Our Ecological Perception



Four years ago, I sat in the front row of my first environmental class at Washington College, taught by a professor who would come to forever change my outlook on the natural world.  Over the course of the next four years, I soaked up the words of my professor and such influential writers as Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold.  The beauty, the challenge and the potential of the ecological world unfolded before my eyes, played out on the chalkboard and brought to life by one Dr. Donald A. Munson.

Uncle Don, as his students affectionately called him, broke through my ignorant perception of youth by vividly articulating the written words of great environmental writers.  He illuminated the natural world in a way I had never before seen.

As a society, there is a tendency to support animals we anthropomorphize.  And in that process, we lose sight of the details, of the organisms we deem “inconsequential” to our everyday lives.  It is easy to be compelled to support the efforts to save animals such as the polar bear or the humpback whale.  But, would you feel just as compelled to support the efforts to save the Eulachon smelt or the Dakota skipper?  Most people would respond with a resounding, “No.”  Dr. Munson is the only professor who has brought arguments of this kind to my attention, and in doing so, has awakened me to the enormous challenge that our anthropocentrically fueled society presents to the efforts of environmental stewardship.

Society has an immense influence on the public’s perception of the environment.  And when this perception becomes skewed by a loss of the finite details, it creates a vulnerability to environmental prosperity.  This lesson is best explored in Aldo Leopold’s work, A Sand County Almanac.  Leopold wrote of his realization of such an intricate balance of the ecological world, which came with the ignorance of his youth and his all-consuming “trigger-itch.”  At a time when it was unheard of to give up any opportunity to kill a wolf, Leopold felt no hesitation in grabbing his rifle when he saw a group of wolves one afternoon.  The success of his hunt, and the death of a wolf, awakened a deeper understanding of the ecological world for Leopold.  Once “[h]e reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  [He] realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to [him] in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain…[He] thought fewer wolves meant more deer…after seeing the green fire die, [he] sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

It is so common to get caught up in the broad perceptions of society, that we lose sight of the intricate details woven into the complex web of the natural world.  It is important to hold onto the importance each organism plays in the balance of its ecological niche and understand there is a world beyond our backyard.  We can support efforts to save the iconic animals of our world, but what will we have if we have failed to save the details?  Would we really have been successful as environmental stewards?  It is important that when we get caught up in hard fight that is the environmental sector, that we do not lose sight of the beauty and importance that is found within these details.