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Earthy Wisdom

Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic

By Danny Heitman | HUMANITIES, November/December 2013 | Volume 34, Number 6

One hundred and twenty acres, according to the County Clerk, is the extent of my worldly domain. But the County Clerk is a sleepy fellow, who never looks at his record books before nine o’clock. What they would show at daybreak is the question here at issue. Books or no books, it is a fact, patent both to my dog and myself, that at daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over. It is not only boundaries that disappear, but also the thought of being bounded.

—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

On April 14, 1948, an unassuming Wisconsin conservationist named Aldo Leopold learned that Oxford University Press had agreed to publish a small collection of his nature essays about his Wisconsin farm, a book that would eventually be called A Sand County Almanac. He didn’t live to see the book in print. A week after it was accepted, the sixty-one-year-old author died of a heart attack while fighting a grass fire on his neighbor’s farm.

Once published, the book took on a life of its own, putting Leopold’s profound thinking about environmental ethics before the public. More than sixty years later, Leopold’s masterwork has sold more than two million copies in twelve languages. A Sand County Almanac endures, one gathers, because it revisits Henry David Thoreau’s old questions about modern progress, but from the perspective of a writer who lived to see, even more deeply, the peril and promise of the mechanized age. Recording his thoughts in the wake of World War II and at the dawn of suburban sprawl, and with the Dust Bowl still fresh in public memory, Leopold had an even greater sense of the planet’s vulnerability. In this way, A Sand County Almanac is a bridge of sorts between earlier naturalists like Thoreau and John Burroughs and contemporary commentators on ecology such as Wendell Berry, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Scott Russell Sanders.

In many ways, A Sand County Almanac stands planted between antiquity and the present. Its prose is sometimes quaintly florid, in the venerable tradition of Burroughs or Henry Beston, but its themes acknowledge the implications of a nuclear era in which man can make war against not only his species, but the planet itself.

Leopold recognized that there was no practical way to outrun the effects of technology on the environment—no virgin wilderness preserve where one could hide from the actions of government or industry. Acknowledging that reality, he argued for national and global policies that worked in harmony with nature. His clear sense of Earth’s smallness and fragility seems self-evident today, at a time when the globe can be viewed whole from space, and greenhouse gases produced in New Delhi can yield clues about the health of polar ice caps.

But precisely because his global sensibility is now shared so widely by Berry, Moore, Sanders, and others, Leopold’s vision is easy to take for granted. “It’s hard to say what the American landscape might look like if Aldo Leopold hadn’t come along when he did,” biographer Marybeth Lorbiecki writes. “His discoveries and policy recommendations drove forward the emerging fields of forestry, soil conservation, wildlife study and management, ecology, wilderness protection, land restoration, and environmental ethics.”

Although the timing of Leopold’s death shook his friends and admirers, no one seemed very surprised that he had died outdoors. Nature had defined Leopold’s life from an early age. When he wasn’t outside—mainly when school or work forced him indoors—he was invariably scheming to get back under open sky.

Born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, Leopold grew up as the son of a successful businessman father and a highly cultured mother. Leopold’s mother helped nurture his love of reading and tried, with varying degrees of success, to introduce him to the finer points of opera and dance. Instead, Leopold appropriated the family opera glasses for his own purposes. Lorbiecki’s biography includes a photograph from Leopold’s boyhood in which he’s dressed in a tiny powdered wig and eighteenth-century costume for a minuet class. The young Leopold looks about as happy as a prisoner of war, suggesting he’d rather be beneath a tree, looking at birds. Leopold enjoyed much more the interests of his father, who was an avid sportsman and hunter.

A boyhood friend recalled rising before dawn to deliver newspapers, cutting through Aldo’s yard and finding him already awake, gazing at the trees with opera glasses, waiting for the next bird to record in the notebook on his lap.

Leopold never lost the sense of nature as a kind of theater, and that vision runs through much of A Sand County Almanac, its narrative implicating an assortment of creatures in a Broadway play set against the pines. His descriptions often read like stage directions:

A rough-legged hawk comes sailing over the meadow ahead. Now, he stops, hovers like a kingfisher, and then drops like a feathered bomb into the marsh. He does not rise again, so I am sure he has caught, and is now eating, some worried mouse. . . . The rough-leg has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well aware that snow melts in order that hawks may again catch field mice.

