Wisconsin’s floodplain—the shack where Aldo Leopold wrote much of what would be published as A Sand County Almanac. As certain as that river runs through and defines the physical geography of my home, the river also runs through and defines the philosophical geography of my profession. Leopold’s essay on passenger pigeons was motivated by a request to speak at the dedication of a brass plaque that commemorates pigeons. The plaque is fixed to a stone at the overlook and its inscription is simple and direct. It is “dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept. 1899.” The only other information given is this remarkable sentence: “This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlessness of man.” It’s a word that was unfamiliar, so I looked it up. Avarice is greed.

I am here at the AmericInn for two nights for some business south of town. My route from the hotel on the north end to the work on the south end takes me through the old downtown. This downtown is one of the lucky ones. Downtowns of small cities in Wisconsin seem to succumb to one of two fates. They are either abandoned and neglected in favor of big-box chain stores and strip malls on their periphery or they are rediscovered for their old-timey quaintness and repurposed into specialty shoppes (with an “e”), brew-pub eateries, and sports bars. Downtown storefronts stand cheek by jowl on narrow sidewalks reflecting a time when parking convenience was not the prime directive for commercial architecture. Entering these downtowns, one feels closeness and intimacy with the storefronts. Often, some fraction of these old storefronts are built of or faced with native sandstones in various sepia-toned browns and golds. A clever geologist could probably orient herself to any region within Wisconsin simply by relating downtown sandstones to local bedrock. Leaving the old downtown, the horizon expands into the anonymity of chain stores set back from the road behind acres of impervious asphalt. I counted five separate iterations of the same sandwich chain during my north to south traverse—a distance of about four miles. It’s the chain that I patronize when I travel for work because I know what to expect, because it’s easy and convenient. I could be anywhere.

Aldo Leopold

For Leopold, there was no real distinction between the ecology of a place and its history. In the Good Oak essay, he memorably used the metaphor of saw teeth raking through progressively deeper growth rings as a device for reflecting on the conservation history of Wisconsin since the Civil War. I think of that often. Outside my window, likely there still are oak trees that are old enough to remember passenger pigeons. We will never understand fully how passenger pigeons shaped the dynamics and life history of our Midwestern oak forests but we can be certain that their influence was immense. That thought is sad enough in a coldly scientific context but even more so in a spiritual sense. Those oaks had untold centuries of coevolution with pigeons to tailor their patterns of mating and regeneration to the rhythms of the great flocks sweeping over the eastern regions of what would become North America. Likely, the regenerative patterns of oaks over the vast forested regions east of the prairies evolved to exploit the patterns of disturbance caused by pigeon flocks. For millennia these symbiotic super-populations danced in harmony to the rhythmic ebb and flow of periodic ice ages and the slow drift of continents. No doubt that as a strategy for coping with the biological storms the oaks over-produced acorns as a hedge against millions of hungry pigeons. Leopold lamented that, with pigeons gone, “(w)orm and weevil must now perform slowly and silently the biological task that once drew thunder from the firmament.” I wonder if the oaks are lonely.

Leopold was not a religious man, at least not overtly. His writing though gains gravity through allusions to both the Bible itself and language that we really only hear in church. Leopold developed a great love for nature as a child growing up on a Mississippi River bluff and let that love draw him into a new career (forestry) focused on the self-assured use of science to understand and manage, to conserve, that nature. As he matured, Leopold the scientist traded in the metaphysical properties of wonder and mystery and joy and beauty and something that he terms “perception”—a quality that I think I understand but have difficulty describing. To the applied disciplines of conservation, Leopold is a scientist and professional pioneer, but to the rest of the world he is known as a writer and philosopher, as an artist with prose. Late in his career he realized that rationally describing and highlighting our dependence on nature was not enough to motivate us to protect and preserve it even as we extract from it things that keep us alive and comfortable. Leopold realized that conserving nature required a new value system predicated on a new relationship between humans and nature, one that recognized an intrinsic value in nonhuman nature alongside the reality that we must use nature to survive—and that this was only possible if we develop an emotional connection to nature, a love for it. And as testament to his resolve (or his naiveté), when he recognized that American cultural values were largely insufficient for the task, he boldly set out to change them. 

