Aldo Leopold is a giant among early conservationists; his writings are compared to Muir and Thoreau. His career in conservation and education spanned several decades in the first half of the 20th century, and he died shortly after being appointed an advisor on conservation to the United Nations.
I've been reading this book for years, actually. It was one I used as an instructor in an environmental studies department, but I'm not cheating here: as I was referring to its passages in another review recently, I decided to go ahead and re-read it in its entirety today. I somehow also neglected to include it on my read books list, so, perhaps this is good timing. This review also starts with something of a history lesson, but I think the essential facts are vital for understanding this complex, groundbreaking, thought-provoking, if perplexing book.
There are few figures who have had as much influence on conservation and the preservation of wilderness in the United States as ALDO LEOPOLD (1887-1949), but, unfortunately, he remains a little-known figure to most. Perhaps that is because he left few writings â this masterpiece of American literature was only edited and published after his death in 1949. It consists of a fragmented collection of his writings, so, in the true sense, the work in its current form wasn't even conceived by Aldo during his lifetime. Nonetheless, it has been hailed as one of the greatest works on conservation, environmental philosophy and land ethic ever written. The San Francisco Chronicle noted, accurately, that âwe can place this book on the shelf that holds the writings of Thoreau and John Muir,â but in addition to being a work of philosophy, Leopold's writings are far more concrete. They constitute a battle plan for how to engage the public at large in the fight for conservation, both in the physical sense and in the American mentality. Leopold has hence been called a âfountainhead of modern American environmentalism,â for good reason.
Aldo was born into a wealthy family in Burlington, Iowa, a Midwestern town with a population of about 10,000, in the late nineteenth century, a time of great prosperity for some, but also a period of great transition and change. From an early age, Aldo's parents realized that he had an exceptional intellect, so they sent him to a preparatory school in New Jersey. The capstone of his university education consisted primarily of his program at Yale Forestry School and the Sheffield Scientific School, the first graduate school of forestry in the US, where he earned a Master's degree in 1909.
The Yale Forestry School had been endowed by the legendary Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the US Forest Service, who had receiving training in silviculture in France. Pinchot was one of the greatest conservationists to serve in the US government. Both men were highly influenced by George Perkins Marsh's nineteenth-century masterpiece Man and Nature. Pinchot had grown up extremely wealthy, as the son of a shipping magnate in New York, but he decided that he didn't want to pursue wealth and instead decided to study the emergent field of forestry. Programs at Yale and Michigan University trained workers in the tradition of their French predecessors, specifically that land should be held in the public trust, prevented from falling into private hands, where it was being subjected to increasingly unsustainable and exploitative practices. Land was to be preserved as a sustainable resource, under human management in some cases, but wild in others.
Aldo Leopold joined the nascent US Forest Service in 1912. His first assigned area of responsibility was the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, where he became the supervisor of almost a million acres, consisting of several segments in the north, near Taos. Shortly after, however, he developed Bright's disease, or nephritis, a serious and painful kidney condition which became so severe that he was bed-ridden. As a result, Aldo returned to reside with his parents during his long recovery, which lasted years. During this time, Aldo began reading voraciously, which led to a paradigm shift in his world view, involving a complete re-evaluation of his university-trained approach to conservation. His interests moved away from sustaining forests for economic benefits toward what we would today call biocentric conservation.
In particular, Leopold had begun reading the great works of Eastern philosophy. He became fascinated with ancient cultures and the tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism, which advocated respect, and not infrequently reverence, for all forms of life. As a lifelong, avid hunter, Leopold was conflicted over their proposed extension of ethical compassion to all living creatures, even insects and plants. Even more profoundly, also central to these pre-Christian, nature-oriented belief systems was the notion of the divine in nature (i.e., sacred mountains and plants), likewise manifest in Classical Greek philosophy, including Aristotle's Great Chain of Being, which he alludes to throughout his writings.
