Aldo Leopold’s Warning

Aldo Leopold, pioneering conservationist and Wisconsin icon writes in his classic, Sand County Almanac, "There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace." Farmers or not, we tend to forget the source.

I have a very bad memory. I forget how bad it is.

Not long ago my wife and I had our annual Talk. Maybe semi-annual, I can’t remember. The Talk occurs when life has become busy and out-of-joint. "Are you okay with this? It feels like we’re living separate lives," she usually says. And there are tears. And she is right. Our jobs that deal with lots of people send us off in separate directions. Like we’re in two rowboats only catching glimpses of the other as the waves crest, "There! In the distance! Through the mist and spray!" Only to be dropped back into our respective troughs. Stroke by stroke, pulling away.

Our friend says she recently realized that she’s been substituting her "work life" for her "real life." That somehow home became peripheral. Her family had become a kind of support staff for her "real life" – her faux community of work. We tend to forget the source.

Leopold writes that the cures for these spiritual maladies associated with not owning a farm are to split a cord of wood, or to plant a garden. I imagine these would cause one to stop, and to consider the source. Probably all of my stunted spiritual growth can be attributed to the deficiency of stopping and considering. Like a skipping rock that flits across the surface of Lake Michigan, I am inclined to take what I need. Frictionless living. "All the fires that crackle here consume but do not burn. All light and no heat," the dearly departed Mark Heard sang. And, in that kind of consumer atmosphere – whether it be food, or heat, or family, or community, or even God Almighty himself – it all begins to look like it is here to serve me. That it all orbits about my gravity. I need no one. As Leopold observes, that is a great spiritual danger.

That spiritual pioneer and icon, Mother Teresa, wrote, "Sometimes we must ask ourselves questions in order to inform our actions." This is exactly what I don’t want; the skip of this stone to be interrupted with a question that would trip me, and drop me below the surface, into the depths.

"Are you okay with this?" my wife asks. There’s that sinking feeling. Now gasping for air. It is terrifying. But, maybe drowning is good. Maybe I was just holding my breath anyway waiting for the inevitable moment my disconnected life would begin to take on water. Maybe you have to go down in order to rise up for your real life.

And, questions, as I said, are usually the things that scrape a hole in the hull of my unanchored life:

Q: Where does this all come from? Not just food and heat, but love and community and breath and wonder and me?

Q: How does the way I am living my life right now affect others? From my wife and children, to my neighbor across the street, to my neighbor across the world? By commission or omission? For good or for bad?

Q: What do I need to give? Or, better yet: What do I need to receive? Bishop William Willimon said in a sermon, "I suggest that we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people, but because we are proud, arrogant people. It’s tough to be on the receiving end of love, God’s or anyone else’s. It requires that we see our lives not as our possessions, but as gifts."

Q: What do I need to stop for God’s sake? What do I need to start for my, and everyone else’s, sake?

Whether farmers, or not, we tend to forget the source. Are you okay with this?

Kyle White is a free-lance writer and illustrator pining for Wisconsin while living in Sycamore, Illinois with his wife and their two children.