A Book To Change A Life

I read a lot of books.  Almost all of them are some form of science fiction or another, but I wanted to give a shout out to a very special non-fiction book that has changed my life.  That is to say, it changed my worldview.  A little background…

When I started college, I wanted to be a conservation agent/conservation police officer/game warden, whatever your state calls them.  I wanted to follow in my uncle’s footsteps not only because I looked up to him, but also because I have always loved the outdoors.

A year and half in, for a number of reasons, I realized that the law enforcement path wasn’t for me.  It wasn’t only because of my love affair with hookers and blow, many other reasons existed…probably.  So, one afternoon I went down to the biology department (because that was where my interests lay) and ended up having a long talk with the department head.  He was available at that moment and could serve as an adviser.  I learned later that he retired a few months after our conversation.  Anyway, after telling him my plight of essentially being a rudderless boat, we began talking about what my interests were as well as my history with life (as short as it was at that point).  After having a great conversation, he sent me down to a class in progress and told me not to worry, he would re-write my schedule and have it ready in an hour.  He would put me onto a track I could sink my teeth into, but I needed to hurry because the class had started 15 minutes ago.  He had a hunch I would really like the professor, but if he was wrong, he will create a new schedule or send me to a different department.  I realize now how strange it was to have a department head do all this for me at a public university with 10,000+ students.  It didn’t seem strange then.  He was just a nice man who wanted to help.

So I left his office and hurried down the hall, glancing at the room numbers to find the one he had told me to go to.  Eventually, I wandered into this class and saw a bearded guy with a deep voice talking about plant systematics up in front of a small class of maybe 20 people.  Naturally, he stopped and gave me some shit for strolling into his class 15 minutes late, then told me to “sit my butt down and pay attention”, all while smiling.  I didn’t have time to explain what was going on, so I just took a seat.

I quickly realized I was in way over my head.  I hadn’t even taken the regular gen-ed biology courses yet(you know, like Bio 100), and I was tossed into a 400 level (junior-senior) botany class simply because the other guy thought I would get along great with the professor?  This was a little crazy.  I did enjoy that first day, though.   The class was very interesting and I had always loved plants.  I still didn’t know what the hell Systematics was, but I figured I would learn it at some point.  Plus, the professor had a very natural and friendly demeanor.  He was just intimidating enough to keep my attention, but he also had a distinctly Missouri flavor (I went to school in Illinois, the two states don’t generally fraternize well).

After that class, the professor invited me into his office to find out what my story was.  I didn’t have anything else going on since I didn’t have my schedule yet, so I went.  We had a long talk and I like to think we became fast friends, although he says it took me half the semester to “come out of my shell”.   Turns out he got his doctorate at University of Missouri, and we both were passionate about the glade habitat that is scattered all over my lovely state.  During this first conversation, he loaned me his old, tattered copy of A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold.

I had never heard of this book.  I didn’t know where the hell Sand County was.  By a beach?  Hell if I knew.  It had some geese on the cover and I liked geese, but it looked kind of boring because it was a just collection of essays.  The professor could see my slight hesitation and said (I won’t forget these words, ever!) “Just read the damn book.  Skip to ‘Thinking Like A Mountain’, if that doesn’t stir something inside you, then both of us (he and the department head) misunderstood you”.  Then he threw his hat into the corner of his desk, but quickly retrieved it to place it back atop his head.  Odd, but true.  I learned in the years to come that he was pretty big on throwing his ball cap into various corners and then grabbing it back.

Hat weirdness aside, that was the kind of straight talk I appreciated.  I took the book and began reading it on the long walk back from Waggoner Hall.   As I read this book, I realized why he had wanted me to read it.  The words of Aldo Leopold resonated within me so deeply, it was frightening.  Other students were probably wondering why the large man walking across the long parking lot had tears in his eyes.

It was one of those moments.  One of those times when things snap into place on so many levels.  I can count on one hand how many times I have had moments like that in my entire life.  I am not exaggerating to say that “Thinking Like A Mountain” changed my outlook on so many different aspects of my life, stuff that was way beyond ecological things.

The essay is about Leopold killing wolves in his youth, but then noticing he wasn’t only killing wolves, he was killing the very mountain itself.  It’s a way of thinking in the long term.  It’s a way of forgiving yourself for past sins and looking to the future.  To me, it’s poetry.  As simple as that.  Many people have done analyses of that one essay (it’s got layers….like an onion) and none of them are wrong.  It just has so many possible interpretations, it’s astounding.

Like any great storyteller, Aldo Leopold is able to bring you into his world and explain things the way he sees them.  His skill comes in the stories coming off more like fables.  You can read into them and discover truths not only about yourself, but about the world in general.

The entire book, A Sand County Almanac, is quite short and most versions have “collected essays” or “reflections” tacked onto the back to give it some more weight.  All the different versions are great.  The glory of this book is that it is written in bite sized pieces.  Each essay is long enough to be read, or better yet read to a young ‘un, and then digested over a course of time or talked about with a friend.  They even make some very nice Coffee Table style editions with gorgeous pictures of the Northwoods, although those editions tend to have shortened essays and such in them.

After reading that book in one night, and then again in the morning, I returned to the professor’s office to give it back to him.  Excitedly, I told him how much the words meant to me and we talked more about the long-term consequences of our actions involving the natural world.  We talked at great length about the role we, as a species, play in this world, especially with the ways we have already altered it.  It’s not a matter of being some kind of tree hugging hippy, Aldo Leopold certainly would not be described as such, it’s a matter of thinking past the end of our nose on a handful of issues.

Another essay,”The Good Oak”, I think about on a weekly basis in the winter while I feed my woodstove.   I think about it every time I start a fire in the stove and the hounds excitedly poke between me and the wood, anticipating the warmth.  I think about it every October when I see the fat squirrels planting acorns.  But most importantly, I think about it every time I lay my saw into a trunk and allow the teeth to chew through time.  

To enjoy this book, you don’t need to be an ecologist. You don’t need to be an environmentalist.  All you need to be is human.

Suffice it to say, I stayed in the biology department.  The professor and I became life-long friends.  I met my wife a few doors down from his office, even.
I was put on the right track.  In part because of the wisdom of an old department head.  In part because of a professor with a knack for spotting a kindred spirit.  And in part because of the decades old words of an ex wolf hunter who saw the error in his ways.



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3 Responses to A Book To Change A Life

  1. Elaine Musgrave says:

    What a wonderful review of a book I would not have read. After reading your moving words however, It has now been placed on my books to-read list!

  2. thomasgable says:

    This is a wonderful book and I could not agree with you more about the importance of this book! I love it dearly! Leopold and Sigurd Olson both had some absolutely wonderful insights into nature and the workings of the natural world! Great post and keep spreading the word about wonderful writing like this!

    • I can’t agree with you more about Sigurd F Olson. I plan on writing about him at some point as well. Reflections From The North Country had just as much impact on me, but in different ways.

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