Finding the Social Justice Gospel of Jesus Christ in The Writings of Aldo Leopold, Specifically within “A Sand County Almanac”By Jerry Rigdon, LHG co-founder, April 2012
This essay is the result of responding to an invitation to speak to a Zion United Church of Christ Adult Sunday School Class formed for the purpose of pursuing the Social Justice Teachings of Jesus. After some thought and reading, three questions came to mind that could guide and contain a forum type of discussion about this topic:
• What do you mean by Social Justice?
• Why should you be interested in the Sand County Almanac in that context?
• Where do you find it in in the Sand County Almanac?
The writing that follows is influenced by the comments of others in the discussion on the subject, and after thoughts inspired by that discussion, and our own shared reflections. The goal to put into it into an essay form required more reading beyond “A Sand County Almanac.” This other reading led to places that regrettably were not included in the first presentation.
First thoughts about this idea was that it would be a far reach to draw a parallel of the moral teachings of Jesus Christ with the land ethic of Aldo Leopold; or transversely, to lay that beam across the years to find a parallel in the moral teachings of Aldo Leopold with a social justice gospel of Jesus Christ.
Either of these two approaches requires a deeper reading and reflection on both, the writings of Aldo Leopold, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. I had never thought of finding a land ethic in the Gospels. I had never read the Sand County Almanac, or other Leopold essays, while looking for a moral teaching influenced by Christian thought.
Dr. Susan Flader, University of Missouri, biographer of Aldo Leopold, co-editor of a collection of Leopold essays titled; “The River of the Mother God,” wrote a forward to a Leopold essay titled; “The Forestry of the Prophets,” written in 1920 for the U.S. Forestry newsletter; “There is no evidence that Leopold held to an adherence to any organized religion, we do know that he participated in a Bible Study group while attending Yale University.” The editors of this collection of essays cite Leopold telling his students that, “much could be learned from reading the Old Testament.” In the index of “The River of the Mother God” there are eight references to Leopold’s use of the Bible. One is the six page essay on forestry and landscape cited above.
Several places in The Sand County Almanac have idiomatic phraseology that are inspired by Bible passages. Little additions in the poetry of Leopold’s writing colored by, most likely, a first-hand knowledge of scripture “the sparrow that falleth,” in the first paragraph of “65290.” This along with “I suspect what the chickadee learns in Sunday school: thou shalt not wander into windy places in winter, and thou shalt not get wet before a blizzard;” allusions to King James language
A Sand County,” ends thusly; “65290 has long gone to his reward. I hope in his new woods, great oak trees full of ant eggs keep falling all day long, with never a wind to ruffle his composure or take the edge off his appetite. And I hope he still wears my band.” Allusions to death and resurrection.
The November essay, “Axe in Hand” begins with; “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” a direct quote from Job 1:21.
The February essay, “The Good Oak,” about the oak providing heat in winter contains this paragraph: “My dog does not care where heat comes from, but he cares that it comes, and soon. Indeed he considers my ability to make it come as something magical, for when I rise in the coal black pre-dawn and kneel by the hearth to make a fire, he pushes himself blandly between me and the kindling splits I have laid in the ashes, and I must touch a match to them by poking it between his legs. Such faith , I suppose, is the kind that moves mountains.” “February; “The Good Oak.” Matthew 17:20
God passed on his handiwork as early as the seventh day, but I notice He has been rather noncommittal about its merits. I gather that He spoke too soon, or that trees stand more looking upon than do fig leaves and firmaments.” December; “Pines Above the Snow” Genesis one and two allusions.
In June it is perfectly predictable that the robin will give first voice when the light intensity reaches 0.01 candle power, and that the bedlam of other singers will follow in predictable sequence. In autumn, on the other hand, the robin is silent, and it is quite unpredictable whether the covey-chorus (of quail) will occur at all. The disappointment I feel on those mornings perhaps shows that things hoped for have a higher value than things assured.” “September,” Hebrews 11:1
At the head of the bar, purple iron weeds and pale pink joe-pyes stand tall against the wall of willows. And if you come quietly and humbly, as you should to any spot that can be beautiful only once, you may surprise a fox-red deer, standing knee-high in the garden of his delight. “August” Chapter six of the Song of Songs. (emphasis mine)
There are other short notations of a knowledge of verse like the “jack pine must learn to turn the other cheek.” Or the notations to Noah’s Ark in the November essay, or “when the last trumpet blows,” that demonstrates that possibly Leopold’s ethical platform was formed from more than just his cultural heritage. He came from a wealthy, well educated, privileged class. His ancestry is traced to nobility. He was raised in a home where responsibility for the natural order of things was emphasized. A strong case for this is made in the biographies of Leopold by Curt Meine and Susan Flader. How much religion contributed to this responsibility, is left unsaid, but Leopold had a fondness for the Bible. If one reads “A Sand County Almanac,” only, the illustrations cited above provide a hint of a Christian moral influence.
Readings away from, “A Sand County” will show this influence came from his long admiration of the Bible, possibly as philosophy more than the base of a religious belief. Curt Meine cites; “Leopold’s reading also increased at this time. His interests ran of course to wildlife, and, increasingly, to the accounts of and journals of early explorer. He began to read, in the company of Estella, more literature and philosophy: Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Carlisle, Butler, Hugo, William James, Kipling, Epicurus, and especially, the Bible”7 :(page 160, “Aldo Leopold; His Life and Work” emphasis mine).