This kind of anthropomorphizing of animals, in which Leopold fancifully reads their thoughts and assigns them motives, is a common feature of A Sand County Almanac, which is divided between whimsical nature portraits and denser chapters on ecology and ethics.

In this way, the book expresses the two minds of Aldo Leopold, who could not quite decide whether he was a poet or a scientist. His difficulty in sorting himself out seems evident in A Sand County Almanac, in which Leopold separates his personal sketches and travelogs from his academic arguments, suggesting that “only the very sympathetic reader will wish to wrestle with the philosophical questions” he lays out in his environmental creed.

Leopold’s assessment of the literary appeal of his environmental scholarship is pretty much on the mark. Beyond A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote some other essays and letters, and he is also known among ecologists for Game Management, a textbook on wildlife that was considered the preeminent study on the subject for decades. The writing in Game Management is frequently dry and dull, of primary interest only to scholars, but it is memorable for Leopold’s key insight—that managing game is about more than hunting quotas, but must also involve the many other factors that nurture the lives of ducks and deer, including the health of the land. At his best, Leopold eloquently argued for a holistic view of wildlife stewardship, an approach that has since become the professional standard. “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals,” Leopold wrote in an earlier philosophical article, “A Biotic View of Land,” that influenced A Sand County Almanac. “Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption, some is stored in soils, peats and forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life.”

Like Thoreau, who also straddled literature and science, Leopold was essentially a transcendentalist, someone who saw nature as the primary gateway to the divine. He was, according to his daughter Estella, a skeptic of organized religion, believing that cosmic power did not derive from a personal God but was expressed more generally in the workings of the natural world.

Aldo Leopold studied forestry at Yale before joining the U.S. Forest Service in 1909, only a few years after the agency’s founding by pioneering forester Gifford Pinchot. After serving in the Southwest, Leopold shifted to academia, becoming the nation’s first titled professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus. Along the way, Leopold married and became the father of five children, and, in 1935, he bought an old farm in nearby Baraboo as a family retreat. The Baraboo property also became a laboratory for Leopold to test his theories of land restoration. Leopold and his family gradually planted thousands of pine trees on weekends and breaks from school, transforming barren acreage into a lush haven for wildlife.

His Baraboo experiment taught him just how resilient land could be if given the proper care. Within a decade of the Leopold family’s arrival, a farm that had been ecologically depleted by the abuses of its previous owner was once again an oasis of green.

Leopold’s Sand County experience deeply informs his most memorable writings about nature. He consistently sounded an alarm about environmental threats, but his success in Baraboo also renewed his sense of possibility about environmental reforms.

The landscape popularized by the book—a weekend farm where Leopold and his family spent time away from their home in Madison—has been preserved as the home of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, a nonprofit group that advances Leopold’s conservation ideas around the world. The Shack, the old chicken coop that the Leopold family refurbished to serve as the farm’s homely residence, is the primary attraction at the National Historic Landmark site.

Leopold’s confidence that a chicken coop could become a family retreat hints at his optimism, a quality much discussed in Green Fire, a recent documentary about Leopold’s life. The documentary unfolds like an attic scrapbook, full of family pictures and fond recollections of the Leopold family’s time in Baraboo. As daughter Nina recalls in Lorbiecki’s biography, not even a vandalism of the camp dampened Leopold’s spirit. On arriving at the shack for the weekend and discovering the ransacked living quarters, everyone in the family cried. Everyone, that is, except Aldo, who was smiling.

“I didn’t know how much this place meant to you,” Nina recalls her father saying. “Let’s get busy.”

Many stories affirm Leopold’s warmth as a father and husband, but as a writer he was a moralist, and as a moralist, he could fall prey to sanctimony. While reading an early draft of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s friend Hans Albert Hochbaum chastised the author for his holier-than-thou tone. He urged Leopold to include material reflecting on his own fallibilities as a guardian of the environment.

Leopold obliged by adding a chapter, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” which argues against hubris in addressing the natural world, and which chronicles the most formative experience of Leopold’s time in the Forest Service. In the essay, Leopold recalls his youth in the Southwest, where there was widespread antipathy toward wolves. He took up his rifle for the cause:

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy. . . .

