December 1, 2013
Sunday after Thanksgiving is the anniversary date for the Thornapple Blog. I always write something that recalls the very first blog in 2009. That one built on Aldo Leopold’s classic work in environmental philosophy A Sand County Almanac. The “key blog” idea is that at least once a year we would remind ourselves of Leopold’s ecological vision. Farms were certainly a part of that vision, though Leopold was not naïve about farmers’ tendency to abuse. Leopold’s own farm located in one of Wisconsin’s sand counties (there is no “Sand County” in Wisconsin) was more like a weekend retreat. It was a piece of land that had been ravaged by some poor schnook who was trying to wrest a livelihood out of some marginal scrub land. Leopold was undertaking an ecological restoration project on the place, and not really trying to make it pay for itself. He died fighting a wildfire out there in 1948.
As I’ve said at least four times before, the key blog is a pun on Leopold’s key log—the log that has to be removed to break the logjam. For Leopold, the key log was the idea that that land is merely property: something that the owner has the right to dispose of at will, and with little regard for the thing’s integrity. Leopold discussed Homer’s Odyssey to make his point, noting that on his return to Greece Odysseus hung his slave girls all on one rope. He had the right to do it because they were his property, plain and simple. We’ve moved beyond that, Leopold thought: we accept the idea that all human beings are part of the moral community. Now it’s time to take a step further and incorporate duties to the land itself into our concept of community.
The trick here is to have an ecological understanding of community. Or at least that’s how I read Leopold. A community is not just a bunch of people who happen to be living in geographical proximity. A community is an interacting system that produces and reproduces its fundamental institutions and social relationships generation after generation. People are dependent on their communities in myriad ways. Communities are the source of basic needs; they are (or at least used to be) the underpinnings of an economy. They imbue practices of mere subsistence with dignity and meaning. They tell us who we are.
Failing to be who we are, we allow the workings of community to deteriorate. We find ourselves living amidst people we cannot recognize. And in turn their failure to recognize us leaves us at a loss. It’s quite possible that this loss puts us at risk in a material sense, but there’s no question that we are spiritually bereft and emotionally adrift when communities devolve into mere social groupings. Leopold’s idea—and on this point Wendell Berry is clearer—is that once upon a time human communities could depend on their natural environment and their subsistence activities to provide a crucial infrastructure to the reproduction of community. But not so now. Not only have we lost our understanding and appreciation of our dependence on a natural ecology, our persistent abuse of it threatens its very existence.
Not such a heartwarming thought for Thanksgiving weekend, I admit, but still and all, maybe we do need to remind ourselves at least once a year.
Thanks to both of my regular readers for your occasional responses. Everyone needs a little recognition now and again.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University