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Portal To Nature, Land Ethic

Throughout the pandemic, The Aldo Leopold Foundation has been, via our Digital Learning Resources page, sharing Leopold’s land ethic and classic Leopold teaching resources worldwide with higher education faculty.

To date, hundreds of educators have downloaded these resources. It was through this ongoing effort that we met Connie Lasher, Ph.D, and we were delighted to learn how she intends to use these resources. As so many faculty have come to know, adapting from in-person to virtual classroom methods allows the flowering of new approaches to teaching. We are inspired us to learn of the angle Dr. Lasher has taken and we share her story below as one example of how land ethics can be incorporated in the “classroom” in the time of Covid-19.

As you may know, the Aldo Leopold Foundation Digital Learning Resources include FREE:

• A Sand County Almanac AND Discussion Guide
• “Thinking Like a Mountain” Essay AND Discussion Guide
• Viewing of “Aldo Leopold; Birth of a Land Ethic” Short Film
• High-resolution viewing of the Emmy Award-winning “Green Fire,” Documentary AND Discussion Guide

Watch our resources page for additional digital resources coming soon!

We love to share how the concept of a land ethic is relevant today, as a theory and framework to inspire tomorrow’s conservation leaders. Following is the account of inspired educator, Connie Lasher, who since 2014, has taught at Molloy College, a Catholic (Dominican) college in Nassau County, Long Island (NY). Connie is a tenured professor and Chair of the Department of Theology & Religious Studies, and Director of Molloy’s “CORE” Program (an interdisciplinary set of general education courses). 

Lasher grew up as a nature-loving child, in a nature-oriented family context; at Penn State University, she majored in experiential/outdoor education and environmental education, and that is where she first encountered Leopold’s writings in a formal way. Her interest and exposure to his thought deepened as she eventually pursued an MS in Environmental Studies and then her Master’s and Ph.D. in Theology. Although her own life’s work has been to focus on Rachel Carson’s articulation of “the sense of wonder,” Leopold has always been part of that constellation of great environmental thinkers that her generation grew up with in the 1960s/1970s.

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View of Aldo Leopold's Shack, the building has a white door, brick chimney, and addition to a small cottage-like structure

Over the past several years, I’ve converted a significant portion of my teaching method from the traditional face-to-face classroom setting to hybrid and—in the midst of COVID—into fully online presentation. As an experiential educator at heart, it might seem that teaching “environmental anything” online would be a format that inhibits the concrete encounter with living nature that’s so central to the way I teach about ecological identity; but, in fact, it frees me from the limits of the urban, walled-in classroom, and creates a medium in which I can “take students outside/into nature” via filming lectures and other “experientially-oriented” video clips using my GoPro rig in wild places. 

While conveying content, this can also become a surprisingly “contemplative” medium, and students this past “COVID year” often commented that these class videos (which I upload onto an unlisted YouTube channel and embed into modules) were their “quiet and relaxation” moments in an otherwise very intense fully online semester. In these videos, I can “take them with me,” and “walk and talk” about content as they enjoy the natural context on film; however, I also orient students toward the importance of stepping outside (wherever they are) and finding their own quiet, reflective encounters in nature. So, using my quite rudimentary content production skills, I can not only “take students with me” on walks and into nature, as we study course content; I can also “take Aldo Leopold” (and others) with us, and bring his (their) thoughts and presence into the conversation in a more spontaneous way, which helps students to recall and integrate what they’ve read and learned, and do so in a manner that translates directly into experience.

I’d like to add here that I teach my ethics course through a “narrative” encounter with the personal stories and thoughts of figures like Leopold, or Rachel Carson, using media that bring these great women and men into vivid, here-and-now presence for students. Perhaps that’s easier for me because I can take students, via film, to the same beaches near my home in Maine where Rachel Carson walked and wrote and contemplated Life, and when students are brought to these places that shaped the lives of these folks who were, literally, world-changing figures of their generation, when students can “sit beside me” on those same rocks that Carson (literally) wondered over, they respond. My students are brought, through film or actual visits, to the real place that was the heart of this real person, Aldo Leopold, and see what he saw, sit where he sat, and forge a relationship not only to his legacy and thought, but to the man himself. I want students to think of people like Carson and Leopold as contemporaries of their grandparents/great-grandparents and, thereby, to feel them in that nurturing way—not simply as words they read in a book, but as present to their generation, and as role models who embodied ‘profiles in courage’ that can not only inspire students, but also be lifelong companions as this generation faces the challenges of the Anthropocene. 

To me, the essence of the land ethic is a relational notion of the human person. Put bluntly, you cannot “think like a mountain” unless you’ve learned to approach life in a relational way and developed, as an aspect of character, the ability to “step outside of yourself.” However, as one who’s Ph.D. focused on theological aesthetics and ecological identity, I consider Leopold’s inclusion of the experience of beauty to be profoundly relevant—not only his “Conservation Esthetic,” but the general integration of beauty into his approach. The centrality of the experience of beauty—and its corollary, the sense of wonder—in the human encounter with nature is what led me to focus on the life and thought of Rachel Carson in my own scholarship; however, the point I wish to make here is illustrative of why I love teaching Leopold and the land ethic, and why I consider his legacy to be invaluable to addressing our most pressing issues. 

Beauty is an “indicator” of the self’s capacity to be in relationship; receptive openness to an Other (other persons, entities in nature, or Life itself/transcendent meaning), in the experience of wonder, represents an “antidote” to the toxic aspects of culture that threaten not only human flourishing and the flourishing of free societies, but the flourishing of nature in all its forms. Or, to recall the title of a wonderful collection of essays by The Orion Society in 2012, wonder is a “survival skill” that has never been more urgently needed, and which, I believe, educators in the liberal arts and sciences have an obligation to teach.  

