Seeing On the Tundra

Editor's Note: This is chapter 2 of a book titled Maker of the Morning by Al Cornell, Rt. 1, Box 346B, Muscoda, WI 53573. He is a wildlife technician with the DNR.

Many of the professions of our day are, for the most part, of recent origin. When that is the case, there is often an individual who was very instrumental at the profession's origin. Often that person is known among his followers in the field as "The Father of _____." In my case, in wildlife management, Aldo Leopold is the one to whom that designation is always directed.

Leopold was a forester, but his avid interest in wildlife led to the refinement of a concept to manage wildlife. His wise insight led to habitat management, preserving species, and controlling numbers among wild animal populations. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he began the first academic wildlife management program.

As a consequence, the Wildlife Ecology Department at UW-Madison remains proud of its heritage and upholds a strong tie to the Leopold tradition. I've had the opportunity to participate in a few projects with that Wildlife Ecology Department and have noticed the continued emphasis on teaching the wisdom of Leopold to the students in that program. I've also noticed that several students are agnostic or atheistic in their perceptions. They should recognize this as a significant departure from Leopold's view.

Leopold's most popular book, A Sand County Almanac, is required reading for all students in that wildlife program. There is a portion of that book that I like to bring to their attention.

For about three weeks during two consecutive summers, I worked as a volunteer on a goose research project on the subarctic tundra near the Hudson Bay in Canada. The area is enchanting. At times we saw polar bears, wolves, thousands of caribou, and a spectacle of nesting birds including Pacific loons.

A student from the Madison campus, working toward a Ph.D., headed the project. Five of us one year and seven the next were over thirty miles from the nearest habitation. The small bunk house and mess hall were enclosed within a fence that usually kept the polar bears out.

There was a deck on top of the bunk house. Some evenings, after a long day in the field, we would relax on the deck as the summer sun cut a low arc toward the northwest horizon and lingered there late into the night. One evening was particularly spectacular. A vibrant sunset reflected in the lake west of camp. About 2,000 caribou worked their way north among the small lakes between camp and the Hudson Bay to the east. The low sun angle lit them up, and they cast reflections into the unusually calm lakes.

I then turned to the graduate student and ask him if he knew who wrote the following:

What value has wildlife from the standpoint of morals and religion? I heard of a boy once who was brought up an atheist. He changed his mind when he saw that there are a hundred-odd species of warblers, each bedecked like to the rainbow, and each performing yearly sundry thousands of miles of migration about which scientists wrote wisely but did not understand. No "fortuitous concourse of elements" working blindly through any number of millions of years could quite account for why warblers are so beautiful. No mechanistic theory, cerulean warbler, or the vespers of the woodthrush, or the swansong, or--goose music. I dare say this boy's convictions would be harder to shake than those of many inductive theologians. There are yet many boys to be born who, like Isaiah, "may see, and know, and consider, and understand together that the hand of the Lord hath done this."

When the young man responded that he wasn't sure, I told him that it was from A Sand County Almanac. He looked back up at the sunset and said, "Times like this make me think there may be a God." He then quickly began talking about keeping a copy of Sand County Almanac by his bed and having read it several times. He said it was very spiritual.

Looking back at Leopold's comments, notice how strongly he ties the physical world to the Creator. Unfortunately, not many have continued to follow his premise that wildlife provides religious and moral values. Many who esteem Leopold ignore this section of his writing. But, judging from my birth date, I was probably yet unborn when Leopold wrote that passage, and I find satisfaction in being one of those boys he spoke of who would perceive the hand of the Lord in creation.

What is there in wildlife that Leopold says causes faith in God? His comment reveals two aspects. He appeals to beauty and to complexity. Beauty is the realm of the poet; complexity is the realm of the scientist. Both have the evidence in plain view. There is a God.

For clarity, let me add that Leopold believed in evolution. Yet, obviously, he rejected the atheistic conclusion that evolution is sufficient to account for that complexity and beauty. When Albert Einstein was asked about the possibility of a chance origin of life and the universe, he responded, "God does not throw dice."

While it may be asking too much to suppose that we should all agree on the timing and manner of creation from evidence presented in the physical world alone, we can reach one conclusion from that evidence. Whether we turn to Isaiah or Paul or Einstein or Leopold, we find them all reaching the conclusion, "There is a God." This house, too, is built by someone.

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, Sep/Oct 1996