Wild and Free—A Conservation Ethic

I nearly wet my pants.

Energy from lightning ripped through the ground and I could feel it, even hear a faint, eerie hum.  The air was electrified, the sky ablaze as the sun dropped behind the jagged peaks of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.   The sound of bull elk bugling in the early twilight crescendoed around me, seemingly from every direction.

I was a neophyte bow hunter and had found myself hurled into the major leagues.  Highly exposed on an 8900-foot peak that hosted only broken aspen groves and scattered ponderosa pines, I was miles away from shelter. The storm was imminent and the pregnant sky was about to give way.

It’s been said that “discretion is the better part of valor,” and growing up in an overly safety-conscious culture, I’ve lived that motto quite well.

But that evening as thunderclouds built overhead, wind swirled, and the sun painted fire in the sky, I found my heart responding to something deeper than conventional wisdom—some ancient beckoning. A sort of divine revelation, perhaps?

I hunkered down at the base of a ragged ponderosa pine and gave myself over to the unknown of what might unfold.

And what did was cause for awe. Three giant bull elk emerged from the aspens, bugled back and forth, then hurled themselves toward each other, the sound of their repeated jousts and clashing antlers rivaling the crack of thunder overhead. The lead elk cow hustled the herd of calves and cows through the aspen grove and along the sage brush hillsides, skirting the combatting bulls.  It was a rodeo of nature’s greatest proportions.

As Aldo Leopold observes,

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.

I have discovered that I am a man who cannot live without wild things;  it is true as well of the men I most love and respect. Wilderness is a spiritual longing and a necessity. Thoreau put it simply, wildness is “an oasis in the desert of civilization.”

 As John suggests in Wild at Heart,

The masculine heart needs a place where nothing is prefabricated, modular, nonfat, zip lock, franchised, online, microwavable. Where there are no deadlines, cell phones, or committee meetings. Where there is room for the soul. Where, finally, the geography around us corresponds to the geography of our heart.

That solo night on a lonely mountain peak in national forest, I finally discovered a geography that matched the internal landscape of my masculine soul.

John Muir, fellow partner to Teddy Roosevelt in our nation’s bold efforts to conserve wild places, said it this way:

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.

 

Muir and TR Wild at Heart

Yet these places of beauty, cheer, and healing are disappearing at an alarming rate. As Wendell Berry describes, “The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species…pollution of the atmosphere and of the water cycle…” The commodification of our earth’s resources drives a pillaging of wild places for short-sighted economic gain.

Yet all is not lost.  There is still hope in our land and our legacy.

Conservation can be understood as bringing the greatest good to the greatest number of species and their respective habitats. It is an extension of ethics and affection that includes not only our relationship to people but also to the land, its animals, and their habitat. A conservation ethic, as Aldo Leopold suggests, “changes the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to member and citizen of it.”

In many ways it is simply a restoration of God’s original intention for us, the bearers of His image, to lead and to love all of creation, exercising  fierce mastery and stewardship rooted in a relational and moral conscience.

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The nation’s twenty-sixth president is remembered by some as the man who dug the Panama Canal, established the first horse-mounted soldiers, and survived a bullet to the chest in a presidential speech. However, Teddy Roosevelt is best known by many as the Father of Conservation. He led the political movement in the early twentieth century to protect and conserve some of the last parcels of wild spaces in the American West.  Both his passion for wilderness and his first-hand exposure to the devastation of America’s unrivaled buffalo herds galvanized him to establish the first national parks, national forests, and national monuments, setting aside 230,000,000 acres as a sacred public trust.

Roosevelt understood all too well that nothing restores the heart of a man like encountering the living God in wilderness. It was in the Badlands of North Dakota that, as a young man, he sought refuge and comfort in the wake of the sudden loss of the two deepest loves of his life: his mom and his wife.  He went west to heal and ultimately to become the man he was meant to be.

In his later years, Teddy reflected back on the impact of wilderness on his soul as a young man.

Do you know what chapter…I would choose to remember were the alternative forced upon me to recall one portion of it, and to have erased from my memory all other experiences? I would take the memory of my life on the ranch with its experiences close to nature and among the men who lived nearest her.

Regarding the national parks and forests he endeavored to protect, Roosevelt observed that “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

What if we contributed to a legacy of wild places where not only we but also our children and their children could heal, be strengthened, and become who we were meant to be?

We can make a difference.

We can become the difference.

With how we spend our days and where we spend our dollars, we can become the essential piece in conserving and restoring the greatest resources our planet has left—geographies and landscapes that save the souls of men—and make the world better.

We only protect what we love.  And to come to love anything, we must take the time to know it and experience it with all our senses. In the words of Wendell Berry, “it all turns on affection.”

The stormy sunset on that exposed peak sealed my passion for conservation.  I never released an arrow from my bow that night, never got remotely close enough to those regal bulls for a shot. But as I hiked back to camp in wind and rain, tears of wonder and gratitude streamed down my face.

