After much googling, dusting off second hand paperbacks and worrying about how many ‘used’ books I can justify buying from Amazon and Foyles, I have found very little literature on the subject of railway ecology–particularly with reference to the UK. There’s a paper from 1980 by Dr. Caroline Sargent which is an excellent source but appears to be little read or followed up on.Network Rail have some literature which I have mentioned earlier. A few other writers mention it in passing, Richard Mabey in his 1973/environmental bestseller, ‘The Unofficial Countryside,’–more on that later. However, I did find an (ironic )reference to railways as unwitting conservators in the US (*see footnote), in Aldo Leopold’s seminal and beautifully written series of ecological essays first published in 1948, ‘A Sand County Almanac.’
Leopold was one of the pioneers of the environmental movement in the US. And pioneer is perhaps doubly appropriate as he bought to his work and writing a sort of no-nonsense, woodsman-hunter sensibility. His joy in nature; the birds, clouds,trees and plants seems very grounded & his essay style,is essentially straight-talking but with moments of poetic-rhapsody,and makes me think of Hemingway, or Twain meets Thoreau,Whitman or one of the Beat poets.
‘A Sand County Almanac,’ has become a classic of ecological literature, for the insights in the later chapters on ‘Land Ethics,’ that calls for an ecological worldview as an ethical imperative.
‘ALL ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community,but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate….The Land Ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils,waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” (Aldo Leopold p.204)
Earlier in the ‘Almanac’ Leopold sets the scene for this ultimate essay, drawing upon observations taken from a lifetime in the field as a scientist, a hunter and a writer.Leopold positions man as part of a ‘biotic’ community rather than superior to it: Nature isn’t simply here for man dominate without thought, to be destructive and ultimately self-destructive.
Leopold has influenced ecological thinking in another way too because of the way he arrived at his particular insight into the interconnectedness of living and the the land. Leopold tells the story of his conversion from gun-toting hunter to environmental activist-a kind of conversion or epiphany.
Working for the Madison-Wisconsin forestry commission,part of Leopold’s job as a Land Manager was to exterminate wolves following a countrywide government strategy-that he had helped devise– as they were seen as a threat to other wildlife and by appearing to be a threat to the deer, thereby affecting the sport of the hunters and other recreational visitors, campers, fishermen and walkers etc.And not just to kill ‘some’ wolves; the plan was to eradicate the wolf from the whole of the US.
His epiphany happened one day when he was out hunting with some colleagues and saw a pack of wolf cubs on open ground play-fighting. Like a regular gun-slinging cowboy, he writes, ’in a second we were pumping lead into them.’
In their surprise and excitement at finding the off-guard wolves, Leopold and his colleagues mostly miss their target, except for shooting a cub in the leg that sloped off presumably to die, and fatally wounding an older female wolf.
‘We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green light 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 thought that because fewer 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.’
Aldo Leopold p.130.
The moment Leopold sees the ‘green fire die’ and the phrase ‘thinking like a mountain’ have become well known and many people see his experience as a mystical one, in which he suddenly ‘gets it’ and his whole life is changed and turned around.
Thinking like a mountain ? Leopold’s mountain would think, if it could, that now the wolves have gone there is nothing to prevent the deer eating everything edible into there is nothing to sustain them, and they will not only suffer but the soil will dry to dust or run-off in mud-slicks, until its a no longer a place of beauty but its slopes are barren and dead. The wolves, the soil, the deer and the rain all have their place.We can go beyond that to include the rocks themselves.
So does he undergo a kind of conversion? Stephan Harding describes Leopold’s epiphany below.
He experienced the ecosystem as a great being, dignified and valuable in itself. It must have been a moment of tremendous liberation and expansion of consciousness, of joy and energy – a truly spiritual or religious experience. His narrow, manipulative wildlife manager’s mind fell away. The mind which saw nature as a dead machine, there for human use, vanished. In its place was the pristine recognition of the vast being of living nature
And Berthold makes an interesting point following from this:
To “think like a mountain,” however mystical, however extra- ordinary its demands upon our perception, has highly practi- cal ecological consequences: to think like a mountain is to think ecologically, from the perspective of the welfare and flourishing of what is normally “outside” and “other” to us, the environment itself.
As a scientist,a skilled,painstaking observer of the natural world , he may have come to his realisation following what Stephen Johnson calls the ‘slow hunch’.The opposite of a ‘eureka moment’ ,a slow hunch is an idea or half an idea, that evolves over time, sometimes years or even decades before becoming something recognisable and useful.It may be the combination of our idea and someone else’s.
So mystical experience moment or not, I don’t know, the destination/conclusion is the same: ‘to think ecologically.’
And perhaps the culmination of his thinking was in the telling of the tale later–’recalled in tranquility’–and the epiphany was equally in the metaphors of the green fire & mountain-thinking. What Leopold achieved was a way of describing a realisation through clear writing and metaphor that is easily shared by his readers and which they can act upon.
To return to our subject, a little earlier in the book, Leopold makes a comment on the role of the US railroad as conservationist.
‘The ouststanding conservator of the prairie flora, ironically enough, knows little and cares less about such frivolities : it is the railroad with its fenced right of way.
Many of these fences had been erected before the the prairie had been plowed.Within these linear reservations,oblivious of cinders,soot and annual clean-up fires, the prairie flora still splashes its calendar of colours,from pink shooting-star in May to blue aster in October.’ p48 A Sand County Almanac.
Leopold mentions that only the plants,branches and scrub closest to the track are cleared,–unfortunately then as now using chemical sprays—but for reasons of cost, leaving the flora beyond this small area to grow wild.
So here we see something similar happening to the trackside outside my commuters window, a wild environment accidently preserved.