“Green Fire – Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic For Our Time”

Aldo Leopold died of a heart attack while battling a fire on a neighbour’s property on April 21, 1948. He is one of those literary figures better known and much more influential in America than on this side of the Atlantic – like Henry Adams, or to a certain degree Emerson or Thoreau. I first came across him when reading about solastalgia  , which lead me to A Sand County Almanac and the concept of the Land Ethic:

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

“This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.


I have remarked before on some of the aspects of Leopold’s work which might strike one as dated – for instance his unself-conscious engagement in hunting, not seen as implacably opposed to conservation as it often is now (in Britain especially) . But by and large, Leopold’s work is all too relevant. Indeed, as the disappearance of species accelerates rather than slows down in our supposedly green-conscious age, the rediscovery of the Land Ethic looms larger than ever as an imperative rather than a luxury.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/8669977″>Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user2926562″>Jeannine Richards</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


Is the elderly scientist correct? Roy Sorenson on Arthur C Clarke

Following on from yesterday’s post, here is the answer from Roy Sorenson’s Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities:

“The elderly scientist is certainly correct. The reason is that any assertion of an impossibility is equivalent to a statement of possibility. ‘It is impossible that p’ is equivalent to ‘It is possible that it is impossible that p’: ~ p ↔ ~ p. So Clarke would have to assign a low probability to the impossibility statement and a high probability to the possibility statement. It would be impossible for Clarke’s two probability assignments to be both correct.

Proof of the biconditional: ~ p ↔ ~ p. The left-to-right direction, ~ p → ~ p, follows from the principle that whatever is actual is possible.

The right-to-left side, ~ p → ~ p, follows from the principle that whatever is possible is necessarily possible: p → p. (This is the characteristic formula of the popular modal system S5.) The contrapositive of this formula is ~ p → ~ p To say something is not necessary, ~ , is equivalent to saying it is possibly not the case, ~. So the contrapositive can be rewritten as ~ p → ~ p.

Conjoining the two conditionals establishes the equivalence ~ p ↔ ~ p.

(from “A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities: A Collection of Puzzles, Oddities, Riddles and Dilemmas” by Roy Sorensen)

August 9th 1969: Arthur C Clarke claims ‘If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong’


From “A Cabinet of Philosophical Curiosities: A Collection of Puzzles, Oddities, Riddles and Dilemmas” by Roy Sorensen :


“‘If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong,’ declared Arthur C. Clarke (New Yorker, 9 August 1969). An elderly but distinguished scientist replies, ‘It is impossible for Mr Clarke to be correct.’  How likely is the elderly scientist’s claim?”

Check out the answer tomorrow! And here is the original article featuring Clarke’s claim, Jeremy Bernstein’s “Out of the Ego Chamber”:


Clarke has been in the business of scientific and technological prophecy for over thirty years now, and from this experience he has evolved a set of laws and principles. There are three basic Clarke Laws. (He once remarked that if three laws were enough for Newton they were enough for him.) The First Clarke Law states, “If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible he is almost certainly right, but if he says that it is impossible he is very probably wrong.” Clarke has confirmed this law by counting up the elderly but distinguished prewar astronomers who “proved,” by portentous calculations, that space flight was technologically impossible. The Second Clarke Law was originally a simple sentence in his book “Profiles of the Future” but was promoted to a law by the translator of the French edition. It states, “The only way to find the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.” The Third, and most recently formulated, Clarke Law, which he made use of in writing the enigmatic ending of “2001,” states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In addition to the laws, there are several empirical principles, one of which Clarke feels is fully applicable to his 1945 Wireless World article on the communications satellite; namely, that in making scientific prophecies the tendency is to be optimistic in the short range and pessimistic in the long. At the time that Clarke wrote his Wireless Worldarticle, the V-2s had already fallen on London, so it was well known that high-altitude rockets were a practical possibility. Clarke felt that they would be used as high-altitude research probes, and in 1944 he predicted that this would take place within a decade, which was somewhat optimistic. However, the communications satellite, he felt, would not come into existence for half a century or more, which was pessimistic, since Syncom 3, the first synchronous TV satellite, was launched on August 19, 1964. In his “Pre-History,” Clarke has an interesting aside concerning that launching. He writes:

This event, incidentally, is a good example of the perils that beset a prophet. In October, 1961, while moderating a panel discussion at the American Rocket Society . . . I had mentioned that the 1964 Olympics would be a good target to shoot for with a synchronous satellite. (I cannot claim credit for the idea, which I’d picked up in general discussions a few days earlier.) Dr. William Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was in the front row of my audience, and he was so tickled with the suggestion that hepassed it on to Vice-President Johnson, speaker at the society’s banquet the next evening. The Vice-President, in turn, thought it was such a good idea that he departed from his prepared speech to include it; so when “Profiles of the Future” was published in 1962, I felt confident enough to predict that most large cities would carry live transmissions from Tokyo in 1964. What I had failed to foresee was that, despite heroic efforts by the White House, the Communications Satellite Corporation, nasa, and the Hughes Aircraft Company (builders of Syncom 3), a large part of the United States did not see the superb live transmissions from the Olympics, which were made available by this triumph of technology. Why? Because they arrived at an awkward time, and the networks did not want to upset their existing program and advertising arrangements!

“it is the August-blooming ling that covers the hills with amethyst”

from “The Living Mountain” by Nan Shepherd (previous Nan Shepherd posts here  and here:

Lower on the mountain, on all the slopes and shoulders and ridges and on the moors below, the characteristic growth is heather. And this too is integral to the mountain. For heather grows in its most profuse luxuriance on granite, so that the very substance of the mountain is in its life. Of the three varieties that grow on these hills—two Ericas and the ling—the July-blooming bell heather is the least beautiful, though its clumps of hot red are like sun-bursts when the rest of the hills are still brown. The pale cross-leaved heath, that grows in small patches, often only single heads, in moist places, is an exquisite, almost waxen-still, with a honey perfume.

But it is the August-blooming ling that covers the hills with amethyst. Now they look gracious and benign. For many many miles there is nothing but this soft radiance. Walk over it in a hot sun, preferably not on a path (‘I like the unpath best,’ one of my small friends said when her father had called her to heel), and the scent rises in a heady cloud. Just as one walks on a hot day surrounded by one’s own aura of flies, so one walks surrounded by one’s own aura of heather scent. For as the feet brush the bloom, the pollen rises in a perfumed cloud.

It settles on one’s boots, or if one is walking barefoot, on feet and legs, yellowy-fawn in colour, silky to the touch, yet leaving a perceptible grit between the fingers. Miles of this, however, stupefies the body. Like too much incense in church, it blunts the sharp edge of adoration, which, at its finest, demands clarity of the intellect as well as the surge of emotion.

“A leader for whom silence was a virtue” Sudhir Hazareesingh on Charles De Gaulle

It seems a bit of a truism to describe Charles de Gaulle as an extraordinary figure, but truisms are no less true for being true. It is hard to know which episode of his political career was most compelling; his sheer bloody-mindedness in rising from relative obscurity and defying the contempt of his soi-disant allies to become the incarnation of Free France, or his approach to the Algerian Crisis. And it is often forgotten that the biggest demonstration in Paris of May 1968 was in support of de Gaulle.


As this TLS review by Sudhir Hazareesingh of a new biography of  De Gaulle  states, his reputation has only grown until he is now “celebrated by the entire French political class”:

During his remarkable political career, he twice rescued his country from disaster: first through his bold leadership of the Resistance after France’s defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and later by his skilful handling of the crisis provoked by the Algerian war of national liberation. As the founder of the Fifth Republic in 1958, he redesigned France’s political system along presidential lines, and his shadow has loomed heavily over all his successors (on his official photograph, Emmanuel Macron’s most prominent talisman is an open copy of de Gaulle’s War Memoirs). Once reviled by liberals and progressives for his authoritarianism, and by the extreme Right for his anti-fascism and anti-colonialism, de Gaulle is now celebrated by the entire French political class. Indeed, le grand Charles has become the nation’s most revered historical figure, with thousands of streets, schools and public squares across France bearing his name. His vision of Frenchness has reshaped his compatriots’ sense of their collective self, and of their country’s rightful place in the world. To understand de Gaulle, in sum, is to appreciate what it means to be French, both intellectually and emotionally.

