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HOME RANGE: Notes on Literature, Nature, Working Dogs, History, Martial Arts, Other Obsessions and Sundry Annoyances by Henry Chappell

Words I Wish I'd Written: From "The Land Ethic" by Aldo Leopold



Back in the 1980s, when I joined the Isaac Walton League, I received as a new member gift a paperback copy of A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. The volume also contains several additional essays, most notably "Wilderness," and "The Land Eithic." Leopold is often called "the father of modern wildlife management." Like most hunters and anglers, I had heard of him, but, in by my late twenties, hadn't gotten around to reading him. I read the book in two or three sittings, and have read it through at least half a dozen times since. My old copy is marked up and falling apart, but I still reach for it, even after the good folks at The Sand County Foundation sent me a beautiful new hardcover edition a few years back.

Though written prior to 1948, this passage addresses our primary environmental issue. I cannot see how any current environmental concern can be uncoupled from the issue of human population. We lack a politics to deal with the issue. During the decades following publication of Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, the pro business and pro-natal Right scoffed at the issue of over population. Mathus's predictions hadn't come to pass and Ehrlich hadn't accounted for agricultural advances, therefore, human population was a non-issue. Republican leaders, many of them philistine by nature and forever concerned about economic growth, still don't care about the issue. What has changed is that the environmentalist Left, blinded, cowed, and silenced by ideological commitments, can no longer be counted on to sound the alarm. Population growth in the United States is almost completely driven by immigration, therefore it must be a net good, and, in any case, so the reasoning goes, we can no longer afford to be so provincial as to worry about our own country, let alone our own back yards. But buy locally while supporting global initiatives.

But here's the great Aldo Leopold:

"The combined evidence of history and ecology seems to support one general deduction: the less violent the man-made changes, the greater the probablility of successful readjustment in the pyramid. Violence in turn, varies with human population density; a dense population requires a more violent conversion. In this respect, North America has a better chance for permanence than Europe, if she can contrive to limit her density.

"This deduction runs counter to our current philosophy, which assumes that because a small increase in density enriched human life, that an indefinite increase will enrich it indefinitely. Ecology knows of no density relationship that holds for indefinitely wide limits. All gains from density are subject to a law of diminishing returns."


Not surprisingly, as early as the 1980s, Leopold was accused of "Enrivonmental Fascism," because the ideas expressed in "The Land Ethic" might lead to the submergance of the individual by collective glorification of nation or region.


I'm not optimistic, even though Aldo Leopold would be amazed by the enviromental progress made since he wrote "The Land Ethic." Certainly, we hunters enjoy more game than I could've imagined as a teenager. Likewise adaptive species sometimes reach nuisance levels in suburbs across the country. Yet, when J. and I moved to Plano, in 1983, quail, meadowlarks, roadrunners, and harriers were common. One of my most treasured memories is of Dad sitting on our little back porch, whistling to a bobwhite cock perched on our backyard fence. In the late 1980s, I trained a bird dog pup on wild bobwhites that eked out a living in the strips of cover in a neighborhood park and the surrounding pastures. You rarely see meadowlarks or roadrunners or harriers nowadays. I haven't heard a bobwhite call in Collin County in nearly 20 years. They don't exactly thrive in subdivisions. Oh, we have raccoons and coyotes and bobcats aplenty, but they don't quite make up for the loss of those grassland birds.

How many times can the process be replicated? Perhaps I'm a hypocrite for asking; after all, J. And I moved from Kentucky to North Texas. But I'll ask anyway.

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Words I Wish I'd Written


I'm unqualified to call Moby Dick the greatest American novel, as many critics and scholars have, but I can call it the greatest American novel I've read. I'll expand that judgement to include novels written in English, that I've read." Comparisons to the works of Dickens, George Eliot, Forster, et al seem meaningless, even ridiculous, so I'll just assert that Melville is unmatched in his ability to conjure moods of bliss and foreboding and images both beautiful and terrifying. Only Joseph Conrad, a Polish mariner who wrote in English, comes close. Is there something about novelists obsessed with the sea?

Let me open my marked-up copy at random and flip a few pages to find an underlined passage. Here's the crew of the Pequod working through the night, cooking down a sperm whale:

"Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front, the harpooners wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart to her monomaniac commander's soul."



Melville knew his whalers: unrepentant butchers and among the bravest, toughest S.O.B.s who ever lived.

