The Wisdom of Restraint

I think I first read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac when I was in high school. I took a science elective course in Ecology which turned out to be one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Shamefully, I can’t remember the teacher’s name, but I’m wondering if he took a clue from Leopold in the way he conducted the class. Sure, we had to read a textbook and understand principles of ecology, but regularly he took us out in to the prairies, the forests, the marshes and bogs so we could experiences the ecosystems up close and personal. He was encyclopedic in his ability to identify the flora around us; he shared that knowledge with us and taught us, as well, the wisdom of being on a first-name basis with the plants and animals.

The first part of A Sand County Almanac is like that. Leopold was a forester, working in the early stages of his career for the U.S. Forest Service in the teens and twenties. He eventually went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin where the university established a chair in game management for him. While he was at Madison, he bought a farm and spent weekends and summers there. He chronicles the natural life of his farm, month by month, isolating, identifying and commenting on the birds or mammals or plants or trees, their behavior, their place in the ecosystem, and how it’s all interconnected.

I’ve found that familiarity with what’s around me in the natural world to be important to my own sense of connectedness with the natural world. It somehow seems to make a difference to be able to walk in the woods and recognize a Bloodroot or a May Apple. My sense of kinship with creation is enhanced when I can tell the difference between a hickory tree and a red oak. There is no joy like the joy of recognition.

Included in most editions of A Sand County Almanac is a collection of essays on a variety of topics related to the care of the natural world. As many times as I’ve read the the almanac, I don’t know that I’ve ever read the essays. I had no idea what I was missing. I found his words, written in the 1940’s for the most part, to be both wonderfully and troublingly prophetic. He foresaw both aspects and root causes of the crisis we now call climate change.

Among the many pertinent observations, one of them struck me as important for the contemporary crisis. He references a scene in the Greek tragedy, The Odyssey; Odysseus comes home and hangs on a single rope a dozen slave girls whom he suspected of misbehaving while he was gone. The Greeks had a highly developed moral code, but his action was still regarded as within the bounds of proper behavior because the servants were seen as property, chattel to be done away with or not depending on expediency.

He goes on to use this scene as an analogy for the relationship of human beings to the land. As long as we regard the earth and resources as property, we will continue to see our home as things to be used or not depending on what we need or want.

Our entitlement attitudes are so deeply entrenched; our environmentally abusive behaviors are so woven into the fabric of our lives. We continue to behave towards the land as if its a commodity, something solely for the sake of our own utilization. We’ve tended to view the use of resources purely in economic terms. What’s there is ours to use as long as its furthering the advance of human progress. Humankind is the one species that has the capability to radically alter the created world. Over the millennia, we have forged out a pretty life for ourselves, all things considered. But with all the advances we’ve made in technology, the one aspect of wisdom that we do not seem to have developed is restraint.

Barry Lopez eloquently comments on the same theme in his classic, Arctic Dreams:

Because mankind [sic] can circumvent evolutionary law, it is incumbent upon him. . .to develop another law to abide by if he wishes to survive, to not outstrip his food base. He must derive some other way of behaving toward the land. He must be more attentive to the biological imperatives of the system of sun-driven protoplasm upon which he, too, is still dependent. Not because he must, because he lacks inventiveness, but because herein is the accomplishment of the wisdom that he has aspired to. Having taken on his own destiny, he must now think with critical intelligence about where to defer.

I’m acutely interested in the environmental crisis from the standpoint of faith. Is it possible for the church to have a role in changing behavior? From a theoretical and theological standpoint, the answer ought to be “yes.” The earth and it’s resources is yet one more gift of a loving and gracious God, given or our use and enjoyment, but also given with the responsibility to care for it well.

In faith communities, we’re used to talking about restraint for the sake of our human neighbors. We give up some of our money, for instance, to care for the poor. This is an exercise of restraint. We don’t spend all we can so that we can share with others.

We’re not so used to talking about restraint when it comes to how we care for the earth. We do because we can. But it’s a value and a practice whose time has come, a way of living that we’ve got to embrace. We are all connected. We exist in a relationship with the world around us and it’s time to start seeing and talking about our place in relational terms. Indigenous peoples have known in and lived it for a long time. In the West, we have mostly lost that sense.

I really do think it’s possible for people and communities of faith to make a difference. After all, relationship is a the heart of who we are and who we live. If God is going to do something new with regard to caring for the earth, then we can start by behaving in a way toward that land that sees our place in relational terms.

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