If someone had told me I’d be facilitating book club discussions this year, I would have thought they had the wrong person. But it’s true. I now facilitate three books clubs with a fourth in the making. The book club discussions are part of my evolving work as a Land Ethic Leader. Each of us try to find creative ways to spark discussions about Leopold’s Land Ethic which address ways communities can come together to conserve human and natural resources. I have carried a thumb-worn copy of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac through 25 years of my career as an environmental educator. It was a reliable compass as I navigated new conservation challenges and educational opportunities.
Backing Up to Go Forward
One of the resources provided to Land Ethic Leader graduates is a public screening license for the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time. The program also shares ideas and resources for discussion facilitation, and it was my hope that my first Green Fire screening would give me the chance to initiate some deeper dialog with attendees about environmental values. The Green Fire film and discussions that I initially hosted in Northwest Florida were only modestly successful in achieving this goal. Each one brought folks together for the first time at a public venue, but in this setting, sparking discussion was akin to lighting a wet log that smolders but never flames.
By sheer accident, I happened to be working on a short book analyzing seven novels around the same time that I organized the screening events. America’s complex relationship with its First People is a common theme in the novels.
One of the key contributions of Leopold’s Land Ethic is the recognition that human culture and natural ecosystems cannot be separated when considering land and wildlife policies. It occurred to me that one way to foster deeper discussion on this topic might be to host a book club that explores this reciprocal relationship through historical fiction.
A book club gives people time to get to know each other and to develop some trust, which has proven to foster rich discussion. I wanted to explore having readers follow the land ethic and related human justice issues from 1600 to 1980 by reading the seven novels.
A Diversity of Perspectives and Approaches
How innocently I embarked on this journey. I had never been in a book club myself and so it was a delight to discover what lively societies they can be, and how some stay together for decades.
The first book club I started working with had met for years. As a mature book club, they were prepared, well read, and wanted a rip roaring discussion. The second group is based at a rural church and was formed specifically for advocacy for their church property and its watershed. This club explored the Doctrine of Discovery and Imminent Domain in a recent discussion.
A third club meets in my living room, and is composed of area activists working to educate the public about Leopold’s ideas in their work with the public and local governments.
It’s About the Story
At first I was curious about why people enthusiastically embraced the idea of reading a novel, and then did not want to stop. Two of the three clubs plan to read all seven novels.
But why? In a busy world, finding 20 men and women who want to read seven novels? I knew it was not my dynamic facilitation! Then I stumbled upon the answer one Sunday morning.
NPR’s Krista Tippet hosts On Being, a Sunday program about spirituality, faith, and modern life. That morning she interviewed Adele Diamond, a neurocognitive scientist who studies brain development.
Diamond outlined research showing the power of story to spark creative thinking. Reading a good story is as close to living the experience as a person can get. So in the book clubs, readers are going back in time to experience how our country formed its values and policies about land and people through the perspective of a well-drawn and relate-able character. Through powerful imagery, stories evoke emotions and memories in the reader, engaging them at deep personal level.
If You Decide to Try It
If you decide to introduce Leopold’s “Land Ethic” essay in a book club setting, I recommend pairing your discussion of the essay with a novel that will allow participants to explore Leopold’s perspectives about the complex relationship between people and land from a character’s point of view.
See my blog WalkEarth.org for information on the seven novels I’ve been using to focus discussions with my groups. You can also find discussion questions, book reviews and other resources to get you started.
Know that this form of land ethic discussion takes time and patience. And once you start, you might have a tiger by the tail that just wants to keep chasing you!