Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Sand County Almanac

This is my inaugural post for this new blog, Mister Tristan.

Like a recurring pilgrimage, I have just completed my annual re-reading of the ecological classic, "A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold. My initial reading was prompted some years ago by a college biology professor who recommended it. I became hooked, and for each of the last 30+ years, Leopold, who has been in his grave for 60years, speaks to me and touches me with new and different insights into the nature of things wild and free. I now see Leopold's writings in a way which he never anticipated, but would certainly have approved of--from an ultrarunner's slant.

I continually examine my motives for endurance running (since I spend so much time doing it), and have for some time held the belief that we as a "civilized" species are now so far removed from the moment-by-moment struggle for survival that formerly ruled virtually every waking minute, that we now create for ourselves various means to simulate that intensity. I presume we do this because of some deep-seated need to experience life on the edge, to grab for that gusto and intensity. Thus I run ultras, to physically and mentally go to the edge and see what I can learn there about myself. And I like best to do this running in areas that are preferably wild and remote because there I somehow feel more connected. Simplistic, perhaps, but I suspect not far off the mark for many of us.

The tie-in with Leopold? Here are a couple nuggets: "Physical combat for the means of subsistence was, for unnumbered centuries, an economic fact. When it disappeared as such, a sound instinct led us to preserve it in the form of athletic sports and games...reviving, in play, a drama formerly inherent in daily life." Also, writing about outdoor recreation: "Recreation is valuable in proportion to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life."

And on wilderness, Leopold wrote: "Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility. The shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage in the land assumes that he has already discovered what is important; it is such who prate of empires, political or economic, that will last a thousand years. It is only the scholar who appreciates that all history consists of successive excursions from a single starting point, to which man returns again and again to organize yet another search for a durable scale of values. It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise."

Anyone who values the notions of wilderness, solitude, self-reliance, and of communion with nature that many of us ultrarunners seek, as we use the backcountry as a route to our psyches or souls, should check out Leopold's book. It's commonly available in paperback in bookstores in the Natural History section.

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