Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Tolkien and Aldo Leopold

As I've recently returned to class, I have already found a new way of appreciating Tolkien's works. In this case, by reading Aldo Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac". Leopold was something of a pioneer in the field of ecological conservation, and in his book included a chapter titled 'A land Ethic' in which he laid out his views on ecology, and specifically attacked the "Economic-Ethic" of land management in favor of his own. This lead me to the old standbye for quick, possibly suspect knowledge, Wikipedia. Where I found that there is an entire field devoted to various types of "Land Ethics".

As always when it comes to Tolkien, there are a great many people who simply don't grasp the idea that he's not "Anti-progress" or "Anti-Technology" he's simply a proponent of a moral or ethical understanding of nature. So in reading this breakdown of the various ethics of land conservation (or lack thereof) I was struck by how the various groups in Tolkien's world managed their lands. 

The Hobbits are for all intents and purposes very good stewards of the land in the since that they manage it exactingly. They farm, raise draft animals, and food animals, have a mill, but most of their housing is subterranean  using the natural formations of hillsides to provide shelter, though from what we can see they obviously reinforce these structures with internal support.. likely some sort of timber and Wattle and Daub technique.. and wood paneling. Perhaps even horsehair plaster. They take from the land, and manage it to suit their tastes. They have a fairly big footprint though, as mills, even water wheels, and the Hobbits prodigious appetites, and Ale consumption, indicate a large scale food production, though not Industrialized in as much as it is likely there are several very large farmers who likely employ many Hobbits to work for them. I would suggest they have a Utilitarian Land Ethic. Described as having as its ideal that "generally it is the view that a morally right action is an action that produces the maximum good for people", making it an offshoot of the same type of ethic, Economic Land Ethic, which can produce wastelands like Isengard and Mordor, and also the Dwarven kingdom of Moria. Though we are not shown for sure, this is also likely the type of land ethic exhibited by the Humans who live near the Hobbits.. so it probably extends to an extent into the lone lands and Bree. It is, I suppose, possible the Hobbits learned these techniques when they moved into the area from the Arnorians to their north. This would add impetus to the Civil War which devastated Arnor when the Witch-king founded Angmar... a land very similar to Mordor.. and likely espousing the same sort of philosophy that Mordor had in relation to Land Use. This is also an area where we should look at the Dwarves living in the Blue Mountains, and the Elves living in the Grey Havens. Both of those groups, likely purchase large quantities of their food from the remnant human population of Arnor, and possibly even from the Hobbits of the Shire. We don't really know enough about them to make many assumptions. 

The Rohirrim, seem to evidence a Libertarian land Ethic, being primarily agricultural but with HUGE swathes of land turned over to grazing horse herds, and if they are distinctly based on the Anglo Saxons, then likely large numbers of other domestic animals as well.. They seem closest to a Libertarian viewpoint on the land, in as much as they themselves don't take wood from Fangorn, not because of ecological reasons, but simply because they are afraid to go into it to get he wood.. any group of people who are willing to produce vast herds of hoofed animals, and build lots of timber structures, will obviously need lots of timber which will produce their empty grazing land. The "Symbiotic" Dunlendings would probably have also subsisted by raising herds of animals, perhaps goats or cows, and lived a very hardscrabble life, perhaps a bit like the Highlanders of Scotland. We don't really know enough about them to know what sort of farming they would do.. but the landscape they lived in would make it very difficult to see them doing any kind of large scale agriculture. It would seem the people of Esgaroth are similar to this in that they built timber structures on a lake, and made lots of barrels.. as well as having large farming operations in order to supply themselves with food, though their farming was likely even more industrialized when they were also growing enough food to supply the Dwarves of Erebor with as much Ale, red meat and what not as the dwarves would eat.. seeing as the Dwarven appitite is nearly as prodigious as a Hobbits.. one can start to see just how big the farming system built up by the people of Esgaroth must have been... They also produce grapes (which requires a VAST amount of land) and wine (presumably in excess to their own needs) which they sell to the Elves in Mirkwood. The Dwarves of Erebor, who need to be taken as a symbiotic group with the Esgarothians seemed to be very much of a "Haste makes Waste" kind of Dwarf.. my guess is they aimed not to repeat the mistakes of Moria... since they had found out the hard way that there are fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world. On the surface they would have had vast slack dumps for the removed material from their mines, though this could in fact be the location where the Esgarothians got the stone to build their town from.. it would likely exist in excess to what they would actually need. 

