What is a land ethic and what does having a land ethic mean? To quote the famous environmentalist Aldo Leopold, “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” This quote highlights the disjointed relationship between humans and the land. We have no ethical value system that addresses our relationship to nature. We view the environment as property, a resource that exists solely for human use and economic gain, “entailing privileges but not obligations.” This stands in stark contrast to our ethical and moral views that deal with human to human relationships. The question then becomes: Can we extend our moral community to include all parts of the environment, and if so what would that society look like?
One culture that we have been introduced to on the Montana Afoot and Afloat course that has a very different way of interacting with the land is the Blackfeet Tribe. They place intrinsic value on the land and they see themselves as interconnected with their environment, as opposed to our views of the land as property and ourselves as conquerors of the land. One difference between the two cultures that I noticed was that the Blackfeet have a deep spiritual connection to their place and they care very deeply about every aspect of the landscape. In contrast, our society is lacking a deep connection to and knowledge of place, and in turn, we have little to no respect or care for our environment. Could it be that having a spiritual connection to the natural world could be one way of expanding and extending our ethics to the environment?
On this trip we have been having many powerful experiences that have helped us to build a deeper connection to this place and the world around us. It is hard not to feel connected to the landscape when you are deep in the Scapegoat Wilderness literally being blown up and over mountain passes, standing atop them, wind flying through your hair, overlooking the junction of where the plains meet the Rocky Mountains. The wind breathes life into us. Or when we sat and floated in blissful peace through the evening light to finish our Missouri River kayak trip under the vast array of the nighttime stars. I think we all felt our connection deepen as we scrambled up pillars to Hole-in-the-Wall, high above the mighty Missouri. There we sat, quietly overlooking the landscape and pondering the Earth’s beauty and how we fit in to this greater picture. Or when we woke up to the first snow of the season (in September!) and were greeted by the sight of the massive limestone reef of Half Moon Park highlighted by the soft glimmer of the snow. I realize now that all of these experiences have influenced and affected my relationship with the environment and my connection to this place. We are experiencing the natural history of these places, their beauty and power, both internally and externally. After having experiences like this it is hard not to feel a change in ourselves and our relationship to the natural world.
All of this is well and good but why does building a deeper connection to nature even matter? I think the author Stephen Jay Gould summed up the value of connection to the environment best in his article, Enchanted Evening. He says, “We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love.” We must save these species and environments, not just for their sake, but for ours as well. For don’t we all rely on clean air to breathe and clean water to drink? There are countless rational reasons that we should change our relationship with the environment and establish a land ethic. As Joe McKay (Power Buffalo), a tribal council leader of the Blackfeet Tribe so wisely said, “We need to learn to live with the land rather than off the land.”