ISHMAEL is a book destined to be loved by those who love it and hated by those who do not. It will be read and cherished by some, and studiously avoided and censored by others. The key message is that it is up to us to understand our own history and learn to respect our environment and live sustainably, perhaps for the first time in recorded history. Jim Saveland, a fire ecologist from the WO, gives us a brief sketch of ISHMAEL and interrelates it both to our contemporary Forest Service life and to other books.

ISHMAEL, Daniel Quinn, Bantum/Turner Books ISBN:0-553-56166-9

by Daniel Quinn
Bantam/Turner Books, 1992, Paperback, 263 p.
ISBN 0-553-37540-7 $10.95
Reviewed by Jim Saveland

Several people in business that I had met at various conferences had recommended that I read Ishmael, especially when they found out that I was an ecologist. Peter Senge mentioned the book in his introduction to the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. And then on page 304 of the Fieldbook is this description of Ishmael:

So when I saw Ishmael on sale at the 1995 Systems Thinking in Action Conference, I decided to buy it and read it. There was another book that I purchased that also had been highly recommended: Who Speaks for Wolf: A Native American Learning Story, by Paula Underwood, A Tribe of Two Press, San Anselmo, 1991, ISBN 1-879678-01-2. S12.

I find it hard to put into words the power and beauty of Ishmael. On the back cover are excerpts from newspaper reviews such as the one from The Austin Chronicle, "[Ishmael] is as suspenseful, inventive, and socially urgent as any fiction or nonfiction you are likely to read this or any other year." It certainly was that. At one point I thought about the book, The Goal. What The Goal is to Total Quality, Ishmael is to Learning Organizations; that is, a profound work of fiction that encapsulates the key concepts. Yet, to compare Ishmael to any other book does not do it justice.

So what's Ishmael about? While I was reading the last several pages, I could not contain my enthusiasm. My nine year old son, who was in the same room, could not help but notice. He asked me if it was a book that he could read and understand. I replied that he'd probably have to wait awhile before he could read it. So he asked me what it was about. Earlier in the day I had come across a quote from Aldo Leopold that I thought pretty well summed up Ishmael, so I quoted Leopold, "We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." I had to do a little interpreting to put Leopold's words in the language of a nine year old, and then quick as a whip my son replied, "Oh, you mean like in Chief Seattle's speech, especially the part where he says, 'The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.'" I was amazed. All I could say was, "You got it."

Later on I also thought about Vice President Gore's book, Earth in the Balance. While there are a lot of the details in Gore's book that can be debated, he got the core problem statement right when he said, "the global environmental crisis is rooted in the dysfunctional pattern of our civilization's relationship to the natural world." Our relationship to the community of life is what Ishmael is about. The overriding flaw in Gore's book is his underlying mental model - that only by creating a crisis (a "vision of doom") can something meaningful be accomplished. The counterpoint from Ishmael:

There were some parts of the book that particularly resonated with me and have a lot to say to the Forest Service. The Forest Service has had difficulty with building shared vision and our focus on "the historical or 'natural' range of variability" in the Forest planning process is cause for concern. From the book: That message is extremely important to the Forest Service and bears repeating, OUR TASK IS NOT TO REACH BACK BUT TO REACH FORWARD.

And then there is the subject of workforce diversity, an issue that many organizations are struggling with today. From Ishmael:

One thing that caught me by surprise in Ishmael was the profound interpretation of Genesis. From Ishmael: And then, later on in Ishmael: The details are fascinating, but I'll leave that for you to discover. For those who have read Ishmael or will read it, I offer the following additional insight. One thing this book caused me to do was immediately reread Genesis. The following image of fire struck a chord with me: After just reading Ishmael, the image that popped into my mind was not a threatening fire, but the council fire. From Who Speaks for Wolf: All in all, a great read. I heartily recommend Ishmael to anyone and everyone. Who Speaks for Wolf is right up there too.

Jim Saveland                       "The cultured might call him heathenish,
Fire Ecologist                      This man of few words, because his one care
Fire & Atmospheric Sci. Research    Is not to interfere but to let nature renew
USDA Forest Service                 The sense of direction men undo." Lao Tzu
Washington, D.C.