Biokids at Holyoke Dam

From this month’s Ripple: Stories about Western Mass Rivers, cross posted from Hilltown Families

The land is an organism, wrote Aldo Leopold, the Yale-trained game management specialist, about seventy-five years ago. An organism is alive, and its life is made up of the contributions of disparate organs, each of which would be lifeless without the collaborations of all the others.

The idea—actually fact—that land is an organism is, of course, an ancient one, as venerable as our anthropomorphic figure of “mother earth.” Leopold’s work, especially his classic book A Sand County Almanac, reveals how he struggled through his education in empirical science to prove something that we, as a species, have felt and known for eons. If Plato was correct, and knowledge is remembering something we have forgotten, then Leopold stands as a vibrant example of a knowledgeable person. His experience of translating the wisdom of our ancient ancestors into the lexicon of science is one that anybody who loves and tries to protect land knows well.

When we try to preserve land, we presently have two arguments: an ecological one, and an emotional one. The ecological argument establishes the land’s value as a home for a diversity creatures. The emotional argument draws on the love people have for the land: the memories of enjoyment, the beauty, the character-modifying powers to be had there. A third argument, that trumps these, is the economic one. The land is an organism, but we value land—we buy and sell it—based on how many dollars it is worth.

Leopold felt it necessary to prove that land is an organism because, once people knew it, they would be motivated to have a collaborative (as opposed to confrontational), relationship with the land. He’d witnessed the creation of the Dust Bowl by plow-based corn and cotton agriculture, a way of farming driven by bank loans and heavy industry, & he knew North Americans could do better. If people knew they were part of the land organism, he believed they would take care of it.

He knew, also, that as long as our culture was based in an industrial economy, schools would not teach, and employers would not pay people to realize, harmony with the land. And so, here we are, having failed to do what he hoped, entering an epoch called the Anthropocene, our industrial emissions causing the rapid heating of our planet & acidification of our oceans: the clearcutting of forests causing desertification; the spreading of poisons and GMOs affecting our water and food purity, etc etc etc.

We have yet to articulate an effective defense of the land, based on its identity as a shared life—a life we share. This argument, firmly based in economic and scientific fact (& even presented in the movie Avatar), is simple: to destroy the land is to destroy ourselves.

Helping people to understand the argument is challenging. An industrial economy, like ours, is one where we shop for necessities that are shipped in from distant places. Global trade reduces our dependence on our land; the vivacity & intelligence of our mutual life is thereby diminished. For a suburbanite, the land is scenery; for a farmer, an organism. When land is scenery, its highest value is monetary; when an organism, it is priceless. It is priceless because, as Leopold wrote, it is where and how life is embodied: “Land … is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.”

When we depend less upon distant industrial outputs, and more on what we can manage locally, we gain a sense of how alive our place is. We get more connected to our neighbors, our farmers, the creatures who call Nonotuck home. We learn to pay a little bit more for something made locally, because we want our superorganism to thrive. When it thrives, we thrive.

We can begin to comprehend the land as an organism when we imagine having to cultivate it for everything we need, and then look for the places we would do it. Those places would—will—have running water: freshets, streams, brooks, rivers.

I’ve written this in chromebright sunlight, next to a brook that’s still fully frozen over, four feet thick in spots. It’s over fifty degrees for the first time in months. I came here to watch the giant icebergs float and crash and tumble over each other, some with boulders glued to their underbellies. (SO that’s how boulders get moved in the riverbed!) When the waters rise, they’ll pool behind and pour over the ice dams. What has been locked will be released. What had no force will steamroll. All that was fixed and orderly will be whitewater.

This seasonal-process will be—is—another rhythmic drumroll of water through stone: smoother of mountains, carver of valleys, bestower of life-giving silts & soils. This flooding, cleansing, calamitous rush is the pumping blazing bloodpulse of the land that is us. We are this—even if we don’t yet have the words or stories to describe it.

And on the sides of the brook, thousands, millions of caddisflies crawling on the snowbanks, repeat an act that has gone on since the glaciers melted about 15,000 years ago. I have no evidence they’ve ever been studied by science, or have an economic or aesthetic value. Their life, extending transgenerationally back to a time when no humans inhabited these parts, is priceless, and always will be, no matter how many economies (will) come and go. Their value is that they are part of the same organism we are—the land.

So get thee to the river and feel your pulse. Without jumping in, let it take you—here, at the flow and the fountain, where all lives share our body.