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91 4 The Wilds That Gave Us Birth Scott Russell Sanders (b. 1945) The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflects the corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth. — ​Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac In reading landscapes for their environmental history, contemporary midwestern literary naturalists advance the legacy of pioneering ecologists, particularly Aldo Leopold, who grasped the fundamental ecological precept that preserving the diversity of indigenous species helps to ensure the stability and resilience of a biotic community. Scott Russell Sanders is well aware that he carries the environmental torch passed down in our national literature. Contemplating the roots of environmental ethics, he suggests that “the greatest theme in American literature is the search for right relations between humankind and nature, between civilization and wildness.”1 In A Conservationist Manifesto, he acknowledges this heritage, naming precursors that have informed his thinking and who inspire him still. “In America, one can trace a lineage of dissident souls— ​ John Muir, Aldo­ Leopold, Anna and Harland Hubbard, Thomas Merton, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, and a great many others— ​ who found in Thoreau if not the inspiration then at least the confirmation for their own efforts at rethinking the meaning and conduct of life.”2 Sanders’s writings fit squarely within this tradition. “The roots of conservation go deep in America back through such visionaries,” he declares in the preface.3 Moreover, at his most lyrical moments, Sanders clearly echoes the Transcendent­ alist sensibilities of Emerson and Thoreau. “I belong to this lineage of writers inspired by Thoreau,” he adds, “however humble my place may be.”4 Above all, he reminds us, “this lineage continues to inspire those of us who seek 92 Ecological Essayists to articulate a conservation ethic for our own time.”5 He acknowledges, however, that “our ethical dilemma is quite different from the one Thoreau faced.”6 Sanders’s narratives of environmental history encapsulate the centuries of landscape change represented in midwestern literature: forests logged off, wetlands drained, and prairie sod plowed under. Like other writers in the region bearing witness to ecological decline, he laments that it has resulted in the erasure of entire ecosystems, squandering their legacy of biological abundance. He recounts the litany of species completely extirpated from the region, including keystone predators: “Bison, bears, lions, wolves, and passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, and countless other animals dwelt here in astounding numbers. This original abundance thousands of years in the making, we have all but used up in two centuries.”7 This chapter examines how his perceptions of landscape change awakened a keen appreciation for environmental history, culminating in a vision that extends Leopold’s land ethic in two significant ways: considering the dire state of the global environment today, and positing an ethical response informed by the traditions of indigenous peoples. Cultural memory of landscape change— ​ what might be termed our collective ecological memory— ​ encompasses the cumulative alteration of self-­ perpetuating natural ecosystems over centuries if not millennia of human use. To put the transformation of the midwestern landscape into historical perspective, Sanders asks us to consider that “in 1800, the grasslands that we glimpse now in tiny scraps would have stretched westward to the Great Plains; the glacial wetlands that we’ve almost entirely drained would have stretched north to the Great Lakes and beyond, up to the ice-­ gouged vicinity of Hudson Bay; the hardwood forest that we’ve reduced to rare pockets of big trees would have stretched eastward all the way to the Atlantic and south to the Appalachian Mountains.”8 Here he anticipates subsequent literary naturalists such as Paul Gruchow and Elizabeth Dodd, who also echo Leopold by recounting the geological processes of glaciation that shaped the topography of the Midwest, creating extensive wetlands at the end of the last ice age. Perhaps Sanders’s most sweeping evocation of environmental history appears in his foreword to a recent reprinting of Gruchow’s seminal volume of essays Journal of a Prairie Year. He attributes Gruchow’s view of habitat preservation and stewardship by restoration to his awareness of landscape change in the region accelerated by centuries of human use. 93 The Wilds that Gave Us Birth: Scott Russell Sanders At the beginning of the nineteenth century, travelers setting out from the southern lip of Lake Michigan, where Chicago sprawls today, could have rolled westward to the Rocky Mountains through an uninterrupted sea of grass...waded through Indian grass, switch­ grass, coneflowers, sunflowers, blazing stars, ­ goldenrods, wild­ indigos...


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