Leopold was also heavily influenced by the works of polymath German philosopher/author/ physician/musician Albert Schweitzer, who had likewise studied philosophy before obtaining a medical degree, after which he spent much of the remainder of his life in equatorial Africa. In 1923, Schweitzer wrote his most famous book âA Philosophy of Civilization,â which advocated reverence for all life: he noted that throughout human history, ethics have almost exclusively been concerned solely with humans and the potential impact certain actions have on them, a world view which should be revised and expanded to include all creatures. Schweitzer believed that compassion could only attain full depth and breadth if it encompassed all life, not just human life. He famously wrote that âman is truly ethical when he obeys the compulsion to help all life and he is able to assist and shrinks from injuring anything that lives,â a radical concept indeed at the time. Leopold incorporated this ethic, however, likewise asserting that humans are voyagers along with all other creatures on the journey of evolution, and as such, there is no disconnect between humans and the natural world, a view that he believed could yield tremendous benefits in the aggregate, but like Schweitzer, he also sought to expand ethics to include a wider circle.
Leopold also integrated into his environmental world view the two great scientific advances of the nineteenth century: the widespread acceptance of Darwinian Theory and the development of geology as a science. The realization that humans were just another organism, another animal (which he addresses at length in the book) in the great scheme of things greatly influenced his ethical foundation, specifically that all biological systems were interconnected, and that they had been since the formation of the planet some four billion years ago. That rocks, physical, tangible things, could tell the real story of life on earth, requiring a total rejection of the notion that the earth was only 6,000 years old, as many Christians at that time believed, was particularly subversive: this revolutionary intimation quashed any notions of human divinity or exceptionalism, and therefore a separateness from or superiority to nature.
Thus was born Leopold's land ethic, his essential world view: that the natural world was a community to which man BELONGED, but did not POSSESS. The synthesis of various belief systems and scientific methods of inquiry led to the conclusion that man enjoys KINSHIP with rather than LORDSHIP over the earth, leading to a rejection of a humano-centric view of nature in favor of a biocentric one. In the 1930s, Leopold developed groundbreaking ideas about ecology, the study of plant and animal populations as communities, essentially the idea that ecosystems consist of a network of and relationships among organisms. Thus, the best type of land management often consisted of none at all, where nature was free to regulate itself according to timeless natural processes free of human involvement or interference. Based on both research and his own experiences of spending time in nature, Leopold proposed that land itself was an organism, and that all his life, he had only seen sick [developed] land, whereas untouched land was a biota in âperfect aboriginal health.â This view stood in stark contrast to the institutionalized ethic of utilitarian conservation that existed at the government level, even at the forestry service, and largely still does.
These are concepts we take for granted now, but no one, at least at the level of government administration, and rarely within academia, had really conceived land preservation and study in this way previously, specifically the notion of interdependence of biological communities and the realization that man was just another part of that integrated system, which needed no outside interference or assistance, save human absence. This world view was admittedly similar to what John Muir had proposed decades earlier, but the latter's writings had taken on the romanticism prevalent in the nineteenth century, along the lines of poets such as Wordsworth, Thoreau and Emerson. Leopold's views put theory into practice in a way not previously conceived. He had even proposed a global environmental agency along the lines of the United Nations, which would have some power to regulate global land use and conservation, but, clearly that never came to fruition. Aldo Leopold died of a heart attack while attempt to fight a brush fire on a neighbor's property, in 1949, and this collection of his writings was released after his untimely death.
The book is comprised of three sections, the first really constituting what could be described as an almanac. The second and third parts are much more revealing of Leopold's land ethic. Books in and of themselves could (and should!) be written about the content here, but I think it's best to leave it to each individual reader to interpret Aldo's views for themselves, and hopefully the content of this review gives some idea of what they entail. I will say this much: there is a distinct ambivalence in his writings perhaps reflective of Leopold's inner turmoil. He never lost appreciation for what civilization has provided man, but he was also convinced that it had caused great ills, as well, primarily in the loss of wild land and the subsequent consequences. One of my favorite passages reads as follows: âThere are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.â The nineteenth-century âconservation sportsmanâ mentality in the tradition of Roosevelt was very much alive at this time, but the nation was starting to change: there was little left of the rugged, untamed wilderness that had still existed a generation earlier. Leopold famously stated that âI am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in,â but if things didn't change, that wouldn't be the case for succeeding generations. Hopefully, because of his influences, and those of others, however, whose voices sometimes seem like a cry into the wind, no one will be young without wild country.
