With our meeting finished, I took the opportunity to visit the beach near La Jolla Shores. Late in the afternoon on a beautiful spring day, I thought perhaps with luck I’d see the Green Flash, described in Wikipedia, as the optical phenomena that can occur after sunset for no more than a second or two. Emerging from the car, I was greeted by another kind of green flash. The angle of the sun this late in the afternoon brought dramatic lighting to the park by the beach. Rows of palms stretching towards the blue sky, cast dramatic deep shadows on the verdant green grass flashing before me. As I stood there, inhaling the sweet smell of the sea air touching the desert landscape, my eyes immediately focused on the dramatic colors and the strong verticals and horizontals. It was a beautiful moment – a quintessential moment when one feels blessed to be alive. Perhaps this kind of scene – my green flash – is what caught Richard Diebenkorn’s imagination inspiring him to create the paintings now known as the Ocean Park Series. Robert Henri’s words from The Art Spirit passed through my mind too: “the sketch hunter moves through life as he finds it, not passing negligently the things he loves, but stopping to know them, and to note them down in the shorthand of his sketchbook.” Would I be up to the task of sketching this scene? I decided it was worth the risk and that I would hold on to the basic elements that first intrigued me. Painting is like life, it is all to easy too get lost in the details. Try to find what is important – your magnetic north – and hold your course. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Our life is frittered away by detail…..simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.”
In his essay Thinking Like a Mountain, Aldo Leopold recorded the moment his ecological thinking evolved. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and I 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 wolves meant fewer deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with me.”
Leopold spent a lifetime as a forester, a professor and an environmentalist developing his ideas and perspectives on the ethics of nature and wildlife preservation. Ultimately, his philosophy, evolving over years of observation and contemplation became known as his Land Ethic, which is at the core of his most beloved book A Sand County Almanac. Aldo Leopold joins Henry David Thoreau and John Muir as one of our three great American wilderness visionaries and writers.
This weekend March 15 – 17, 2013, Point Reyes Books (near Tomales Bay) is hosting its 4th Geography of Hope Conference entitled Igniting the Green Fire: Finding the Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Typically held in March, these intellectual and spiritual gatherings are a gift to celebrate the coming of spring and rebirth encouraging us to think deeply about our relationships with the earth and our fellow living beings. At the conference’s center is the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, a wonderful film directed by Steve Dunsky, edited by Ann Dunsky, written by Stephen Most and narrated by Curt Meine. It was announced at the conference that the film would be shown on PBS stations nationwide in April 2013.
Surrounding the film is a series of panel discussions with writers, thinkers and doers engaged the building of communities, the importance of stewardship and discussing our responsibilities to the land and to each other. One of the most compelling conversations has been with Michael Howard, Director of Eden Place Nature Center (part of the Fuller Park Community Development Corporation). Inspired by Leopold’s belief in the importance of community and the land, Michael Howard has built a park and a farm for the African-American community on Chicago’s South Side. “Eden” is in a place that was the former site of meat packing industry slaughterhouses, also polluted with lead poisoning which has impacted the ability of children to learn for generations. Howard deeply moved me with his work to try to persuade a people about the benefit of having a relationship with the land; a people whose daily concerns are about having money to pay bills and feed their children and who have spent years running away from a specter of linking the land to sharecropping and slavery. Michael Howard’s experience evoked for many conferee’s Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest about the emergence of non-profit and community organizations engaged in the environmental and social justice movement.
There is so much wisdom flowing from this conference, I will need days, weeks, perhaps a lifetime to really grasp and understand it all, and to see my thinking evolve as Aldo Leopold has demonstrated. But what rings clear and true is this: we need to understand that change is something that happens gradually, and it comes by engaging in deep listening, exchange with and respect for both humans and the land. We must learn to “think like a mountain.”