Courtney White (2012 Mi Casita resident)

Courtney White’s two blog posts (“Mi Casita” and “Leopold in the Anthropocene”) from his residency have been copied below.

For more, visit his blog at

Mi Casita

05 Sunday Aug 2012

Thanks to the generosity of the U.S. Forest Service and the Aldo Leopold Foundation, I’ve had the honor these last two weeks to be the first writer-in-residence at a lovely two-story bungalow that Leopold built in 1912 in Tres Piedras, a small village two hours north of Santa Fe. Nestled up against a large rock outcropping (one of the three piedras), it served as the headquarters for the Carson National Forest, of which the 26-year old Aldo Leopold had just been appointed as Supervisor – only three years after his arrival in the Southwest! It also became home for two newlyweds. That October, Aldo married Estella Bergere at her family’s house in Santa Fe. After the wedding he whisked her off to Tres Piedras via the famous Chili Line railroad. It was the start of a long, strong marriage. Together, they christened their new home Mi Casita.

Describing this largely overlooked moment in the great conservationist’s life, biographer Curt Meine wrote: “Aldo Leopold could look on his life with deep satisfaction. He had the modest but tastefully appointed home he had envisioned. He was supervisor of his own forest and had helped to make that forest a viable proposition. He had only to stand on his porch to partake of a landscape as beautiful as any on the continent…For a sweet interval, he had attained his ideal: his land, home, family, and work, his fireplace, pipe, books, and time for the contemplation of the days. Leopold enjoyed the best of all worlds. Like the Carson Forest itself, he had ached his way through a long period of change to emerge secure and established.”

Secure, that is, until he fell deathly ill with nephritis the following spring and had to transfer away from Tres Piedras never to return, reminding me of the old saying: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

That I could stay in Mi Casita exactly a century after its construction added to the honor. Wonderfully restored by the Forest Service in 2005 (and available to the public), it was easy to sense Leopold’s spirit there, especially when standing on the casita’s porch during a tempestuous summer thunderstorm, as he must have. Looking out, I imagined that the view had not changed much in a hundred years. The view east toward the Sangre de Cristos is still unobstructed, with the village’s weathered post office, a busy highway and scattered utility poles the only peripheral intrusions. There were other changes, I’m sure, but they didn’t overwhelm the feeling that time had stood still at Mi Casita.

It didn’t take long before God began chuckling, however. Nothing is timeless, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing otherwise. Making a list of how the world has changed since 1912 would extend longer than my arm. When Aldo stood on the casita’s porch there were 1.5 billion people on the planet. Today, the global population has zoomed past seven billion and is on course to reach a stratospheric nine billion by 2050. I’m certain that Leopold would have been shocked at the news. I can imagine the incredulous, but knowing, expression on his face. Fortunately, there is good news to share with him as well, including the passage of the Endangered Species Act and its wildlife success stories. That would have elicited a smile and nod. But should we tell him the rest of the news – that many wildlife biologists now believe that the sixth great mass extinction of life on Earth is underway? Nah, we can skip that news item.

What about carbon? Did they know much about the carbon cycle in Leopold’s day? As a trained forester, Leopold certainly understood that trees were mostly carbon – the kind that made for solid timber and good firewood. In 1912, that type of carbon was a valuable commodity. Behind the casita is a stand of aromatic ponderosa pines and on the far side of the piedra the Carson National Forest extends for miles, full of good carbon of all shapes and sizes. He probably understood that wildlife are mostly carbon as well. It’s also reasonable to assume that Leopold knew about carbon dioxide. He may even been aware of recent experiments in Sweden that conclusively demonstrated its heat-trapping properties in the atmosphere, though I doubt he understood their implication. Of course, few did back then.

Would climate change have surprised Aldo Leopold? I think not. After all, he spent nearly all of his professional life trying to lead Americans away from ecological self-destruction. In 1925, reflecting on his experience in the Southwest, Leopold wrote: “If we are unable to steer the juggernaut of our own prosperity, then surely there is an impotence in our vaunted Americanism that augurs ill for the future.”

Or this from his classic Game Management in 1933: “The hope of the future lies not in curbing the influence of human occupancy – it is already too late for that – but in creating a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance.”

As his experience matured, his concern deepened. In 1938 he wrote: “We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

It wasn’t just about wildlife and conservation. In 1942, he wrote this remarkable analysis of industrial agriculture in Land-use and Democracy:

“Nearly all American wheat is the product of exploitation. Behind your breakfast toast is the burning strawstack, feeding the air with nitrogen belonging in the soil. Behind your birthday cake is the eroding Palouse, the over-wheated prairies, feeding the rivers with silt for army engineers to push around with dredge and shovel, at your expense; for irrigation engineers to fill with dams with, at the expense of the future. Behind each loaf of (inedible) baker’s bread is the “ever normal” granary, the roar of the combine, the swish of the gang-plow, ravaging the land they were built to feed, because it is cheaper to raise wheat by exploitation than by honest farming. It wouldn’t be cheaper if exploitation wheat lacked a market. You are the market, but transportation has robbed you of all power to discriminate. If you want conservation wheat, you will have to raise it yourself.”

Sounds like operating instructions for the 21st century to me!

And finally this prescient observation in 1944, in a little-read essay titledPost-war Prospects: “The impending industrialization of the world, now foreseen by everyone, means that many conservation problems heretofore local will shortly become global.”

As indeed they have.


Leopold in the Anthropocene

12SundayAug 2012

This week I completed my third stint at Mi Casita in Tres Piedras, and this time my thoughts about Aldo Leopold focused not on the distant past but the near future. Specifically, the Anthropocene.

