Revised version of elemental interpretation of the events of A. L.'s death

An elemental interpretation of the events of Aldo Leopold’s death

Reading Curt Meine’s biography (and later, even more forcefully, as he orally recounted the story) I was struck by the unusual circumstances of Aldo Leopold’s death, specifically, the convergence of the four elements. There was the grass fire at the neighbor’s that he was rushing to help put out, the water in the pump strapped to his back. As the heart attack took him, he lay down on the ground/earth that he had tended and loved. The wind/air swept the fire lightly over his body. These circumstances in which all four elements – earth, air, fire, water --converge to attend his death are, I believe, significant, inviting a reading of their meanings.

First of there, there is a direct relation to Leopold’s signature land ethic When she was visiting with us, Julianne Newton pointed to places in Leopold’s work where he stressed that the land ethic should not be understood as being solely about the earth. Rather, the land ethic was equally about the water, a land-water ethic. This leads me to wonder if, because of the interplay of all the elements in the biotic field, might we also think of the land ethic as a land/water/air/fire or elemental ethic?

Looking, as Leopold did, beyond or beneath the surface of things, we might also ponder the deeper meanings of the presence of the 4 elements at the moment of his death and understand this gathering at the very end of Leopold’s life as signaling an outburst of integrity or Quintessence.

In contemporary usage quintessence means the most basic essence of something.
For ancient and medieval philosophy, quintessence meant, literally, the fifth essence or element, coming after the first four-- earth, air, fire, water. In Aristotelian philosophy, the fifth element was ether, which was the field or ground from which all the other elements arose.

For contemporary philosopher, Mary Daly, (in her book Quintessence) ether is not synonymous with quintessence. Rather, ether appears when the 4 elements come together, and it is this conjunction of all five of these that allows for the possibility of Quintessence, which she understands as the ultimate/intimate force of integrity or connection. Quintessence is the universal essence which flows through, connects and inter-relates all life.

Daly’s conceptualization of Quintessence as synonymous with cosmic integrity is harmonious with Leopold’s conceptions of integrity as the basis of the land ethic. Integrity is everywhere in Leopold’s work and is reflected in his admonitions against the dismemberment of knowledge and the fragmenting of the land community. In Leopold’s view, such dismemberments injure health or wholeness – of land and of knowledge and also of the human mind/body/spirit.

This gathering of the elements at the moment of Aldo Leopold’s death is “mysterious” in the sense of mystery that Leopold noted when invoked by the (unnamed) Native American speaker he encountered while at Yale. Who knows how to interpret the meaning of this moment? But my first sense is that this elemental convergence and experience of Quintessence (cosmic integrity) can be read as a physical manifestation --a sign (of or from Nature if you will) -- of the rightness of the principle of integrity underlying Leopold’s philosophy. This was, of course, quintessentially expressed in Leopold’s statement that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”

This gathering of the elements might also indicate that Leopold’s ideas and work would endure, entering into our modern oral tradition (now including books, films, and other forms) and continuing to hand down insights on the healthy or land-ethical life.

After all, here we are in Prescott, all gathered to talk about land health, goose music, the song of waters, the fierce green fire and the fountain of energy, figuring out, in “a thinking community,”* how best to learn about and convey these elemental knowings.

Jane Caputi
July 6, 2009
“A Fierce Green Fire,” NEH summer seminar on Aldo Leopold, Prescott AZ

*Thanks to Curt Meine for reminding me of this phrase from Leopold and of the evolutionary and collective nature of the land ethic.