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December 13, 2002
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· Aldo Leopold: Good Oak, Good Cedar, Good History ·
What Leopold has happily set me to thinking about today is a famous passage near the end of "February." Leopold reflects on the tools of good history in it — and meditates simply and deeply on a glowing oak on his andirons, one cut, bucked, and split from an eighty-ring giant scarred by lightening and transecting, twice, American history from 1945 to 1865. He considers especially the environmental-geographical, not political, history of his oak, and dwells, at last, on the aforementioned tools making good wood of it. It is to these tools — "requisite to good oak, and to good history," as he says — that he points: namely, the saw, the wedge, and the axe.
Tomorrow, you should know, I am going to be making myself useful with the wedge (probably between rain showers). But I'm working on "Good Cedar," not "Good Oak." Two summers ago a Stihl chainsaw felled the cedars I'm splitting — indeed, cedars killed not by lightening but by tree bugs. But like Leopold's oak my cedar will soon warm the holidays (as it has warmed me twice already in summer) in a doubly reflective glow of Leopold's environmental meditation. Understandably, though, Leopold is an especially difficult stylist to follow.Permalink
I like it. I couldn't tell you exactly why yet.
We humans, then — we who work our way through history — are we "saws," are we "wedges," or are we "axes"? Are some of us more like one tool and some like another? If so, perhaps some folks are not tools at all but more like swings, hanging from the limbs of time or swinging along through it, like Frost in "Birches."
Then again, maybe we humans resemble the trees, the "forest primeval" itself, each with our own collective histories; while events around us — war, say, or weather — affect each of us or all of us like a saw or a wedge or an axe would. Last week, 36 persons were killed by harsh weather in my native Tennessee. Along with their lives, their homes and businesses (whether handsome or humble) and all their worldly goods were swept away by violent windstorms that laid bare whole neighborhoods like clear cut land in old growth forest. By this latter analogy, a tornado or a hurricane or a tsunami is like a massive chain saw in the hands of a mad giant, the kind of cruel god our primitive ancestors blamed for natural disorder.
Or maybe there is no explanation and no need to philosophize. Maybe it's just the way things are. Some trees live for centuries. Some grow and bloom and shed seed to grow and bloom anew. Some are cut for fuel or fortune. Some fall. And some die.
"Some fall. And some die." In the first instance, lightning, in the second tree bugs herein apply.
Although I'm not sure the gods have chain saws, if so, facts shared are just our own metaphors, similes, and analogies.
In 1865, in 1945, even today, human tools are hardly theirs, at least logically.
It is best, as you suggest, we should just sit still.
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