“Thinking like a mountain” is such a resonant phrase that many people doubtless harbour their own notions about what it means without feeling the need to return to its source in Aldo Leopold’s eponymous essay1, or perhaps even knowing that Leopold is the source. But if you do go back to the essay what you get, in burnished literary prose, is mostly a rather persuasive argument not to mess around with ecosystems that you don’t fully understand. And in particular not to kill wolves if you don’t want to have problems with deer. You also get an argument that there’s something special about top predators: “Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them”.
I agree with the first part of the sentence. In the admittedly brief periods I’ve spent in bear country, and in crocodile country, I’ve had an animal awareness of my surroundings – of what Leopold calls ‘the way shadows lie under the spruces’ – that I’ve never experienced in the bosom of human civilisation. Well…perhaps that’s not quite true, thinking of my occasional wanderings through dark urban alleys late at night. Still, I’m less sure about the mysticism investing Leopold’s notion of mountains and their secret opinion, what he calls the ‘mortal fear’ mountains have of the deer that, unchecked, will strip their sides of vegetation. In fact, I’m never very sure about mysticism, which is probably why I’ve been told that I’ll never understand permaculture by people who like to take their permaculture with a twist of the mystical.
Well, though I don’t know much about mystery, I do understand a few things about mountains, and also a few things about plants. So let me share some stories about both before coming back to Leopold’s famous phrase.
It’s been a pretty good growing season here in northeast Somerset – hot, dry weather for the most part, keeping the slugs at bay and affording the plants plenty of sugary sunshine. The only downside is that it’s been so dry we’ve had to irrigate a lot more than usual. Actually, there’s been another downside too, though I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it – productivity has been surprisingly poor, which is quite a problem in this of all years when we have to demonstrate to the powers that be that our business is a flourishing one.
The reason, we think, that productivity is down is because the irrigation has attracted worms, and the worms have attracted moles, who have tunnelled a veritable city subway beneath our vegetable beds. In previous years, moles have never been more than a minor irritant – in fact probably beneficial on balance thanks to their subsoiling activities. So we were slow to realise that this year they’re a problem. And when we did, we had to learn about the way they tunnel and feed so that we could place our traps effectively – resulting in two dead moles so far (incidentally, when I say ‘we’ here I must acknowledge the primacy of Mrs Spudman in nailing this particular issue).
We learned, in other words, to think like a molehill. Actually, no: much as I like the parallel with Leopold, and the implicit measurement of his achievement against ours, the fact is that molehills don’t think. Moles do. We learned to think like a mole.
I suspect one reason we were slow to figure this problem out is the way that thinking like Leopold’s invests our own thought. Traditionally, farmers have often been too quick to ascribe their loss to ‘vermin’ and to reach for the gun, the trap or the poison. Many of the organisms they wish to exterminate, like the mole, bring some benefits. So we’ve generally tried to avoid this ideology of the varmint, and refrain from too much extermination. But part of life’s art is surely adapting to present circumstances, figuring things out and knowing when to switch strategy. By which I mean to say that, if mountains have wise opinions, they’re surely contextual ones. It may not always be a good idea to pronounce something a pest and seek to kill it. But sometimes it is. Of course, part of the problem is that we’re under artificial external pressure to prove our productivity. Then again, most farmers historically have been under considerable and far from artificial pressure to secure theirs too in order, so to speak, to keep the wolf from the door.
I don’t want to recover old tracks in debating the ‘balance of nature’. Whether ‘nature’ is in balance or not in some larger sense, it’s never in balance during any given day or any given season on the farm. I still think the instincts of the organic farming movement, perhaps under the influence of figures like Leopold, are basically sound in promoting the idea of natural balance and seeing pest problems as potential indicators of system malfunction – being ‘plant positive’ and not ‘pest negative’ in Eliot Coleman’s terms. But only when it articulates them as rules of thumb, not as laws of nature. And not when some self-styled organic expert tells you your pest problems prove that you’re not farming properly: in my opinion, such people either have big egos, little experience, or a lot of luck.
This is where Leopold’s mysticism troubles me. I’m all in favour of leaving well alone in the wilderness and not imagining that humans can manage it better. But on a farm you can’t leave well alone. Sometimes you can live with the pests. And sometimes you can’t. It helps if you learn to think like them. But if you do, I suspect it might overturn some fond notions forged in the safe, abstract abundance of modern life where it’s easy to let the shadows lie any which way under the spruces without realising the self-indulgence involved. If worms could vocalise their sentiments, would they claim to favour ‘worm positive’ over ‘mole negative’ policies, or worship at the altar of natural balance in the face of velvet-muzzled death? I don’t think so. If we, to use another of Leopold’s famous dictums, are indeed ‘plain members and citizens of the biotic community’, then sometimes perhaps we need to act like one by fighting our corner.
I’ve just come back from a trip to Snowdonia, that eroded stub of a mountain chain first formed some 480 million years ago. Now that is a long, long time. When those mountains were young, terrestrial life was not yet established and the age of dinosaurs was much further into the future than it now stands to our past. Nowadays, the wolves are long gone from Snowdonia’s mountains, which are stripped of their vegetation by sheep and hikers. But the succession from wolf to sheep and hiker is less than the blink of an eye in the mountains’ existence. Do they have a secret opinion about the sheep, or the hikers? No, I can’t make that leap. Mountains don’t think, and even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Humans need to care – but that is our problem, not the mountains’. So what I take Leopold to be saying is no more than this: our immediate concerns are part of a larger story unfurling across place and time, a larger story that we ignore at our peril. True enough, but we’re imperilled too if we don’t attend to the immediate story unfurling at our feet on the farm. We need to think like a mountain. We also need to think like a mole.
- Leopold, A. (1949) A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here And There, Oxford University Press.