green fire

Hiking on the Bolinas Ridge Trail at the Geography of Hope. Copyright Robin L. Chandler

Hiking on the Bolinas Ridge Trail at the Geography of Hope. Copyright 2013 Robin L. Chandler

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.”

put down a color the paper will like

Earth, trees, sea and sky: Santa Cruz oil sketch. Copyright 2012 Robin L. Chandler

Like John Marin, I am a watercolorist who has begun to paint in oils.  In the the 1920s, Marin’s watercolors, as Winsow Homer’s before him, had again shown that watercolor need not be considered a second rate medium.  Seeking to explore new directions for his work, in the 1930s, Marin chose to experiment in oils. The experiment succeeded resulting in a dialogue across the two mediums spanning the rest of his life.   Marin’s choice of subject also draws me to his paintings.  Throughout his career, Marin was captivated by architecture but deeply inspired by what he described as the essential forces of nature: earth, trees, sea and sky.  Although sometimes associated with movements such as Abstract Expressionism or Surrealism because of his symbolic lines and evocative forms, Marin never considered himself a theoretician.  In the retrospective catalog of his work John Marin, 1870 – 1953: a centennial exhibit organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Larry Curry, curator writes “he had no patience with any kind of art that had its origin within the mind without reference to the outside world.  As a rule when Marin attempted to explain his work, he spoke of subject matter and his subjective reaction to it.”   Marin wrote “you cannot create a work of art unless the things you behold respond to something in you.”  Drawn passionately to landscape, my most successful paintings are born from a connection to place.  The paintings flow readily from this connection.  When I paint, Aldo Leopold’s words also resonate with me. In Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes,  “we abuse land, because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us; when we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Torn between a love of the road and a desire for roots, I am inspired to paint place when I sense the  intersections between land and people attempting to live honorably with it. John Marin, excerpted from the book John Marin by John Marin, strikes a similar note  when he describes how to paint a landscape. “First you make your bow to the Landscape – then you wait and if and when the Landscape bows to you then and not until then Can you paint the Landscape.”