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the deer nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Leopold then details the result of the war against wolves, noting the destruction of landscapes by deer populations artificially enlarged by the lack of predators. The “Green Fire” portion of the Almanac has become an iconic passage among Leopold’s admirers, encapsulating some key tenets of his conservation principles. In describing how he and his comrades “pump lead” into the passing wolves “with more excitement than accuracy,” Leopold hints at the numbing industrial efficiency that enables modern man to rapidly change the natural world as a matter of reflex rather than reflection. His poetic description of the wolf’s countenance suggests underlying mysteries within nature unfathomed by human intellect—riddles that argue for caution in altering age-old ecological balances. The impoverished ecosystem left by the annihilation of wolves gives Leopold a vivid case study in the law of unintended consequences. And, finally, in admitting his own culpability in the wolf slaughter, Leopold subtly reminds his readers that questions of ecology rarely yield immediate distinctions between good and evil, but are usually ethically complex challenges in which none of us can hope to achieve complete purity. Laying out his beliefs plank by plank, as if drafting a political platform, Leopold argued that treating land and wildlife only as property to be exploited is as morally troublesome as the slavery of the past, in which humans were reduced to merely material assets. He questioned how such exploitation can be reconciled with America’s patriotic ideals:

This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these “resources,” but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.

In deftly weaving domestic concerns with natural history, Leopold was building upon the tradition of Walden, another nature narrative that uses the cycle of the seasons to depict a landscape from the perspective of a cozy cabin.

But while Thoreau endures in popular reputation, however wrongly, as a kind of secular monk—easy to admire but hard to imitate—Leopold’s story, which includes the conventional elements of spouse, children, and a professional career, helped American nature writing speak more directly to the experience of the modern family.

In this way, A Sand County Almanac paved the way for contemporary American writers, such as Sanders, who also write about the value of nature and local communities from their perspectives as parents, spouses, and community elders.

 “Aldo Leopold remains a vital figure for us today,” Sanders writes, “because he analyzed the sources of ecological damage with unprecedented clarity, and he wrote about possible remedies as compellingly as any American ever has. Although he was among the earliest champions of wilderness protection, he thought and wrote mainly about land that has been turned to human use. Given that we must eat, how should we manage our farms? Given that we must build houses, how should we manage our forests? Given that we enjoy outdoor activities, how should we manage our parks? How can we gauge the health of the land, and how can we restore land that is ailing?”

Following after Thoreau, who helped put New England on the map as a landmark of the natural world, and John Muir, who gave the West an equally mythic stature in American nature writing, Leopold demonstrated that less celebrated locales, such as his prosaic little shack in the woods of Wisconsin, could also be a wellspring of wonder.

His prevailing theme—the primacy of local landscapes everywhere as sources of intellectual and spiritual renewal—continues to inform the work of the Aldo Leopold Foundation as it stages workshops that help Leopold’s philosophy reach new audiences across the country.

Last year, on a chilly, gray day in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a small group of scientists and nature enthusiasts gathered at the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center, a wooded preserve just a short distance from a bustling urban thoroughfare, to consider Leopold’s ideas. The gathering, a collaboration of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Louisiana State University School of the Coast and the Environment, also featured a hands-on project in which participants helped cut back invasive privets and tallow trees.

“We wanted to find a way to bring a vision of what a land ethic looks like today into local communities,” Jeannine Richards, the Leopold Foundation’s communications coordinator, said of the workshop. “The value of caring for a piece of land—being in community with the land, soil and water—that’s true anywhere in the world.”

Donald Baltz, LSU’s chair of oceanography and coastal science, said he uses Leopold’s work in teaching classes in marine vertebrates. “I think it generalizes not only to the land, but to aquatic issues,” Baltz said of the Almanac.

As challenges such as global climate change and diminishing rain forests dominate the headlines, Leopold’s views seem as topical as ever. “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them,” Leopold wrote at the start of his Almanac. "Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth the cost of things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech."

About the Author

Danny Heitman, an author and a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, has taught as an adjunct professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

Funding Information

NEH has provided the Aldo Leopold Foundation with a $45,000 grant to develop a new interpretation of the Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm. Arizona State University has conducted NEH-supported institutes for college and university faculty on “A Fierce Green Fire at 100: Aldo Leopold and the Roots of Environmental Ethics” and “Rethinking the Land Ethic: Sustainability and the Humanities.” The Library of America, which keeps classic works of American literature in print, was started in 1978 with a then-unprecedented NEH grant of $1 million. LOA recently published Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation.