Humans are storytellers. They are also storydwellers.
Aldo Leopold knew this.
I am in the Southwest again, writing from the cabin that Aldo and Estella Leopold built during their first year of marriage. I say “again” because I spent several months in Arizona and New Mexico a few years back doing research on the human dimensions of Mexican gray wolf reintroduction. It’s a topic Leopold would have had an interest in. He lived during the eradication of wolf populations throughout vast swaths of the contiguous United States. Early in his career in the Forest Service, he lent a hand (and a pen, and a gun) to “raise the fight” on these “varmints.”
The most famous story he ever wrote—the one that you might have heard even if you don’t know the name Aldo Leopold—was “Thinking Like a Mountain.” In this three-and-a-half page narrative, through the 20-20 lenses of hindsight instead of the scope of a 20-20 rifle, Leopold looked back on his youthful self and lamented his rush to judgment on wolves. He characterized it as a “sin.” He’d had a career to think about it.
These lessons did not come easily or immediately for him. “Thinking Like a Mountain” was written in 1944, some thirty-five years after the incident described in the essay. In the interim, Leopold left the Forest Service; made a major geographical move with his family from the Southwest to the Midwest; became a professor of game, then wildlife, management at the University of Wisconsin; and gained years of field experience that were filtered through the burgeoning science of ecology. “Thinking Like a Mountain” was the product of a mature Leopold, a conscious reconstruction of his experience, and a compression of themes into a single story that captured the resonances of an ecological worldview.
Leopold sensed that statistical analyses or economic justifications did not inspire long-term care or commitment to the land. And so he sought ways to communicate how humans were participants in a larger story; in his words, fellow “coinhabitants” with other creatures in the “odyssey of evolution.” The evolutionary story, for Leopold, offered an explanatory narrative that cohered with an ecological perspective. He explored this intersection in “Thinking Like a Mountain,” fusing scientific observation with narrative myth. That he did so effectively is evidenced in the ways that the essay has been referenced, anthologized, and used as a motivational tool to spur interest in wilderness protection, conservation, wildlife, and, more broadly, land ethics as a whole.
Stories can be about change, but perhaps more importantly, they can create change. Leopold succeeded in navigating a problem that persists in our own time: the gap between scientifically informed understandings of the world and effectively communicating those understandings to the public.
We live out our stories. Some of those stories we are born into, some we inherit from our families and our faith communities, some from our history books and local lore. We pass them down like recipes. They are the ingredients, we suppose, of what constitutes a good life. We carry these stories and live them out, sometimes unaware that we are doing so. And under the right set of circumstances, when tested and tempered by experience, these deeply rooted stories can change.
Aldo Leopold’s story changed. He also had a rare talent for communicating that change. A talent that was inspired by overcoming what he referred to as the “senseless barrier between science and art.”
In a talk delivered at the North American Wildlife Conference in 1942, Leopold asked, “What are the sciences? Only categories for thinking. Sciences can be taught separately, but they can’t be used separately, either for seeing land or doing anything with it.”
“What is art?” he continued. “Only the drama of the land’s working.”
Here’s my point: Science needs story. Story needs science.
Science needs story.
To make it accessible to a larger public, to communicate these findings in ways that are memorable—to give the science “stickiness” so that we can internalize it—to engage our empathy as fellow-creatures in the “odyssey of evolution.” In other words, to see ourselves as part of a larger story in which our species is only one of multitudes.
Story needs science.
To sharpen its focus, to shape its contours, to point us toward what needs our attention, to deepen our curiosities, and to expand the cast of characters beyond Homo sapiens.
The stories that result from such attentive interaction with the natural world can give us, as human storydwellers, something worth living in. The novelist John Gardner expresses this idea nicely: “Real art creates myths a society can live by instead of die by.”
The dying is all around us. Our stories have not yet proven up to the challenge, and those that were have been colonized, disappeared, and fragmented by a peculiar monolithic myth: that we are conquistadors of earth, that profit determines what is right and wrong, that owning land—a curious notion!—means we have no obligation to treat it with respect and love.
Leopold knew this was a dead-end myth.
He believed that our treatment of the land was based on perceiving the evolutionary drama and the ecological relationships that linked all in a community. In this respect, there were no shortcuts to understanding the human place in the natural world; nor could such perception “be purchased with degrees or dollars.” As he memorably observed, it is not a matter “of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” So Leopold went beyond objective description and experimentation (science) to ask how the natural world could be comprehended more fully (story), calling for a culture that valued land as a social relationship, and thus perceived “that there is also drama in every bush, if you can see it.”
He circled these deeper truths in “Thinking Like a Mountain,” musing on the “hidden meaning” of the wolf’s howl and the reactions it provoked. Through his own confessional narrative, he encouraged the reader to consider his or her own mistaken beliefs and perceptions, and to learn from them so that they would not be repeated. Wolves, mountains, deer, green fire, and humans were the characters Leopold used to communicate his relational ecology. For him, the land spelled out a story, and the integrity of the narrative’s fabric—the land itself—was dependent on humans recognizing their place in that story.
Storytelling. Storydwelling. Chipping away at the senseless barrier between science and art. Because the land needs storytellers to create myths we can live by.