Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Leopold's Colors: Evanescent and Durable

When Aldo Leopold had his druthers, June found him fly fishing. On the Alder Fork of the Wisconsin River, he might don chest waders and wait for hours in a trout-cold stream, or climb the bank, bushwack “neck deep in jewelweed and nettles,” then re-immerse in a deeper, quieter pool, all for a chance to set hard on a great fish.

Yet as anyone who has read A Sand County Almanac knows, Leopold wasn’t just fishing for trout. An avid hunter, birdwatcher, hiker, and angler since childhood, he believed in outdoor experience as a universal human need, a vital means not just of knowing the natural world but of appreciating it. No essay expresses this better than “The Green Pasture.”

Leopold begins:

Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed by successive generations, in each of which are likely to be found a few appreciative eyes.
I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work, erases it forever from human view.

Because Leopold knew the Wisconsin so well, he noticed when the river dipped its brush in silt and painted it on a sandbar. He watched colors begin to appear—goldfinches bathing in blue pools, “great white fleets” of clouds overhead, and, especially, the verdant rush, Eleocharis. Just three weeks later, Leopold writes,

The artist has now laid his colors, and sprayed them with dew. The Eleocharis sod, greener than ever, is now spangled with the blue mimulus, pink dragon-head, and the milk-white blooms of Sagitarria. Here and there a cardinal flower thrusts a red spear skyward. . . .And if you have come quietly and humbly, as you should to any spot that can be beautiful only once, you may surprise a fox-red deer, standing knee-high in the garden of his delight.

Vacillations in the river’s course and level soon erase the painting except from Leopold’s memory. And while he hopes to witness it again, the scene’s ephemeral nature is part of its value to him. Any tourist, he observed, could spot the timeless grandeur of a scenic overlook—yet few step out of the car longer than it takes to snap a few photos. Joni Kinsey in a critical essay on Leopold’s “Land Esthetics,” says, “He even suggests that humble sites are more rewarding than the conventionally beautiful, if only because they require more effort to see fully.”

In June, and in every month, Leopold urged us to venture outside again and again, to seek out the colors, shapes, and textures in nearby nature that bind us to our own land and help develop our aesthetic perception of nature. He didn’t expect everyone to shiver in a trout stream or thrash through nettles, but rather to find a nearby green pasture, where beauty builds with time and repeated visits, beyond the pretty “to values as yet uncaptured by language.” Often, a half-wild patch in your own back forty, unreachable by car, can do more to enhance perception than a motor trek to a distant wilderness. Leopold closes his Almanac with the words, “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

Many thanks to Ophis for the lovely shot of Canada geese breakfasting on their own green pasture of Eleocharis.

Joni Kinsey's essay, "Land Esthetics" can be found in The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries, Curt Meine and Richard Knight, eds. University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

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