By Denny Olson

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ … Who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Aldo Leopold

One of the things that my dad could always do, and I considered it almost magical through much of my childhood, was to take apart a broken complex mechanical thing, assess the problem inside, and fix it. This happened over and over, usually with objects that, at the beginning of the process, he knew nothing about. 

My curiosity was such that I watched carefully as he worked this magic. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was applying the same principles of observation and organizing to analyzing his task, as he was to fixing the piece of equipment. I noticed that the parts were put on in a sequence – first to last, and his opening task was to undo the process – last to first

Then I noticed something subtler. There was not a random scattering of parts as they were peeled back layer by layer. The placement of the parts on the table was organized by their relationships. In my dad’s brain, he was placing things specifically so he could remember the first to last in the later reconstruction. It was never the same kind of arrangement – say left to right – for each job, but each time there was a pattern. 

He would eventually recognize the offending part, or the improper relationship between parts. I never heard an “Aha” from him at that point. He was Scandinavian, after all, and that may have been a bit too demonstrative. I sometimes noticed a slight twitch of a smile at the corner of his mouth. Then he would fix it or toss it because the repair was not worth the replacement cost. Sometimes there was nothing broken, but the relationship between parts was out of place. An easy fix. 

I was fortunate to inherit that confidence from my dad (and some other parts I chose to discard!).

The same principles are of course applicable to the rethinking of culture and education. To make it work, to float the evolution down the road, we need to realize what we must discard or repair, and what already works for us. 

There is little intelligent debate about things we can do without. Most of us don’t really want our culture and the attached-at-the-hip education system to be defined by hyper-materialism, selfishness as a positive attribute, lack of empathy and altruism, short-term non-critical thinking, isolation from our families and friends, worship of celebrity, sports as obsession instead of a fun diversion, violence as a viable alternative to problems that are mostly internal and personal, massive economic disparity between haves and have-nots, or drifting away from democratic political processes. Those parts can be given the “buh-bye” without much damage to our American culture and education. 

But with nature, our life support system, that process is vastly different. The trillions of parts, and the quintillions of relationships between those parts has already been honed to perfection over literally billions of years. And we have barely scratched the surface of understanding those complexities. The intrinsic value of wild land is devalued and often lost. Nature is, first and foremost, our supply of air to breathe, water to drink and materials for shelter from its nastier elements. Even more obscure are the incalculable intricacies of an ecosystem that supplies all of that to us. That vast system is based on relationships, not just living things. Intelligent tinkering with nature demands the humility to understand what is beyond our understanding. Keeping all the parts is crucial. Those 26 bird species that will likely disappear from Northwest Montana if we continue the present path of climate change without changing our own consumptive habits – and the complex relationships that go with those species – are simply not replaceable for our natural life-support machinery to hum along in the future.

Acceptable losses? Not just “no” but “hell no”! We are part of that system, and truth-be-told, we might be the most expendable part.