Meine writes; “The sense of the living earth had always been a part of Leopold’s psyche. Over the years he found support for it in the words of many poets, naturalists, and philosophers: the Bible, Emerson, Thoreau, and…” (page 214; Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work”) The Bible is the head of the list in this long list of authors, all, either transcendentalists or naturalists.
In this same section of Meine’s biography of Leopold, Meine makes note of Leopold’s influence from the Russian philosopher Peotr Ouspensky. Ouspensky exerted a strong influence on Leopold, even though Leopold did not totally adopt his philosophy. But Leopold was strongly attracted to the animistic mysticism of Ouspensky’s “all matter is alive with consciousness,” approach to nature. Leopold found himself moving away from a “dead earth,” mentality to embrace, at least linguistically, the idea of “living things.” This is in 1923/24. At this time, Leopold offered some of this philosophical influence, posing a question in an unpublished piece; “Some Fundamentals of Conservation in the Southwest,” ‘was the earth made for man, or the man made for the earth? Most religion and most science presupposes the former.’” Leopold went on to write in this piece; “It just occurs to me, however, in answer to the scientists, that God started his show a good many years before he had any men for an audience—a sad waste of both actors and music—and in answer to both, that it is just barely possible that God himself likes to hear birds sing and see flowers grow.” (page 215)
How long did the linguistic use of “ living things,” ferment to become the vintage words in the mysticism of “A Sand County Almanac?”
When we look at the parallel question to be considered; finding the a land ethic message in Jesus’ social gospel, it requires a quantum leap. Even though it is established that Leopold was influenced by God and Jesus’ teachings, Jesus does not quote, “A Sand County Almanac.” So we might have to consider the lilies of the field or the sparrow that falleth, or read more closely for implications in the gospel message.
Millions of “traditional” Christians would most likely disagree that Jesus came to save the good earth and restructure the social order. There is a strong claim that Jesus’ message is about personal salvation. Millions of “traditional” Christians would likely answer Leopold’s question in that unpublished piece about soil conservation in the southwest, that, the earth was made for man. Possibly any pursuit to understand the implications of these answers we could introduce, for further conversation, that both of these views are correct and right, but only partially so. A conversation seeking a wholeness in the gospel message and the implications of that wholeness, might reveal that there really is something we humans should be about while here on the earth, disregarding promises made regarding any future consideration. If, indeed, we are saved as we interpret the Jesus message; we are saved from what, for what? How would this question form a salvation theology in regard to our earth bound existence?
From the theological viewpoint that, if, God, in the form of Jesus, became human to lead humans to become divine, then, it seems, we should practice that divinity to become more human, as Jesus was human; a humanity participating within Jesus’ message of love and peace; a love and peace that is counted absent within the arena of social and economic injustice.
Are we to be the working hands, the speaking tongues, the insistent political activists, the earth saving conservationists, the outspoken peace advocates, the pain in the neck workers for economic justice for Christ in the world? Or are we to be waiting with prayerful hands extended for some promised eternal existence where we “roll around heaven all day?”
If Leopold was inspired by what we call the “word of God” in a legacy of language, to inspire us to preserve and restore the natural order of man within the land, a “land ethic,” within a cosmic sea of life; and if the “land ethic,” and is an appeal for all to be full participating citizens of creation, with spirit formed hearts and minds to take good care of the earth and one another, then it might not be a quantum leap to find Leopold in the Gospels, in the social justice ministry of Jesus Christ. And, conversely find Jesus in “A Sand County Almanac.”
These are some more of Leopold’s words on the matter; “if there be, indeed, a special nobility inherent in the human race—a special cosmic value, distinctive from and superior to all other life—by what token shall it be manifest? By a society decently respectful of its own and all other life, capable of inhabiting the earth without defiling it? Or by a society like John Burroughs’ potato bug, which exterminated the potato, and thereby exterminated itself? A one or the other shall we be judged, in “the derisive silence of eternity.” (Page 215 of Aldo Leopold; His Life and Work by Curt Meine.)
This was written twenty years before he formed the “land ethic.” Curt Meine suggests the influences that formed the “land ethic,” came from the Bible to P.S. Lovejoy, a Forest Service writer of lyrical poetry, from Leopold’s first hand experience on the land.
The operative word for this writer to define our involvement with the land inspired by the teachings of Aldo Leopold, is “participation.” He is asking us to learn and live as attending participants, not just observers, or watchers, like photographers of nature, or as overlords manipulating the landscape and its inhabitants for our selfish gain, but to live for the benefit of the land. Leopold’s definition of land is all inclusive; the land itself as earth; rocks, water, soil, wind, fire, and all that springs from it.
The operative word for this writer to define our involvement with the land, and all that springs from it, all its inhabitants, as believers in the teachings of Jesus, is “participation. Jesus’ message spans across two thousand years, redefining the meaning of loving God as loving “neighbor,” and can be redefined as “kingdom living” in Leopold’s definition of the land. Both Leopold and Jesus make an emotional, intellectual, spiritual appeal for knowing from where our daily bread comes, and with whom we are compelled to share it.