The most interesting part of this review is the next paragraph. It is hard to know how “a leader for whom silence was a virtue” would get on in the age of Twitter. Although perhaps it would be a highly effective approach to the babble of our time:

However, any attempt to reconstruct the Gaullian mindset is fraught with challenges, as Julian Jackson recognizes in this wonderfully poised, erudite and captivating work. This was a leader for whom silence was a virtue, and impenetrability a defining quality. He tended to keep his innermost thoughts to himself, and often made conflicting observations to members of his entourage – simply to gauge their reactions. He was an inveterate producer of myths, framing grand idealized narratives that distorted the French past, while systematically exaggerating his role and belittling that of his rivals and adversaries (many wartime documents of his Free French movement, and even his own collected speeches and notes, were later doctored). Moreover, as Jackson notes, de Gaulle was riddled with “extraordinary contradictions”. He veered between buoyant optimism and crippling melancholy, calcu­lating rationalism and ethereal mysticism, selfless abnegation and narcissistic egotism, shameless opportunism and obdurate inflex­ibility (fittingly, his surname was derived from the Flemish word for “wall”). To this list might be added his greatest paradox: he loved France, but was contemptuous of the French – a characteristic example of the Gallic intellectual preference for idealized abstraction over empirical reality.

A resting blessing from the Carmina Gadelica

From Alexander Carmichael’s collection of the Scottish oral tradition Carmina Gadelica , a resting blessing


AN ainm an Tighearn Iosa,
Agus Spiorad ìocshlain aigh,
An ainm Athar Israil,
Sinim sios gu tamh.

Ma tha musal na dusal,
Na run air bith dhomh ’n dan,
Dhia fuasgail orm is cuartaich orm,
Is fuadaich uam mo namh.

An ainm Athar priseil,
Is Spiorad iocshlain aigh,
An ainm Tighearn Iosa,
Sinim sios gu tamh.
*         *         *         *
Dhia, cobhair mi is cuartaich mi,
O ’n uair ’s gu uair mo bhais.


IN name of the Lord Jesus,
And of the Spirit of healing balm,
In name of the Father of Israel,
I lay me down to rest.

If there be evil threat or quirk,
Or covert act intent on me,
God free me and encompass me,
And drive from me mine enemy.

In name of the Father precious,
And of the Spirit of healing balm,
In name of the Lord Jesus,
I lay me down to rest.
*         *         *         *
God, help me and encompass me,
From this hour till the hour of my death.

Dorothy L Sayers on Dante’s Inferno as a portrait of social collapse

From Introductory Dante Papers, Dorothy L Sayers:

That the Inferno is a picture of human society in a state of sin and corruption, everybody will readily agree. And since we are today fairly well convinced that society is in a bad way and not necessarily evolving in the direction of perfectibility, we find it easy enough to recognise the various stages by which the deep of corruption is reached. Futility; lack of a living faith; the drift into loose morality, greedy consumption, financial irresponsibility, and uncontrolled bad temper; a self-opinionated and obstinate individualism; violence, sterility, and lack of reverence for life and property including one’s own; the exploitation of sex, the debasing of language by advertisement and propaganda, the commercialising of religion, the pandering to superstition and the conditioning of people’s minds by mass-hysteria and ‘spell-binding’ of all kinds, venality and string-pulling in public affairs, hypocrisy, dishonesty in material things, intellectual dishonesty, the fomenting of discord (class against class, nation against nation) for what one can get out of it, the falsification and destruction of all the means of communication; the exploitation of the lowest and stupidest mass-emotions; treachery even to the fundamentals of kinship, country, the chosen friend, and the sworn allegiance: these are the all-too-recognisable stages that lead to the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilised relations.