For more than a decade now, I have taught the fundamentals of wildlife conservation at the Au Sable Institute. Au Sable serves a network of small Christian colleges by providing summer courses in a field setting in northern Michigan. On the first morning of class, I pray with students and ask God to guide us in our study of creation stewardship, and then without any further discussion about course content or introductory classroom logistics, I invite them to follow me into the woods. I walk quietly, and they do too eventually, as we process in single file down a trail. We walk alongside a pond and then up a modest rise under a dense canopy of yellow birch, maple, and beech with an understory of nearly decomposed white–pine stumps—ghosts of the cutover when rapacious lumber barons mined the pineries of the Great Lakes region and turned the magnificent primary forests into vast fields of stumps and slash. On the far side of the pond, I stop and tell my students to work together to find the largest oak on this hillside and then to come back to get me. By now I know where the oak is. This breaks the silence and gets the students talking among themselves: “What does an oak look like? How far should we go? Should we split up and work in smaller groups?” I smile and say nothing and they figure it out, and get to know one another in the process.

This is not really an oak site—too mesic and more the domain of maples and beeches and white pines. But eventually my students lead me to the big oak at the top of the hill and I invite them to sit down and get comfortable among the bracken ferns and then I read Leopold’s mournful tribute to an extinct bird. I take my time. The pigeon essay is so rich in imagery and lament that it can only be properly digested and savored if chewed slowly and intentionally in small bites. I ask for their imaginations and I linger over the drama of immense flocks sweeping the landscape and breaking mighty oak trees in thunderclaps of cacophonous biomass. I point them to the oak and impress on them that this very oak may be a living link to the time when pigeons were the forest’s keystone species—that in oak-time, we are but an eye-blink from the feathered tempests. I want them to experience beauty in Leopold’s writing and beauty in the summer Midwestern forest where they are now sitting and then to connect those both to beauty in their own imaginations. And without saying so, I invite them to mourn. To mourn the loss of wonder. The loss of connections. The lament of unnaturally empty skies and most importantly, the loss of this species as a reality that once awed us with its intensity. In its place is an abstract and impotent memory that fades with every passing generation. I have five weeks to teach them the techniques and policies and scientific principles behind the practice of wildlife conservation, but first I want them to feel why it matters.

But does it? Are my students enriched by knowing about passenger pigeons or are they better off not knowing? Do I draw down the cumulative joy in their lives by telling them the tragic history with no happy ending? Or is there a higher purpose? On my best days, I hope that the story of passenger pigeons registers as a cautionary tale of hubris and unintended consequences, and I hope the story motivates students to speak out against cavalier diminishments of plant and animal kin that share the planet with us. The pigeon story is canonical in my field but we recount the history as backstory to passage of the Lacy Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, two Federal laws that ushered in a new era of conservation and likely prevented other species from following pigeons into the abyss of extinction. Retelling the canon has value and I don’t think I’d do it if I didn’t have some faith that it may inspire some one of them—eventually. However, lament doesn’t get much mention in the otherwise resolutely objective language of a scientific education. Leopold likely was remembering passenger pigeons when he wrote about “living alone in a world of wounds.” Teaching a class enables a bit of suspended reality if done correctly. I take my students and we step outside the day-to-day to question and explore and muse, but we do it all within the confines of a merciless clock that commands us to suspend the suspension at the appointed time. When class is done, we step back, rub our eyes, and shake the fairy dust from our minds so that we can return to the business of making grades, finishing degrees, finding jobs, and planning for our retirements.

We expect a warm assurance that we can have it all—that our dependencies on nature are benignly “managed” somewhere else. Wealthy Christians put a pious spin on this assumption under the guise of “caring for Creation.” God becomes the omnipotent manager, absolving us of our responsibility for our kin. Indifference is baked in—this despite the fact that most of us who care are indeed aware of the disproportionate impact that wealthy Westerners have on the earth’s resources. Much has been written about our physical and psychological estrangements to creation largely because we outsource our connections to it. There’s a spiritual estrangement as well. We don’t grow or hunt or gather our food and thus we don’t need to understand our local ecology. We buy it and we accept the environmental costs of packaging and transportation as just part of the bargain. Does a sense of place matter when we no longer depend upon that place and our neighbors there for our sustenance? We swim in a sea of information where we can choose diversions and entertainments to occupy our time. Is this avarice? At best, most of us, the thoughtful ones, rationalize our consumptions because of the important work we do, our busyness, our sense of the triviality of one person’s efforts in the cultural juggernaut rolling into the future. We like our convenience and our freedom from connections and responsibilities and we are so inured to the environmental costs that we don’t think twice about fresh ocean fish in the middle of the continent and crunchy fresh vegetables in February or the expectation that we will know what to expect when our SUV rolls up to the hotel/restaurant/retail chain store. We want ruthless efficiency and unsentimental economics. We have no need of pigeons or oaks or the dramas that connect them—and us.

Leopold quotes from: Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County almanac and sketches here and there. Oxford University Press.   

Timothy Van Deelen

Timothy Van Deelen is a professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.