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Words I Wish I'd Written

You stick with a Cormac McCarthy novel for passages like this one from All the Pretty Horses:


"In the evening he saddled his horse and rode out west from the house. The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him. He rode where he would always choose to ride, out where the western fork of the old Comanche road coming down out of the Kiowa country to the north passed through the westernmost section of the ranch and you could see the faint trace of it bearing south over the low prairie that lay between the north and middle forks of the Concho River. At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and the children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across the mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives. "

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Words I Wish I'd Written



Back in the nineties, I plowed through every book John Gierach had written and snatched up his new ones as soon as they came out. Since his break-through Trout Bum (1986) he has been incredibly prolific and, even more impressive, consistent. Although I’ve liked some Gierach essays better than others, I don’t recall a single one I’ve finished and thought, “Well, he’s finally showing some strain.” Not to say he doesn’t sweat over every piece. They’re all tight and elegant, never pretentious.

If I had to pick a favorite Gierach Book, I’d grit my teeth and go with The View from Rat Lake, (1988) published by Pruett, the small, respected regional publisher that also published Trout Bum. (Simon & Schuster has been his publisher for the past couple decades.) But if I had to choose a favorite essay – a just-short-of-impossible task – I’d have to go with “Neither Snow, nor Rain, nor Gloom of Night,” the ninth essay in his Sex Death and Fly-Fishing (1990). If you’ve spent a significant portion of your life hunting, fishing, or birding, you know that good things often happen in weather sane people call “miserable.” Which brings to mind another great Gierach line, one I can’t find at the moment. But I love it and quote it from memory:

“Then the weather turned really nasty. It was perfect.”

I’ll quote precisely from “Neither Rain …”:

“The Blue-Winged Olives happened at least once, either on the Frying Pan or the South Platte: a dank, hideous day of wild fishing at the end of which we wring out our clothing, drive to a bar, and sit in a corner steaming, sipping coffee, looking mean and crazy.”

Been there? I’m thinking of quail hunting in the hills south of the Middle Pease on days so cold your teeth hurt when you got winded enough to breathe from your mouth, and you’d drive back to a certain little diner to sit among other quail hunters and drink a gallon of coffee, knowing the day was growing even colder and you couldn’t miss the late afternoon hunting.

In the last and best part of “Neither Rain …” Gierach describes several days of autumn fishing on the Frying Pan, with his buddy A.K. Best:

“The clouds were low enough that I couldn’t see the lip of the canyon, only where the red cliffs, now more of an antique rust color, dissolved. The rocks were wet and shiny, with rainwater running over them, sometimes in flat sheets, sometimes in little eroding streams that you could hear over the noise of rain and the river.”

The fishing was fabulous, and Gierach landed a big rainbow .

“There had been no other fisherman, and all day only two or three cars had passed on the road, but as we climbed out of the river a guy in some kind of sports car pulled up. He rolled his window down two inches and said through the crack, “Getting any big fish?”

“’I just landed a five-pound rainbow on a number eighteen dry fly,’ I said.

“‘No no,’ he said. ‘I mean really big fish.’

“The guy was young, well-dressed, dry, warm, sitting in a sports car with the heater going.

“’You’re an asshole,’ I said.”


As I quote John Gierach, summer solstice is less than a week away. It’s getting hot in North Texas. I’m looking forward to that first cold, drizzly, perfect day of fall. In the meantime, I plan to reread a bunch of Gierach essays.

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Words I Wish I'd Written



Just back from the Southern Kentucky Book Festival, where I made new friends, enjoyed the company of old friends, signed plenty of books, and had an all-around fine time, I'm feeling like quoting a great writer from my beloved home state. James Still, Kentucky's first poet laureate, feels just right:

“The flat fruit of the locust fell, lying like curved blades in the grass. August ripened the sedge clumps. Father began to come home from the mines in middle afternoon, no longer trudging the creek road at the edge of dark, with the carbide lamp burning on his cap. He came now before the guineas settled to roost in the black birch. We watched the elder thicket at the hillturn and plunged down to meet him as he came in sight. The heifer ran after us. Euly was the swiftest, reaching him first and snatching the dinner bucket Father carried. She hid in the stickweeds to nibble at the crusts in the bucket, scattering crumbs for the field-larks seeding the grass stalks. Fletch waited halfway down the path and Father would swing him to his shoulder, packing him to the house like a poke of meal.“

James Still, River of Earth


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