Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.
So writes Aldo Leopold, an environmentalist, forester and ecologist who died in 1948. Yet his famous essay, Thinking Like a Mountain, still offers insight. He describes how, in his boyish enthusiasm for hunting, he jumped at every opportunity to kill wolves. Fewer wolves meant more deer, leading to the promise of a hunter’s paradise. He soon came to understand, the mountain did not agree with this popular and short sighted assumption.
One day while watching the ‘fierce green fire’ dying in a she- wolf’s eyes he realized something disturbing. Something mountains have always known. While a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in a few years, a mountain slope pulled down by too many grazing deer eventually becomes a desert.
He wrote, “The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls and rivers washing the future into the sea.”
"A mountain lives in mortal fear of its deer, not its wolves," because, "only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf."
So how do we 'think like a mountain' in dealing with social, economic and environmental challenges?
- What fierce green fires are extinguished by our short term interventions?
- What are the unintended consequences of our good intentioned actions ?
- Do we make people more helpless by helping? Do we make the environment more vulnerable by managing?
- What faulty, popular assumptions govern our actions?
- What is the complex interrelationship between rocks, animals and human beings? Between taking care of the environment and taking care of each other? Between belonging and destruction?
Read the complete essay, Thinking Like a Mountain.
NOTES: Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong is an eloquent meditation on the Mongolian reverence for the wolf. Unfortunately both wolves and Mongolians now face extinction. Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize, it is the best book I read in 2010. It is a Chinese publishing sensation – the second most read book in China – second only to Quotations from Chairman Mao. Suggest you read it rather that watch the latest Red Riding Hood movie!
Thanks to Frances Westley for introducing me to Thinking Like a Mountain.