Thinking Like a Mountain
This story is from my national park journey, originally written in August 2016.
The green fire is dying, that fire Aldo Leopold spoke of in his remarkable essay Thinking Like a Mountain.
After shooting a mother wolf, he later reflected:
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
In his writing, it appeared as a light in a wolf’s eye, but in my mind the green fire is the connection to our natural world, and it exists within all of us. The connection is breaking after decades of commercialism and media magnets pulling our attention elsewhere.
I recently left the forests of Voyageurs and Isle Royale national parks to continue my eastward journey, and along the way I stopped briefly in Chicago. Amidst the chaos and noise and color and sound – my eyes paused – briefly I caught glimpses of trees rising up from the concrete. No one stopped to admire them, as many of us do in a forest.
There, the trees are as significant as the telephone poles. They are a backdrop, taken for granted. And so the air, the ducks in the lake, the dirt beneath our feet, and vegetables in my vegan salad. People have other things to worry about after all, like bills to pay and in many cases, basic survival. Yet in the U.S. today survival doesn’t require knowledge about growing food or building shelter or anything related to the natural world. Survival requires the tools to earn a penny, put food on the table, how to bargain for a cheaper phone bill, the know-how to pay that bill, and avoid trouble.
Aldo Leopold wrote:
“We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”
We are made of the Earth, but we fear things that aren’t built or manufactured. Built and manufactured things won’t last if we continue on our current path, as this article briefly explains.
I saw all the people in Chicago and marveled at the diversity while I silently mourned for the green fire.
Sure, there are people like you and me and our friend over there who have a love of environment and know how critical our balance with Earth is, but we are challenged with what to do. How do I make a living without using finite resources, how do I make food without creating trash, and how do I type on this computer without powering a coal mine?
AND THE FACT REMAINS, AMONG THE VAST MAJORITY, THE GREEN FIRE IS DYING.
My intention isn’t to sadden hearts but to raise our spirits with this challenge:
HOW DO WE SPARK THAT GREEN FIRE WITHIN THE SOUL OF SOCIETY, SO THAT IT BEATS AS ROBUSTLY AS OUR AMBITION TO LIVE A JOYFUL LIFE?
From there we demand better solutions, healthier ways of living. Even justice for all, if this dreamer may dare dream it, because we won’t fight wars for resources. The day when our actions are in sync with nature is when we will all be nurtured – not cold on the streets – but warmed by the green fire roaring within the soul of society.
We’ll have cities where trees are more significant than high rises, bridges replace walls, gardens replace parking lots, and wolves have space to roam. It’s the dreamy utopia of an idealistic person, but it’s my right to dream.
Maybe, just maybe, voicing that vision can spark the green fire within those who don’t even know it exists.
It all begins with knowledge.