I knew some day I’d have a son. And I committed to do whatever it takes to protect that piece of public land, that wild country, and others like it, so that even when I’m long gone, he too could discover the transcendence of wild places, perhaps respond with affection, and become the man he was meant to be.

Endnote

Intrigued?  Want to explore deeper?

Read What Story Do You want?

Start here.  Invest in the film by Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.  It is spectacular.  Makes for a great family night.

Check out the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and their promotion of the North American Conservation Model.  RMEF’s Bugle Magazine will take you even further.

My two favorite biographies on Teddy Roosevelt are The River of Doubt and Theodore Roosevelt: The American Presidents Series.


Read the compelling lecture by author and poet Wendell Berry, “It All Turns on Affection.”  It’s available free on this link or published in a collection alongside other essays in one of his books.

It was A.W. Tozer who once said, “Curiosity is the sign of an alive soul.”

Jesus, how is it You would lead me, through curiosity, into a deeper knowing of who You are, what You are doing, and how You are doing it?  I long to become the kind of person to whom You can entrust more of Your Kingdom.  Show me the path of life.  I open myself to You for Your deeper wisdom and revelation.  Reveal who You are, set the world right in me and through me.

A version of this was originally featured in And Sons Magazine.  Check out AndSonsMagazine.com for great stories put together by John and his sons, Sam, Blaine, and Luke.

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#006: Diving Deep – An Interview with Craig McConnell [Podcast]

 

Nearly a decade ago, I had the privilege of seeking wisdom from Craig McConnell, a man who’s seen many miles, fought many wars, and conquered death more times than I can recount. It was an even greater privilege to circle back with him on another conversation, this time recorded for the benefit of other men like you.  Join us as we explore the profoundly deep implications of how we relate with others, how we embrace the decade of excavation, and how we grow in this decade of character over kingdom.

Craig with his King Salmon

In this conversation Craig references a powerful book, Addiction and Grace.  I strongly recommend it as well. Here’s a link if you’re interested in going further.

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Craig also references his original counsel to me on the eve of this decade.  Like great scotch and like my brother, uncle, and friend Craig, it has aged well over time.  I include it below for your benefit, praying that the Father would have gifts for your heart in it.

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As many of you know, Craig has been battling for Life and against the death of cancer for the last few years.  As you are encouraged and strengthened in this podcast, please stand with me in bringing God’s Kingdom on behalf of Craig.  And Praying the full resurrection life of God to fill Craig’s body, soul and Spirit.

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Oxen.Shit.Life.

I still don’t get it: watching parades is like crack for my kids.  Any of you in this season of parenting know what I’m talking about: St. Patrick’s Day, Fourth of July, Memorial Day—you name it, the kids go crazy.

Granted, where else can you join throngs of people cheering as the fire truck goes by with sirens blaring, lights blazing, and smiling firefighters running up to you with handfuls of candy?

Confession: I’m terrible at being a spectator.  I’d rather get dirty on some single track than sit in a folding chair and watch others live life.  But the humility and desperation of parenting small children finds us, yet again, stroller to stroller with other exhausted parents on a good handful of early Saturday mornings.

And in this decade of character over kingdom, there is one man in every parade who is catching my attention and earning my admiration above all others: the guy who pushes the wheelbarrow and carries the shovel.

Right behind the horses.

I understand his life a little more as I’m beginning to understand mine.

How much shit are you willing to shovel?

It’s actually a deeply significant and theological question.  And one not to be taken lightly.

This question first came to me nearly fourteen years ago. I was courageously fumbling through our early years of marriage when things went sideways—again.  I had read all the marriage books and was desperate to be the best husband I could be. In fact, I tried the super-husband strategy of the day the way the restaurant I worked at in high school took leftovers and turned them into the soup du jour.  It wasn’t working.

I was sharing the angst with John, a long-time mentor and friend, when he took one of his long pauses in conversation, pulled out Proverbs 14:4, and said, “Read this:”

Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty,

but from the strength of an ox comes abundant harvests.

At first pass, I thought to myself, What does my mess of a marriage have to do with mangers, oxen, and harvests?

But after another uncomfortably long pause, he went on to explain:

Where there are oxen, there is strength and life.

But where there are oxen, there is a lot of shit.

No oxen, no life.

No life, no shit.

If you want life, you are going to have to shovel some shit to get it.

How much life do you want?

In many ways it depends on how much you are willing to shovel.

Oxen. Shit. Life.

It was a proud moment of revelation that’s shaped me ever since.

I want life. Jesus said He came that we might have life and have it to the full.

I believe it’s available, and I’ve staked my entire life and the life of my marriage and my family on this hope.

And what this hope has also revealed in me is a disproportionate unwillingness to do the shovel work necessary.  And even deeper, a mistaken interpretation of the steaming piles in my world.

But there is a shift:  this decade is offering me a new interpretation of the shit, a deeper willingness to shovel it, and a deeper acceptance that life doesn’t come apart from a lot of shoveling.

