“A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”
In a collection of his essays that were compiled and published in 1949, one year after his death, Aldo Leopold wrote about watching the death of a wolf, and the realization that he had thereafter about the importance of looking at life from the perspective of the whole, and not the individual.
Leopold was an influential writer and scientist, and an integral part of the budding environmental conservation movement. His work formed the basis of our modern theories of environmental ethics and land management, and although things could still be a lot better than they are today in the United States and around the world, they would have been a lot worse without people like him.
I won’t go into a full summary of Leopold’s essay but I would recommend that you go read it first and come back to this afterwards. While his story focuses on a single group of wolves, the lessons he learned that day are lessons that apply not only to the greater ideas of conservation and environmentalism as a whole, but more generally to our everyday lives.
“Thinking Like a Mountain” isn’t a story about wolves, but a story on shifting perspectives, of taking ourselves out of the spotlight and focusing on the bigger picture. Thinking like a mountain means understanding that everything is interconnected, and that our decisions might have more of an impact on the world around us than we might have first thought.
Leopold wasn’t just writing about mountains, but the necessity of long-term thinking and the importance of realizing the advantages of small sacrifices in the short term (i.e. not cutting down all of our forests at once) in order to realize greater benefits in the future.
In a slightly different direction, that long term perspective can also show us that some things might matter less right now than we think they do, to some extent. When I was in high school for example, school felt like the most important thing in the world. If I failed a class or didn’t get an assignment in on time my future would be destroyed and my life would be over. Now that I am in college, those four years seem a little bit less life-changingly significant than I thought they were at the time.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to do well in school or in general, but I do think that people tend to put a little too much pressure on themselves to be perfect. Life is a lot longer than it seems right now as a junior in college, and things usually end up working out in one way or another.
Lastly, Leopold wasn’t just writing about the regrets he had of his days as a trigger-happy teenager, but the greater importance of empathy and an appreciation for life, even wolves’.
I’m a photographer, not a writer, and have never been great with words, so even though you probably didn’t go read Leopold’s story when I told you to read it earlier, it’s not too late, and I definitely didn’t do it justice, so you probably should.
“We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”
Ryan Reynolds is a photographer at The Beacon and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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