Pilgrimage: Traveling with Leopold

Along the trail


Traveling with Aldo Leopold is a kind of pilgrimage, a focused awareness of what is present, and, once this is developed, feeling a participant with it.

Hiking along one the most ancient pilgrimage trails on earth, Camino de Santiago (and only portions of it), I brought only one book, my old (and lightweight!) paperback version of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, a book Leopold finished the year I was born. He received the acceptance from the publishers (some had said that it was unpublishable) the week before his untimely death while fighting a fire on a neighbor’s property.
I see from an old receipt stuck between the yellowed pages that I bought it in San Francisco on June 19, 1998, a full year before my husband and I began farming biodynamically.  I remembered being bored by the book’s pace. To read such detail about the snow tunnels of a mouse in January or the April sky dance of a mating woodcock was a little too much to keep my attention. I don’t think I made it much past the woodcock.
The preface to this edition by his son Luna B. Leopold and Carolyn Clugston Leopold, was dated June 1966, the month I graduated from high school. The youth generation that Luna addressed in the preface was my generation, the one demonstrating on college campuses against the Vietnam War and fighting for nuclear disarmament. Of all the causes that attract the attention of these young people, Luna declared, the plight of nature is one that may be truly a last call. Things wild and free are being destroyed by the impersonality of our attitude toward the land (xv).
What has ripened within me that suddenly this book is meaningful? I read it slowly, savoring this phrase, that idea, realizing that some 65 years ago he was able to pull together so much of what this time on earth is about. His descriptions afford an intimacy with the natural world that I too have experienced, an intimacy that summons grief for the loss of species and habitat. We grieve only for what we know (52), Leopold writes.
Leopold begins the Foreword with the famous line, There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot (xvii).
Now I can see how his very carefully documented observations weave him into the landscape, living the question of each specie’s place in the whole, and in so doing, weaving himself in as well. It is a state that can be only described as love. I understand this state of mind, not unlike the one attained when my husband and I stir the Biodynamic preps while meditating on our land, or when I sit in my analytic consulting room, listening and observing to a flit of a feeling when she says this, or he dreams that. Perhaps it is the state of mind of dreamily watching a sunset or sunrise, playing with a grandson or perhaps enjoying a long dinner with old friends. It is a slowness that also can be flooded with grief for what is at risk, even, in this fast-paced world, that state of mind that allows meandering and musing.

Today on the trail I read a line in the guidebook, one I repeat for you here:

Will you rest awhile at the old pilgrim well and hear a different horn break the woodland silence, a harsh and urgent note of warning from the fast-moving traffic—a reminder to pilgrims that we travel now at a slower pace; one that allows time and awareness to expand (56)

Above Espinal

I regret that this time I will not walk the 500 miles, taking the month to six weeks out of my life to contemplate life. Yet even these days offer a taste of a slowing and a peek into what such a pilgrimage means.