Following several weeks of being driven to write, I have for the past couple weeks, been without much to say. My walks in the woods and photos of wildlife seem trivial at best given the current events in this country. I want to thank the handful of you who have been reading my blog, and ask that you stay in touch. If and when I have more to say, I will.
Truth is, I am embarrassed that until the country exploded following the brutal killing of George Floyd, I thought my little stories might have some meaning. My plan was to spend as much time walking alone and writing during the pandemic as I could, then, when I have thirty or forty pieces written solidly enough to put on my blog, I would go through them one by one, ask myself what I was trying to say, then rewrite them with more focus, more intent, and more meaning.
Today I realize that there is nothing I can write about birds, beavers, bears, or walking alone that has any meaning at all if we are still living in a world where systemic racism is tolerated, and where laws, law enforcement policies, and the attitudes of many citizens are premised on an underlying white supremacy that values economic growth more than the lives of people of non-European descent.
I hope, rather than reading my stories, you will listen to the many voices out there who are both smarter than me, and have much more important things to say–people like Dr. J. Drew Lanham, whose 2013 piece published in Orion Magazine titled “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” has been back in the spotlight following the racially-motivated verbal assault and threat to NYC Audubon board member Chris Cooper after he asked a woman to please leash her dog in Central Park.
Today I am angry that for his entire life, Dr. Lanham has been unable to do what I do nearly every day—go for a walk alone with his binoculars—without having to look over his shoulder in fear some white person might be calling the police, or worse, taking matters into their own hands, like George Zimmerman did when he ended the life of Trayvon Martin for no reason other than the color of his skin.
Today I am angry because I can go outside at night and look for owls without anybody taking notice, but were Dr. Lanham to walk down the street after sunset with binoculars, he would be seen as a danger. Only because he has darker skin than I do.
Mostly, though, I am angry today because I have not been angry enough before now. I am angry because it took one more black man being lynched by police in broad daylight for me to get this angry.
Since my early twenties, my life has been largely shaped by the writing of Aldo Leopold, who taught me about the intersection of human progress and wildness, and how as we keep choosing so-called “progress” over wildness, we are not really progressing at all. It was, in fact, Aldo Leopold’s work that brought Dr. Lanham and I together to begin with. He was keynote speaker at a Land Ethic conference where I was performing my one-man play about Aldo Leopold.
When I heard Dr. Lanham speak on ‘connecting the conservation dots’ and ‘coloring the conservation conversation’ I was deeply moved, but clearly not moved enough. Had I been moved enough, I would be as angry, embarrassed, and sad as I am now.
In his essay Escudilla, Aldo Leopold says that “The Congressmen who voted money to clear the ranges of bears were the sons of pioneers. They acclaimed the superior virtues of the frontiersmen, but they strove with might and main to make an end of the frontier.”
These words keep coming back to me this week as I try to ponder what is going on in the world. When we claim that “All men are created equal” we are, as Leopold said, “acclaim(ing)… superior virtues.” When we pass sentencing laws targeting people of color, allow police to wantonly arrest, abuse, and kill people of color, and fill our jails with the ones who are lucky enough to escape the police brutality, we are doing worse than “make(ing) an end of the frontier.”
Later in Escudilla, after telling the story of the extirpation of grizzly bears in Arizona, Leopold ponders “who wrote the rules for progress.” It is time for us to ask that question as a nation. What have the rules for progress been, and what new rules do we need to write now?
What progress have we achieved when an acclaimed ornithologist cannot safely put on a hoodie and go bird watching? What progress have we achieved if a teen cannot go for a jog without being gunned down without cause by an angry neighborhood watchman? What progress have we achieved if our police can kill a man by crushing his neck after being accused of passing a phony $20 bill?
At the end of a hand-written first draft of a short piece directed to his wildlife conservation students, Leopold wrote, “There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” For more than twenty years, while focusing intently on the latter, I have been ignoring the former.
I could try to write something about the former, but my voice has neither the experience nor the authority to speak on such matters. If we are to learn anything meaningful about the relation of people to each other, we must begin by listening to the people who for 400 years have been systemically ignored, oppressed, and murdered—from slavery to the modern economy—in the name of progress.
Perhaps, in time, I will find more to write about, but I honestly hope you will find more insightful voices than mine for your reading, ones who understand the fallacy of progress in ways I, and others who look like me, cannot. I hope you will listen to them, and I hope what you read makes you angry.