Earth Week: Sanders Urges Cultural Shift

by Steve Charles

April 19, 2013


Award-winning essayist Scott Russell Sanders doesn’t call himself a nature writer. He prefers “Earth writer.”

“I’m interested in life on this planet—all life,” he writes in the preface of his new book, Earth Works. “Since I know most about my own species, I think mostly about human affairs, but I do so while seeking to understand how our kind arises from and affects the living world.”

On Thursday the Earth writer and Indiana University professor emeritus returned to Wabash to help the College’s Environmental Concerns Committee (ECC) celebrate Earth Week and to talk about how one of our kind—conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold—affected the living world.

Wabash Professor Marc Hudson introduced Sanders, praising him for “a steady compassionate gaze at this wondrous planet, and [for] teaching us how to live in this place.”

Opening his presentation on Leopold’s “Land Ethic” with a recording of bird song, Sanders said the author—best known for his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, a cornerstone of conservation science and ethics—often drove to his farm outside of Madison, WI at sunrise to listen to the birds. He’d bought the land to restore it, planting thousands of trees in whose presence he felt “a transfusion of courage.”

Sanders juxtaposed the pastoral sounds with a projected image on the Korb classroom screen of bacteria in a petri dish, noting that bacteria in a limited space die by exhausting resources, poisoning themselves, or pressing up against the limits of the glass.

“We have the same impulse to grow,” Sanders said, adding that today’s society, “even more than when Leopold was alive, is run by and for money.

“When you hear, ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ that’s the bacteria talking, that the compulsion.”

Sanders showed images of destruction from the clear-cutting of forests at the turn of the 20th century to current practices of open pit mining, tar sands extraction, fracking for natural gas, mountaintop removal coal mining.

“The impact of human appetite has spread far and wide,” Sanders said. “But culture can change.”

He referred to the Save the Whales campaign of the 1960s and 70s which brought about the ban on whaling.

“People said let’s stop it. We made a decision to refrain from something we’d always done.”

It’s the sort of cultural shift that Leopold called for, and one Sanders sees as even more urgent today.

While scenes from Leopold’s life were projected onscreen, Sanders offered a short biography of a man whose “mother was a lover of beautiful things” and whose father was “an outdoorsman and avid sportsman with a sportsman’s ethic that guided his behavior.

“His father was a man who believed there’s an ethical way to hunt, fish, and use the land; you don’t just do what you can get away with.”

An early graduate of the nation’s first forestry school, Leopold joined the U.S. Forest Service and was assigned to New Mexico, where he observed destructive practices that have only recently been regulated against.

Sanders quoted from “The Land Ethic,” one of the most famous chapters in A Sand County Almanac: "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."

Sanders asked: “What would it mean for society to embrace this land ethic, this earth ethic? What would it take to cause a cultural shift in values informed by science history art society to embrace the earth?”

Sanders quoted Leopold: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see feel understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”

“When we love something we will work on behalf of it,” Sanders said. “But we have to be exposed to it to develop that affection.

“We need to make the land present to people so they feel it as a reality in their lives.”

Sanders said that artists, writers, photographers, scientists and others all had important roles to play in this effort. And all of us can spend more time outdoors, away from electronic devices, and take our children outside with us.

He said that Leopold’s daughter, when she was 92 years old, told him that when her father took the family for weekends on the Leopold farm, she had wanted to stay in town. Yet her fondest and most formative memories were from working together with her family as they restored that land.

“That’s the gift she and the other Leopold children got from their parents, and it’s a wonderful gift,” Sanders said. Pointing to an image of the earth and moon projected behind him, Sanders said, “This is home, this finite planet.” He suggested that students “pick up A Sand County Almanac and give it a read. It’s a marvelous, important book.”

Earth Week at Wabash continues tomorrow with a call to action as the Friends of Sugar Creek sponsors a clean up at the Bachner Nature Reserve at 1 p.m. On Monday, Students for Sustainability and the ECC open this year’s Wabash Community Garden with a Garden Party from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Earth Week events conclude Tuesday, when Matt Huber, director of Purdue University’s Climate Change Research Center speaks in Hays Science Center Room 319 at 12 p.m.


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