Finding the Green Fire
by Jack Beuttell -- April 1st, 2012
re: Aldo Leopold, Bambi, and killing the things we love.
In 1945 Aldo Leopold wrote, “Man always kills the things he loves.” While the 58-year-old American conservationist was referring to the scars the pioneers had left on the American wilderness, it is probably no accident that he chose these words at a time when the world had just borne witness to the terrific genocide of its own animal kind.
Indeed, a survey of our history as a species unfortunately reveals too many similar stories, where we self-engineer towers of greatness, only to see them come crashing down once they reach untenable heights. Some feel a moral compulsion to exert dominion over their neighbors and creation, while others justify their conquering through evolutionary sophistication. Whatever the cause, the effects are self-evident.
Yet killing is as natural as life itself—and very often antecedent to life. What separates the good kind from the bad is left to the foggy, shifty constructs of our moral imagination.
I’ve experienced plenty of death and clutched the hand of a man when he moved on. But my saddest day was when I killed the creature I loved most in the world—my six-year-old dog, Belle. It was a sunny September morning, and she romped in the waves and looked as healthy as ever. She had a massive brain tumor, though, and there was nothing that could be done. I held her close to my chest as the veterinarian gently inserted a needle into her leg. Her energetic body relaxed, and a few minutes later she released. At 70 pounds her unwieldy corpse was not easy to carry home, where I laid her down on the fourteen-foot Cypress table in my mother’s carport. As we waited to place her in the vet’s car, so she could be delivered to the crematorium, I carefully inspected her lifeless body, wanting to record every inch. She was muscular and beautiful. Her white coat was thick and accented by a bare, pink underside. And her little black nose revealed slightly raised and rounded shapes that fit together like flagstones. But her eyes had gone milky, as if covered by cataracts. She was gone.
Two weeks ago I attended a screening of Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. It was a tremendous documentary film that deserves a broader audience than it attracted. I had read some Leopold last fall, and he was compelling: direct in his logic, but poetic and humble in delivery. My favorite Christmas present, then, was a surprise discovery of his seminal compilation of essays, A Sand County Almanac, in my mother’s primitive fish camp library in Florida. The front end paper indicates it was once owned by a Robert Milne, who bought it in the bookstore for six fifty. For less money and on good faith, I scooped it up to appoint my bedside table in Durham.
In one of Leopold’s most famous essays, Thinking Like a Mountain, he describes an unusual experience:
We were eating lunch on the high rim rock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us, and shook out her tail, we realized our error. It was a wolf…
Leopold was reflecting on his time as a young manager for the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico, for which he had little more than a horse and a rifle to do the job.
In those days we had never heard of passing up the chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy. When our rifles were empty the old wolf was down and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
It is solemn account that leaves you with a terrible feeling—the same one we all had as children when the hunters felled the doe in Bambi or when we’re forced to put down an animal member of the family. Our hearts often understand these events in a way that our minds can’t comprehend.
Reflecting on his experience in the mesquite bush of New Mexico, Leopold too laments more than just the loss of the wolf’s physical aspect. He intimates a secret covenant between the wolf and the mountain, a language he couldn’t interpret when he witnessed the exchange. In fact, according to Leopold’s biographer, Curt Meine, Leopold didn’t perceive the gravity of this experience until decades after it happened, but he realized then that he had killed something he loved deeply. And it was in the reflection of the wolf’s once fiery eyes through the lens of time, that he could now see his own simplicity.
When I laid Belle down and witnessed the fire extinguish from her eyes, I too saw my poverty and realized that the riches in our lives consist not of those moments when we exert dominion over creation, but when we open ourselves to its beauty and give it room to act like its nature. Leopold’s voice layers on in affirmation. That is when we become part of the land, when we begin to learn its language, when our own animal nature remembers itself—and when the scales in our eyes fall away to reveal the same fire that burned below the brow of the old wolf by the river.