I’m going to reproduce here whole-cloth a paragraph from an essay that I am certain I use in virtually every course I teach, because it helps to tie together all that I’ve been trying to express here (and provides insights into how I teach the other courses that I haven’t space to discuss in this blog). The essay is from an anthology about the life and thought of Rachel Carson, and its title is “The Truth of the Barnacles: Rachel Carson and the Moral Significance of Wonder,” by Kathleen Dean Moore. But those readers familiar with Leopold will recognize its relevance to Leopold’s thought:

If wonder is the capacity to see as if for the first time, then wonder has a moral function, much like the moral function John Dewey found in art: ‘to do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive,’ and ‘enter…into other forms of relationship and participation than our own.’ Citing Dewey, aesthetician Yuriko Saito believes it is a necessary condition for any moral relationship to cultivate the ability to set aside our own stories and recognize and sympathetically lend our ears to the story, however unfamiliar to us, told by the other. Wonder is the open eyes, the sympathetic imagination and respectfully listening ears, seeking out the story told by nature’s rough bark and flitting wrens, and by that listening, one enters into a moral relationship with the natural world. …To contemplate, and thereby acknowledge the meaningfulness of the other, opens the door to a moral relationship.

In concluding this piece and, specifically, the question of Leopold’s land ethic and its relevance for future leaders and educators, I want to confess that every college course I teach reflects the commitment I carry as an educator to address what I believe is a lack of civics education in the US. I believe colleges and universities can and must integrate civics education across the curriculum, so that students can understand current social events in their historical context, and also embrace their own agency as citizens in a free society. As a lifelong educator, I cannot turn away from this moment of peril in the US democracy, as if “politics” were unrelated to the ecological crisis. In fact, I find that too many undergraduate students have far too little understanding of citizenship, civic virtues, and the ‘ingredients’ that are the lifeblood of the fragile democratic experiment. All too frequently, students cannot make the connection between overwhelming social issues that they see or experience, and agency—acting, from a grassroots level, to effect change in a participatory democracy. This is certainly true of the ecological crisis as a massive, multi-dimensional social issue. In this regard, we owe filmmaker Ken Burns a profound debt of gratitude for “telling the story” of the little-contemplated relation between “America’s Best Idea”—the national parks—the processes and development of the American democracy itself, and the way in which the direct experience of nature’s beauty has been understood as integral in the formation of a virtuous citizenry. 

In my Environmental Ethics course, my students watch the entire PBS series, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” in segments on a weekly basis for the entire semester, and I find it to be the perfect “companion” to teaching environmental ethics from a perspective of integrating beauty, wonder, relational anthropology, civic virtues, and a broader perspective regarding the significance of the human relation to nature. Like “Green Fire” and other films that I use in the course, this series brings to students the stories of real people in America’s history who all played a role in establishing “the national parks idea,” and it connects the health of the democracy to citizens’ appreciation of not only the meaningfulness of nature, but also the intergenerational sense of generosity that this movement required, including the affirmation of dignity-in-diversity of our fellow citizens.  The preservation and protection of nature and ecosystems cannot be separated from the crisis we face in protecting and preserving the American democracy; students must be shown the story of the democracy, its inseparability from nature and its inseparability from the ongoing journey of civil rights and human dignity. And they must understand how they can step into their roles as empowered citizens in this profoundly toxic time. 

Aldo Leopold writing at Shack, cover of A Sand County Almanac

And that brings me back to Aldo Leopold, and to Rachel Carson, and to the countless heroes (famous and unknown) whose lives and thought and accomplishments not only inspire, but can be known “beyond the textbook,” as role models, and as themselves vulnerable companions in the quest for resilience that we each must undertake in this most challenging of times. 

 I believe there are a few things necessary which can be imparted through a humanities curriculum: Perhaps, first and foremost, the generational sense that students are not alone—the companionship that comes from “knowing” decent, courageous people of past generations like Aldo Leopold or Rachel Carson, or the radiant witness of living elders such as Jane Goodall. Role models of resilience so necessary for the cultivation of resilience in youth. But I also believe students should be given opportunities to deeply contemplate the meaning of the experience of beauty in nature, through developing a reflective awareness of the sense of wonder and its significance in all human relationships, including the relation to nature at the basis of the ecological crisis. Acknowledging, nay celebrating, the diverse ways in which cultures and religious traditions comprehend wonder as a cipher to the meaning of Life, the human relation to nature becomes a window into the personal quest for meaning, so central to the project of humanistic education. Before students should be expected to go out into the world and grapple with complex and traumatic social issues, they should be given opportunities to connect with and cultivate—to recall Rachel Carson—“the sources of our strength”—which I believe, above all, requires also imparting a sense that they are not alone, existentially-speaking. And that’s what the sense of wonder does.

And so, Aldo Leopold’s life and legacy, his groundbreaking articulation of a land ethic, is an essential part of this conversation I try to have in my classes—because I cannot think of anything more urgent than realizing an expanded sense of community, beyond the ego, beyond the anthropocentric, and beyond the superficial distractions of societal influences that can annihilate the quest for meaning and living deeply before a young person matures enough to even realize what has been lost. Leopold’s legacy is like a cairn on a misty mountain—students can put their hands on it, feel its solidity, its enduring presence, and know they’re following in his footsteps, and that they’re not alone.

Explore the Aldo Leopold Foundation Digital Learning Resources