Monday, November 19, 2012
I recently had the pleasure of participating in the Aldo Leopold Foundation's Land Ethic Leader Program here in Baton Rouge. The program "is rooted in Leopold's own method of engaging his family and students in developing a personal land ethic - observing the natural world through scientific inquiry, participating in purposeful work on the land, and reflecting on their experiences. Together, these activities can bring prople to a new understanding and respect for the landscape around them."
First of all, I was thrilled that LSU was selected to participate in the program, as only a few sites were selected nationally for this first round of workshops. Being from the deep south, I have a lifelong perspective on the peculiar relationship of the people with the land. Hunters, fishers and other outdoorsmen and women abound, providing a strong cultural connection to the beautiful natural landscapes of the south and its stunning biodiversity relative to other parts of the country. Yet these values often clash with cultural perspectives on the need for arguably unassailable private property rights and as little government regulation as possible. One only has to witness the rapid urban sprawl consuming southern landscapes to see this. The south has long been hungry to catch up with the rest of the country on the economic development front, dating all the way back to reconstruction. Yet the lack of adequate land use planning - due in large part to resistance to even local government planning restrictions - has exacerbated major threats to southern landscapes. Comparisons with land use planning in other parts of the country, such as the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast, bear this out.
Nonetheless, there is a strong core upon which to build a land ethic. Louisiana has particularly beautiful landscapes: upland forests and wetlands, ridgelands, coastal estuaries and wetlands, and a major deltaic riverine ecosystem. Though there are large trucks aplenty on the highways, many of them are carrying ATVs, boats, and other "facilitators" of outdoor activities. You need to protect the land to be able to play on it, which people here understand. In addition, Louisiana has been forced to grapple more directly with the consequences of land degradation earlier than many other regions, as its land is being lost at astonishing rates each year due to subsidence and sea level rise, and with each and every hurricane or other storm event. Louisiana's 2012 Coastal Master Plan implicitly highlights the consequences of failing to maintain a strong land ethic in the past, and how this has directly placed the people of Louisiana in harm's way - whether it be due to increased storm surge in New Orleans due to rapid development and filling of wetlands or otherwise.
The Land Ethic Leader program began with a showing of Greenfire, the compelling documentary on the life of Aldo Leopold - one of the preeminent conservationists of the last century. Leopold himself was an ardent hunter and fisher. Yet his transcendent moment in his undertstanding of humankind's relationship to land came as he shot a wolf and watched a "fierce green fire dying in her eyes." The next day, we met at the LSU Burden Center, which is a beautiful 440 acre tract of land upon which a number of research activities take place. We started the day with an outdoor observation activity, then participated in a series of discussions on land-related literature, such as "Learning the Trees" by Howard Nemerov and "Lines in the Mind" by Donella Meadows. These discussions were designed to help us learn how to facilitate land ethic discussions in the classroom or elsewhere. Day two took us to the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center, which I am thrilled to say is only a couple of miles from my home. The Center is "a 103-acre facility dedicated to conservation, education, recreation and tourism. It houses an award-winning, 9500-square-foot building filled with live animal exhibits; photographic presentations of the site's flora and fauna; natural artifact and mineral displays . . . Over a mile of gravel paths and boardwalks link varied habitats such as the cypress-tupelo swamp, beech-magnolia and hardwood forests. Wildlife is plentiful at Bluebonnet Swamp, including hundreds of bird species utilizing the site throughout the year . . . While snakes and turtles are commonly seen from the trails, raccoons, rabbits, opossums, armadillos, squirrels, foxes, coyotes, deer and otter are also known to inhabit the site." We began the day by pulling invasive species out of the swamp, and continued discussions of such works as "Street Trees" by Melody Chavis and "Thinking Like a Mountain," by Aldo Leopold. Finally, we brainstormed about projects that we could take back to our respective departments on campus (or in our respective organizations). Overall it was a fantastic learning experience, and I feel far more equipped to lead discussions on land ethic issues going forward. I am even contemplating a course on "Land Ethics and the Law," whereby we discuss various aspects of land use, environmental, natural resources, and other areas of law and policy, and their intersection with our use and conservation of precious and finite land resources.
In my own life I can look back and see that a simple lack of knowledge and information prevented me from having an appreciation of land ethics and a responsible relationship with the land - not political ideology. I believe that it is the same for many others in the south, who simply have not had an opportunity to be exposed to the kind of information that shapes one's perspective on our relationship with the land. Given, however, that many people in the south already experience this through their outdoor activities - though they may not describe it in an academic sense - if information on better land ethics can be adequately transmitted to the people, no ethic will have ever spread farther and more quickly.