Earlier this month I gave a welcome talk for a conference in Texas. The topic: “the community of the land,” a phrase I’ve begun using in preference to “nature,” a word that has somehow come to connote a separate world -whether alien or utopian - to which humanity no longer belongs.
The phrase “community of the land” was inspired by Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac. Leopold, a wildlife biologist, spent a lifetime outdoors observing the relationships between plants, animals (including humans), and the land.
He came to realize that what was important in nature wasn’t individual lives or even individual species. It was the whole messy package, the steaming stew of interactions between plant and animal and landscape, between soil-dwelling microbe and root, root and tunneling rodent, rodent and soaring hawk, and hawk and the soil it decays into that created this living, breathing Earth. Leopold summed up his credo: The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to encompass soils, waters, plants, animals or collectively: the land.
The phrase “the community of the land” reflects the fact that landscape is not just a scenic backdrop; it is a vibrant, interrelated community to which people belong.
The piñon pine - juniper woodlands above town, for instance, are not static. They are constantly changing, shaped by the relationships between all the lives that inhabit them.
The legions of microscopic and macroscopic lives like fungi and springtails and worms that live, eat, reproduce, and die underfoot, and in the doing, cleanse the air and water that pass through the soil and keep it fertile. These tiny lives enter into partnerships with the piñons and junipers, the oaks, blue grama grass and the wildflowers that briefly splash the hillsides with color.
The plants in turn feed hosts of insects, from seed-gathering ants trailing in lines across the soil to native bees and butterflies sipping flower nectar. And birds too, like the piñon jays on whom the trees depend to carry their fat-rich seeds to distant jay-caches where uneaten seeds sprout new groves of piñons. The warblers and flycatchers that pluck insects off the branches or out of the air, the circling hawks that catch the rodents and snakes, the deer that munch on succulent plants and the mountain lions that munch on deer.
And the people that cut the trees for firewood, clear patches for houses and roads, and whizz between the trees on mountain bikes. This whole web of relationships is what animates the landscape and gives it the characteristic colors, smells, shapes and sounds that we recognize as piñon-juniper woodland, the dwarf “forest” the cloaks our hills.
Why care about the community of the land? Because it is our oldest home, the place where our species was born and shaped. Because it is the earth we depend on, the planet that provides us with the air we breathe, the water that floods our cells, the food we eat and the raw materials from which we make the stuff of our lives. And because it is the home of our hearts and spirits. Reconnecting with the community of the land, that living web of interrelationships between species large and small, obvious and obscure can restore our sanity, our balance and our hope for the future.
Some believe our power has liberated or alienated us from nature, the great network of life that still shapes this unique blue planet. Not so.
There is a place for us in nature, if we’ll take it. It’s risky, but it allows us to exercise our species’ greatest talent: love. Love is the gift we bring to the community of the land. And it’s what allows us to truly belong to the only home our species has ever known.