I recently had the unfortunate experience of driving to Illinois for a few days. This isn’t because I dread my wife’s family; quite the opposite in fact. The drive, which is long, isn’t the issue either. Instead, I hate the way nothingness creeps into the landscape along I-24, how the sky suddenly opens into an expanse of loneliness and cornstalks. We have farmland here in Tennessee Valley, but it seems to be in constant battle with the mountains that surround it. Nature here fights back with a tenacity that the Illinois prairie lacks. Man has dominated the Land of Lincoln, creating an unnatural skyline filled with granaries, empty fields and squat farm equipment for miles in every direction.
Jim Pfitzer, local storyteller, understands this sentiment. “I remember riding in the car with my family one late evening when I was young—maybe 10 years old—and looking out the window at bright neon lights, asphalt, and power lines, seeing no sign of anything natural and being deeply saddened,” he says. “At that age I didn’t have words for my sadness, but I sensed that we had somehow gotten away from something important, that a connection to our world was somehow broken.” Years later, Jim discovered the writings of conservationist Aldo Leopold. “Leopold told me it was not only OK to feel the way I did, but right. He gave me license for my passion,” Pfitzer says.
That passion led him to research Leopold in depth, participating in the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s Land Ethic Leadership program. While developing a one-man show about Leopold, Jim acquired the rights to a documentary about his philosophy and brought it to Chattanooga. Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time is a discussion of the idea of the land ethic and an exploration of the man who coined the term.
The documentary is a celebration of a revered conservationist and pioneer. Leopold is spoken of in hushed tones, venerated by his followers. We see many pilgrims visiting his shack in Sand County, WI, carrying dog-eared copies of this writings, reciting favorite passages with bowed heads and quiet devotion. The filmmakers throw themselves into the subject matter with deep love and heartfelt abandon. There are scores of interviews with conservationists, foresters, landowners and academics, all breathlessly praising Leopold for his vision of man/land relationships. Largely framed around Leopold’s life, this isn’t an artful documentary or one that seeks to establish itself beyond its subject. It is content with exuberantly sharing the story of Leopold with its audience.
The story of Leopold is a love story between one man and the natural world. His ideas were wide reaching and influential. Of course, before this documentary I had never heard of him. He founded the science of wildlife management and was the foundation for the development of modern environmental ethics. His “land ethic” is difficult to define because of the vastness of the subject. Of it, Leopold says, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” He would undoubtedly oppose the practices of fracking and blowing the tops off of mountains for coal. Pfitzer says he brought the film to Chattanooga because it is a “city trying to identify itself as a green city and a leader in environmentally responsible development.”
“I’m glad I shall never be young without wild country to be wild in,” Leopold says in “Green Fire”. I grew up in a small subdivision in a small town and was lucky to be forced outside by frazzled parents to play. My best friend and I explored the muddy banks of rivers surrounding our small collection of houses. We chased mudskippers in creeks. We followed dogs through deep green underbrush searching for places we hadn’t yet seen. We are better people for it. “Green Fire” is not a perfect documentary by any means. But it reminded me of places I had forgotten and memories worth remembering. It exposes the audience to important ideas and raises awareness about the natural world. The film achieves the goals it created for itself—and by that measure alone is a success and worth seeing.
Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time
7 pm. • $8, Friday, November 18
Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center
400 Garden Road. (423) 821-1160.
Running time: 73 minutes