 Boots and Pitch Fork

This was never far from Jesus’ ministry.  He knew this.  I think it’s a big part of why the perfect love and true masculinity in which He walked is expressed in such an inefficient lifestyle.

I appreciate Paul’s words:

We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with Him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with Him!  (Romans 8:15-17)

So often we misinterpret the shoveling. We curse it for its drudgery, hate ourselves for letting it happen, or see it as punishment and feel the cold, steel blade breaking our hearts.

What if we could interpret the shit from the perspective of sonship?

As we experience God more and more as our Good Father, we begin to see the shoveling as part of our apprenticeship to Jesus as sons, students, and future kings in the Kingdom of our Good Dad.  These are the miles that make a man, and our Father believes in us so thoroughly that He entrusts these miles to our care, allowing them to be the very process by which we become the men we were born to be.

Paul reminds us that the challenges in our lives are “a clear sign that God has decided to make you fit for the Kingdom…. make you fit for what he’s called you to be” (2 Thessalonians 1).

When I see the pile of shit as a sign of my Dad’s commitment to my becoming, I feel my strength revive and my heart show up again.  Interpretation is everything.

Right now, I’m in the pre-staging phase for a backcountry elk hunt.  It involves hours of early morning mountainside workouts.  Squeezing in chances to fine-tune my bow over lunch. Pouring over maps, dialing in gear, prepping my family and my world for me to disappear off the grid for a week.  It’s a week I don’t have time for.  (No one has time.)  But I’ve grown to the point of a deeper conviction: I don’t have time not to hunt.  My worlds needs me to go.  To be with my Father. To be fed by wilderness.  To be restored and healed.  To adventure with a few men whose friendship makes me a better man.  My family needs me to be strong, wholehearted, and true.  And no context forms that in me more than being with God in some remote piece of Colorado wilderness, chasing bugling elk with the bow.  Hunting is merely one example of many.  From my marriage to parenting, from my closest relationships to my vocation; every realm where God is at work is teeming with life, and excrement.

Jesus invites us into the reality that our Good Father is a generous sower; He is constantly scattering seeds of possibility, healing, rescue, and transformation like the cottonwood that fills the April air with millions of seeds. In His wild goodness, even the smallest seed will become the greatest tree when it finds the rich soil of a tended heart.

It is interesting that there is no better way to amend soil than to thoughtfully and wisely add shit to it.  While it may stink to high heaven, manure in the hands of a wise man provides soil with exactly what it needs to be the optimal environment for germinating and sustaining life.

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It takes a lot of shit to make good soil.

These words of a wise old sage finally brought home the reality to my heart as a young man.

If, truly, in the depths of my heart, I want to become good soil, something deeper still must be willing to shovel a proportional amount of excrement. I must turn away from the false promise of shortcuts and instead engage the slow and steady process of becoming good soil, one shovel-load of manure at a time.

What is my resistance to the shovel work of the narrow road?  What is my resistance the hard work of unplugging from the matrix in order to plug in to the hearts of my kids and be fully present?  What is my resistance to putting in the long, hard miles of serving under other kings, the miles of being a middle manager and of taking the no-shortcuts path in my vocation? What is my resistance to the hard work necessary for a vibrant, adventurous, intimacy-filled, and laughter-laden marriage?

Maybe we’ve been going after the wrong thing, from the wrong end, literally.

You want life? You need oxen.

You got oxen, you got shit to shovel.

No oxen, no shit, no life.

Oxen. Shit. Life.

Take a moment.

What stinks in your life, literally?  Write it down. Take stock of the piles of manure.  Ask the Father to show you His interpretation.  Don’t give up.  We need your strength.

Maybe it’s time to invest in a good pair of boots.

Here’s to life…

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Father, I confess my resistance.  I confess my tendency to try to avoid shovel work and yet still cry out for life.  Father, the Scriptures say we are to open ourselves before You, keeping nothing back, and that You, through Jesus’ resurrection life, will do whatever needs to be done.  You promise to bring the validation we need (Psalm 37 5:6). I need it, Father.  I want to be able to consider these pressures and challenges from every side as training.  That under this pressure, my faith-life is forced open and will show its true colors.  I want these challenges to have their way in my heart so that I might mature and become well-developed, not deficient in any way (James 1:2-4).  You say that if I choose to stay, to live as a man loyally in love with You, the reward is life and more life (James 1:12). Father, I am choosing to take You up on Your invitation and Your interpretation.

Father, You have my permission to re-interpret the crap in my life. What is it in me that is prone so quickly to discouragement, hopelessness? Would You tend to the young places in me who fight against the way You choose to work in this world? Oh, Father. Would You show me Your good heart for me here?

Show me how to do the shovel work, with You, alongside of You.  I can’t do this alone:  I choose union with You.

Show me how to fold the manure of today back into my story and my heart and let it supernaturally become the good soil of my tomorrow.

Come today.  Reveal who You are and set the world right.

Set it right, in me.

Amen.