For those of you who may not follow such things (and who could blame you?), there is an earnest discussion going on among geologists that the Holocene, the current geologic period characterized by warm temperatures, a steady climate, and stable sea levels that we’ve enjoyed for the past 12,000 years, is likely over. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times editorial that ran in 2011:

“Among scientists, there is now serious talk that the Holocene has ended and a new era has begun, called the Anthropocene…Some species, like ammonites and brachiopods, serve as guides – or index fossils – to the age of the rocks they’re embedded in. But we are the only species to have defined a geological period by our activity – something usually performed by major glaciations, mass extinction and the colossal impact of objects from outer space…Humans were inevitably going to be part of the fossil record. But the true meaning of the Anthropocene is that we have affected nearly every aspect of our environment – from a warming atmosphere to the bottom of an acidifying ocean.”

Officially, there is a proposal in front of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) to declare the Holocene at an end. This is the formal body that makes these sorts of decisions – decisions that are not made lightly, or quickly. In other words, if the ICS decides that the Holocene is over, it’s over. And an increasing number of scientists think it is likely that the ICS will rule in favor of the Anthropocene (which my computer spell-checker recognizes, by the way). That’s because with each passing day there is fresh scientific evidence of the overriding influence of humans on natural processes with geological consequences for the planet.

I bring this up because I think it is crucial to start sorting out what worked ecologically, socially, and economically in Holocene, and what did not, and whether they will be useful in the Anthropocene. According to many scientists, one of the main differences between the two Eras will be climate stability. In the Holocene, carbon dioxide levels held relatively steady, compared to the large fluctuations that characterize most of Earth’s history, which enabled air temperatures, sea levels, and precipitation patterns to hold relatively steady as well. In the Anthropocene, say scientists, climate instability will be the norm (and may have already begun), sea levels are certain to rise, perhaps by a great deal, and average temperatures will rise above Holocene levels. Clearly, it’s going to be a different world.

Here’s a chart (the Holocene is the flat line on the right):

A good guide to getting a grasp on the Anthropocene is Aldo Leopold. For starters, we obviously haven’t solved the riddle of what he called the “oldest task in human history” – how to live on a piece of land without spoiling it. The difference, of course, is that the task has now expanded to the entire planet. That leads directly to Leopold’s interest in ethics and what he considered to be our moral obligation to all living things on Earth. Don’t we have a moral responsibility to future generations to hand them a world enhanced by our efforts, not diminished by them? We do – which is why ethics will be a huge issue in the Anthropocene, especially to our children. That’s because the stakes of our responsibility are rising dramatically. If we fail to meet them, I’m certain we will judged asimmoral by future generations.

This issue of responsibility lies at the heart of Leopold’s idea of a land ethic, of course. Here is his famous definition, from the Sand County Almanac: “A land ethic…reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

In the Holocene, unfortunately, we didn’t adopt a land ethic very widely, despite its obvious necessity. We didn’t do so mostly because we were told by economists, business leaders, and politicians that we could have our planet and eat it too. The free market would solve all problems, we were instructed – substitutes for scarce resources would be found easily, consequences to our exploitative behavior would be minimal, technology would smooth off rough edges, and human ingenuity will take care of everything else. Except…they were wrong. And Aldo Leopold was right – which is why we need a land ethic now more ever.

Closely coupled with the idea of ethics is land health. Restoring, maintaining, and preserving (a word that will be used less and less frequently in the future, in my opinion) the basic functions of ecosystems, such as nutrient, water, energy cycles, will become increasingly critical as the Anthropocene grinds on. I suspect that securing sufficient amounts of the Five Fs – food, fuel, fiber, forage, and fresh water – will dominate the lives of billions of people in this new Era, and already do in many corners of the world. Healthy land – its capacity for self-renewal – will be vital to our survival in an era marked by rising temperatures and climate disorder.

One of the most important “land mechanisms,” as Leopold called them, for ensuring land health is the carbon cycle. When functioning properly, it captures, stores, releases and recaptures biochemical energy, making everything go and grow from the soil up, including plants, animals and people. In the last century or so, however, the carbon cycle has broken down at critical points, most importantly among our soils which have had their fertility eroded, depleted, and baked out of them by poor stewardship – as Leopold noted throughout his life (though I don’t recall him ever using the word “carbon” in this context). In the Anthropocene, the challenge of maintaining a healthy carbon cycle will be magnified, particularly by drought. To work well, the cycle needs water, but plants don’t photosynthesize well under heat stress; and they won’t perform at all if they die!

Understanding the components of land health, carbon especially, will be a full-time task in the Anthropocene. We’d had better start rereading Leopold now.

Other interests that occupied Aldo’s attention won’t be so important, however. Wilderness protection, for instance, and recreation policy – both of which occupied a great deal of his time over the decades – will be lesser priorities in the Anthropocene, possibly a lot less. Even game management (wildlife), at least as we practice it today, could also be pushed aside as a priority if things get tough for humans. Protections for endangered species in particular, I suspect, will fall by the wayside if they are perceived as obstacles to the Five Fs. Ditto with many governmental regulations, such as NEPA, if the political and economic landscape gets rocky. Leopold was not a big fan of ‘conservation by bureaucracy,’ which means he might be useful in this regard as well.

What’s timeless and what’s time-specific? What will we leave behind in the Holocene, and what will we need in the Anthropocene? What goes into the Ark, and what stays behind? These vital questions will be difficult to answer because we will want to carry as much with us into the Anthropocene as we can, much like homesteaders of yore who piled their wagons high with pianos, bookcases, and desks, only to discard them as the journey went on. In the Anthropocene, I suspect we’ll be concentrating on essentials as well – such as healthy land. That makes Leopold more relevant than ever.