Mr Leopold's Opus | Part 2Apr 21, 2022
In Part 1, I covered my early and highly distracted introductions to the writings of Aldo Leopold. In Part 2, I will tell how rediscovering his work with a somewhat fully formed frontal lobe, has helped me to focus on the deeper things found in nature...
After leaving the ODNR, my wife Rachel and I sold our town-home in Ohio, moved to Murfreesboro Tennessee, and re-entered the world of college. My new pursuit led me to study audio & video production and songwriting at MTSU while Rachel began her Ph.D. program in Economics just a stone's throw across campus.
In one of my classes called Musicianship for Recording Engineers, I learned the meaning of the word timbre. Timbre is the tonal quality of a sound that makes it distinct from others. An oboe for example playing the same note- at the same volume as say a trumpet obviously sounds very different from its brass counterpart. Timbre goes much deeper though. It is dependent on an almost mystical level of factors from the physiological make-up of the material making a sound, to the age of that material, to the humidity in the room of the listener, to the health of the ear of that listener- and so on... It is how we can immediately identify a voice of a friend or family without seeing them first. Every person who has walked this planet has a unique timbre to their voice. Recent technological advances in voice biometric authentication software have harnessed computer algorithms to be able to recognize the timbre of an individual voice.
While recently rediscovering Aldo Leopold's works, I have been struck by the unique tonal quality of his writing style. His timbre was most likely a result of a life spent dissecting the societal and ecological implications of the modernization of the American landscape -while tandemly honing his craft of being an impactful writer. He became a true balance of artist and scientist.
There is a phenomenon in audio waves where the playing of a fundamental note can excite other materials in a room which carry the ability to reproduce overtones of that same note. I've experienced this when my television sound bar speaker can wake an otherwise lifeless string on one of my acoustic guitars hanging across the the room. I think the fundamental notes of Mr. Leopold's writings do the same for many of his readers. His words have the ability to shake something in us that was otherwise still- but full of potential all along. As we read his poignant words we are moved to action. We are called to deeper levels of stewardship that move the most restless of us to slow down, go outside, and think. His works help us see that we aren't just connected to nature, but are in an epic dance of interdependency on even the most seemingly insignificant parts of it.
There is something in all of us that wants more. If we can, most of us move from having our basic needs met to excess. Modernization and globalization allow us to click a button and have everything from clothes to meals delivered directly to our door. If we can afford to, we can binge-watch entire television series in cinema-like surround sound -while eating order in dinners without ever leaving the comfort of our living rooms. This tendency towards intemperance is not something new under the sun. It was here long before these modern times we live in. Much of Aldo Leopold's writing addresses this human flaw of overconsumption and calls each of us to consider working on personal and societal reform.
My first experience with intemperance in the outdoors was at the age of 14 when my parents moved to a private 280-acre body of water called Lake Choctaw in Ohio. At the time it was a fishing dream come true. During my first spring there, I was able to find a pocket of massive spring crappie stacked up under an old boathouse. In just short of 2 hours, I filled the entire area in the front of my dad's johnboat with a pile of 10-15 inch fish. I became so enthralled in the catching of these crappie that I didn't stop to think that there could be a bag limit. It was a private lake after all... I parked the boat and ran home to get a stringer to pack the fish onto. When I returned to the cove on my second trip to collect this record-setting catch, I noticed the sign that stated "10 Crappie Daily Limit." I'm pretty sure I was about 75-80 fish over that limit... I felt terrible. In reality, I didn't need that many fish. I wanted to impress my dad and my grandpa with my catch. I wanted to catch more crappie than anyone in our family history and I wanted street credit as a great angler. What I got -was a pit in my stomach... I knew better.
In the years to come, I never found many large crappie at that boathouse or anywhere else in the lake for that matter. I'm not saying that my excessive day could affect the entire lake, but I do have to believe that removing nearly 100 of the largest spawning female fish couldn't have been great for the system.
What happened was a simple lack of self-control. It is something that can happen to anyone on a great day of fishing or hunting. It can take someone who loves the resource and turn them into a greedy over-consuming jerk. I saw this a lot as a Wildlife Officer years later. I once arrested a man who shot 3 giant bucks in one day. After processing his citations, I asked him what he was thinking. He told me that the first one was the biggest buck he'd ever seen. He shot it and while he was approaching to tag it, an even bigger one ran up. He shot it without thinking. Later that same day he sitting on the front porch of his friend's hunting cabin waiting for the others. An even larger buck ran out of the woods broadside in the front yard while he was drinking some coffee. He made the bad decision to take this one too. The irony is that the Division of Wildlife had an undercover agent in his group that day casing one of the other hunters. By the time this man got back to central Ohio- to the county where I was assigned, we had 3 officers at his house ready to have a long talk. Through tears, he finished his story by telling me, "I just lost self-control based on the opportunity before me..." That old pit in my stomach was now his to deal with.
Aldo Leopold wasn't an angel. He was just a man like so many before and so many after. He most likely had faced the temptation of intemperance while hunting or fishing. He did however live in a time of unprecedented natural resource damage done by the hands of his contemporaries. He harnessed his observations and life experiences into something positive, composing works that would outlive him. He combined his study of ecology with a dose of his love of the outdoors and even some Biblical text-based on God's assignment of land stewardship to Abraham.
All of this yielded a timbre in his voice that placed him as a compassionate yet competent guide to those of us needing shook from our proclivity towards excessive consumption. Those of us who have been awakened are sure to be humbled by the light shown on our own blind spots. His words however don't leave his students wallowing in shame. They call us to be better. They call us to learn. They call us to cultivate a deeper ethic, and to teach future generations to learn from the mistakes of the past.
Some 20 years later after being introduced to him, I have come to realize that Aldo Leopold was somewhat prophetic in his prose. His writings call to the place of restlessness in me and invite contemplation and rest. I'm moved towards positive action and a re-ignition of my first days of wonder found in the outdoors sans the overconsumption. This- in my opinion- is truly Mr. Leopold's Opus.
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