The Gondorians seem to fall somewhere between the Hobbits and the Esgarothians. Considering the sort of top down military structure in evidence with Gondor, I'd suggest that while they clearly are not an Egalitarian Culture, they practice an Egalitarian-Utilitarian hybrid land ethic. They take charge of the land in order to make sure their military is well supplied, thus ensuring their people are protected from Mordor. We know they have orchards since they eat apples, and they have cows since they eat cheese, but they also have to supply what is, seemingly a VAST military apparatus, and keep the city of Minas Tirith supplied in case of seige, it being a fortress and all. They buy a lot of horses from Rohan, so probably do not devote as much land to grazing, instead devoting more of it to things which can be easily stored for long periods of time. Beer, Hard Bread, Apples, Cheese, Etc. 

The Elves of Lothlorien, Rivendell, and Mirkwood, and likely of the grey havens, seem to be the only race in middle earth which practice an Ecological Land Ethic. They are very densely populated in areas which for the most part are allowed to grow wild around very small pockets of intently managed landscape.. I would imagine that rather than the Hobbits who likely would think nothing of cutting down a copse of trees to plant something, the elves would merely prune the trees, much like a Japanese Banzai, in order to have an area with enough sunshine to grow their crops without removing the trees. They of course being immortal, are allowed the luxury of this incredibly inefficient type of land use. 

Then we of course get to Mordor and Isengard. Home mainly of Orcs, though obviously some humans live in these areas as well side by side with the orcs (How weird would that be? To be an Easterling and have to live near Orcs? Ugh.) The evidence both these places had large scale farming is found in the fact they had VERY large standing armies, and simply put, orcs have to eat something (Maggoty bread, and vile tasting liquor both tell us something.. they had Mills (possibly bone meal, since the perpetual darkness that shrouds Mordor would make it hard to grow a lot of plants.. but not impossible to grow herds of animals) and distilling.. which does take either fruit or grain or honey. We also know that Mordor had vast slave populations.. perhaps making their economy in the East and South akin to the South Eastern US plantation economy prior to the US Civil War... Simply put, these places are not nice places to live.. and it's really no wonder why the men of Khand and Rhun would be so anxious to get ahold of the lands of Gondorians and Rohirrim. We also know they built a sizable navy, in order for the "Corsairs of Umbar" to be Corsairs.. and clearly had NO problem at all of simply clear cutting vast swathes of Forest, or excavating and polluting vast tracks of land to smelt the Iron they needed to build their war machines and assorted other war materials. Mordor clearly had a purely Economic, and extremely mercenary, approach to land management.. in fact I wouldn't even suggest they had any conception of "Land Management" except extract every last drop of blood you can until only stones remain behind. Isegard sought to copy this view, switching from the Utilitarian view they had previously (Evidenced by the manicured lawns and orchards which dotted the interior of the ring prior to their destruction at the hands of Saruman's Orcs). 

This is such a fascinating idea to me, that, should I get the opportunity to write a paper for this class, I may just use this as it's basis. 


Brian Murphy said...

I like it... could be the basis for a more expanded paper, as you've said.

Tolkien's mind was subtle and hard to deduce, even from his letters. But one thing we can be sure of is that his opinions were not ill-considered, hasty, or monolithic. He had the apparently audacious notion that we should couple technological progress with careful thought and restraint, which makes him "an enemy of progress" in the minds of technological utopianists like David Brin.

Dave Cesarano said...

This is pretty awesome. I would like to point out, though, that the Rohirrim probably didn't require massive amounts of timber just to live. Although Tolkien compares them to Anglo-Saxons, they're more historically analogous to the Gothic kingdoms of the Ukraine before the arrival of the Huns.

Ancient Greece, ancient Italy, ancient Turkey and Britain used to be heavily forested. What denuded them (at least, in the pre-Industrial era) wasn't industry, but SHIPBUILDING. The Athenian fleet that fought off the Persians denuded Attica. The Punic Wars denuded Italy. It seems to me that the maintenance of a fleet is much more ecologically demanding on forestation than simply building houses and it makes sense when you consider that ships constantly require repair and refitting, since saltwater, worms, barnacles, etc. will destroy a seagoing vessel pretty quickly if it isn't regularly serviced.