November 25, 2012
As I’ve explained several times before, the key blog is play on key log—the one that holds everything else together. In the days of the great cutover, the key log is the one that has to be dislodged in order to break up a log jam so that the rest of the logs can float down the river to the saw mill. Loggers did not want to keep log jams together. They wanted to break them apart, and finding the key log was crucial to this purpose. When the key log is removed, the lock opens up, things fall apart and we go on our merry way.
I don’t know when people started using the expression “key log” to describe something that you want to keep in place because it is central to holding something together that you want to keep together—like maybe an argument that you are trying to make. I don’t even know that this is a very typical use of the expression “key log”. The fact that I’m using up so many pixels on your screen to explain the concept suggests that maybe it isn’t very familiar at all. If you knew what I was talking about when I started talking about key logs (much less key blogs) then you wouldn’t need me to conduct a brief lesson on cutovers (to wit, a crucial episode in the history of Michigan), or the logging industry (to wit, a crucial part of Michigan’s economic development) in order to explain the idea. Unless maybe it was just another ridiculous Thornapple blog tangent, introduced primarily for comic effect, but that isn’t what I had in mind this week.
It’s possible that Aldo Leopold his own self came up with this. Here’s what he wrote in his essay “The Land Ethic”:
One of the requisites for an ecological comprehension of land is an understanding of ecology, and this is by no means co-extensive with education. … The case for a land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against these “modern” trends.
The key-log which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. 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
Well come to think of it, Leopold doesn’t say that “integrity, stability and beauty” is the key log that holds things together. Like that Michigan logger, he’s thinking of the key log as the one that needs to be discarded. Not long before this passage, Leopold describes another obstacle to a land ethic as “the attitude of the farmer for whom the land is still an adversary or a taskmaster that keeps him in slavery. Theoretically, the mechanization of farming ought to cut the farmer’s chains, but whether it really does so is debatable.”
So it looks like I was confused back in 2009 when I talked about a key log as something that holds things together in a positive way. Maybe I was the one who first used the expression “key log” that way! It would certainly explain why I find myself explaining things some three years later. Nevertheless, “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.” That’s supposed to be one of the key ideas behind the CSA movement. Whether a CSA really does preserve the stability, integrity of the biotic communuty (or whether it keeps us in chains) may be debatable.
And that’s the sobering thought for the day this year’s Sunday after Thanksgiving. Sorry for that!
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University