Poetry for Scientists

Poetry for Scientists

“We forest officers, who acquiesced in the extinguishment of the bear, knew a local rancher who had plowed up a dagger engraved with the name of one of Coronado’s captains. We spoke harshly of the Spaniards who, in their zeal for gold and converts, had needlessly extinguished the native Indians. It did not occur to us that we, too, were the captains of an invasion too sure of its own righteousness.”

Aldo Leopold, “Escudilla”

It was the elegance of his prose that first impressed me. Some forty years ago, I was a graduate student, drinking the poet’s wine and wedging myself into what we called a “discipline.” One had to choose a major, a specialty, a path, and, forced to choose, I had given up pre-medicine for poetry. My medical studies had made me skeptical; poetry demanded a leap into the mystic. A few days each month, I believed in something called a soul—it seemed you had to possess one to write poetry—but my respect for science reminded me that a soul was a human construct, an elaborate metaphor, and that I lived in a flux: any order and meaning I wrested from the world-as-it-was would leave me before long.

In that frame of mind I discovered Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. I should mention that his book has a subtitle, too long to be included in conversation: And Sketches Here and There. In the end, the Sketches Here and There moved me most, and as luck and the flux would have it, I ended up landing my all-time favorite job at Aldo Leopold Charter School, in a There I had never heard of till I was well advanced in years (well, 44). There was the Gila Wilderness, a 500,000 acre ecological jewel that Aldo Leopold had shepherded to designation as America’s first wilderness area. There is a little north of Silver City, New Mexico, and the school where I have taught for the last 14 years of my life, Aldo Leopold Charter School.

And Sketches Here and There has become (with repeated re-readings among my students) as dear to me as any volume of poetry on my shelves. In Leopold I found scientific rigor, well-mannered cultural criticism, and word-finesse on the order of Stafford and Oliver. In this secular age, “Thinking Like a Mountain” is the closest thing our little school has to a sacred text; every student reads it, ponders it, and writes about it. One ALCS colleague named his summer program “Thinking on a Mountain,” taking students into wild places to apply Leopold’s expansive view to their field work. After sharing the piece with students so many times, a few of us on staff have practically memorized Leopold’s short essay. I recommend it to you whole-heartedly.

What matters most about “Thinking Like a Mountain” is its humility and self-criticism. Leopold began writing A Sand County Almanac in 1937, during the gathering storm that became the Second World War, and completed it in 1948, with the final manuscript accepted for publication only a week before his death. In a time of clashing ideologies and the eventual triumph of “good over evil,” Leopold was admitting that he had been wrong—fundamentally wrong—about the subject that would become his expertise. (In 1933, his book Game Management was published and became a standard text in the newly minted discipline of wildlife management.)

Even as Leopold repeatedly lands his arrows in the bullseyes of our ecological ignorance, a gentle humility pervades A Sand County Almanac. The epigraph from “Escudilla” at the top of this entry is directed against “forest officers,” among which Leopold counted himself a member. “Escudilla” recounts the killing of the last grizzly on Escudilla Mountain in the Apache National Forest.

The murder was a bleak affair: a government trapper rigged up a set-gun in a narrow canyon passage and the bear “walked into the string and shot himself.” Leopold recounts no glorious hunt—mind you, Leopold was as fond of a hunt as any westerner—but rather an extermination that “made Escudilla safe for cows.” With characteristic eloquence, Leopold wrote that “Time built three on things of the old mountain, a venerable aspect, a community of minor animals and plants, and a grizzly.” With the old grizzly executed, the government trapper “did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together.”

All of us—government officials, politicians, environmentalists, and certainly teachers would do well to embrace Leopold’s humility. His eloquence is beyond most of us, but we can, through patience, study, and time in wild country, develop his perspective and learn to think like the mountains in our own backyard—Escudilla, Mogollon Baldy, Mt. Graham, the Twin Sisters.

In fact, changing our minds when a mountain of evidence rises to contradict our wishful thinking—well, that may be the most valuable strategy we can ever teach our students.