"In thus watching the daily routine of a spring goose convention, one notices the prevalence of singles-lone geese that do much flying about and much talking. One is apt to impute a disconsolate tone to their honkings, and to jump to the conclusion that they are broken-hearted widowers, or mothers hunting lost children.... Goose flocks are families, or aggregations of families, and lone geese in spring are probably just what our fond imaginings had first suggested. They are bereaved survivors of the winter's shooting, searching in vain for their kin. Now I am free to grieve with and for the lone honkers. It is not often that cold-potato mathematics thus confirms the sentimental promptings of the bird-lover."
"Bur oaks were the shock troops sent by the invading forest to storm the prairie; fire is what they had to fight.... Engineers did not discover insulation: they copied it from these old soldiers of the prairie war... In the 1840s a new animal, the settler, intervened in the prairie battle. He didn't mean to, he just plowed enough fields to deprive the prairie of its immemorial ally: fire."
"He who owns a veteran bur oak owns more than a tree. He owns a historical library, and a reserved seat in the theater of evolution. To the discerning eye, his farm is labeled with the badge and symbol of the prairie war."
"The erasure of a human subspecies is largely painless-to us-if we know little enough about it... we grieve only for what we know. The erasure of Silphium from western Dane County is no cause for grief if one knows it only as a name in a botany book."
"I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matterof what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be. I find it disconcerting to anlyze, ex post facto, the reasons behind my own axe-in-hand decisions. I find, first of all, that not all trees are created free and equal."
"Our biases are indeed a sensitive index to our affections, our tastes, our loyalties, our generosities, and our manner of wasting weekends."
"Science knows little about home range: how big it is at various seasons, what food and cover it must include, when and how it is defended against trespass, and whether ownership is an individual, family or group affair. These are the fundamentals of animal economics, or ecology. Every farm is a textbook on animal ecology; woodsmanship is the translation of the book."
"Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons... The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory to the spring? It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We now know what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow voyagers with other creaures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise."
On Thinking Like a Mountain: "In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf... 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 though that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter's paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."
"The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf's job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence, we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea."
"Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?"
"There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra. These men are called professors. Each selects one instrument and spends his life taking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for dismemberment is called a university."
"A professor may pluck the strings of his own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. For all are restrained by an ironbound taboo which decrees that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets."
"Professors serve science and science serves progress. It serves progress so well that many of the more intricate instruments are stepped upon and broken in the rush to spread progress to all backward lands. One by one the parts are thus stricken from the song of songs. If the professor is able to classify each instrument before it is broken, he is well content."
"Science contributes moral as well as material blessings to the world. Its great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view. This means doubting everything except facts; it means hewing to the facts, let the chips fall where they may. One of the facts hewn to by science is that ever river needs more people, and all people need more inventions, and hence more science; the good life depends on the indefinite extension of this chain of logic. That the good life on any river may likewise depend on the perception of its music, and the preservation of some music to perceive, is a form of doubt not yet entertained by science."
"Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another."
"A gadget industry pads the bumps against nature-in-the-raw; woodcraft becomes the art of using gadgets. And now, to cap the pyramid of banalities, the trailer. To him who seeks in the woods and mountains only those things obtainable from travel or golf, the present situation is tolerable. But to him who seeks something more, recreation has become a self-destructive process of seeking, but never quite finding, a major frustration of mechanized society... This is Outdoor Recreation, Latest Model... That he is already overfed in no way dampens his avidity for gathering his meat from God."
"The same dilution and damage is not apparent in the yield of 'indirect' trophies, such as photographs. Broadly speaking, a piece of scenery snapped by a dozen tourist cameras daily is not physically impaired thereby, nor does any other resource suffer when the rate increases to a hundred. The camera industry is one of the few innocuous parasites on wild nature." (!)
"Let no man jump to the conclusion that Babbitt must take his Ph.D. in ecology before he can 'see' his country. On the contrary, the Ph.D. may become as callous as an undertaker to the mysteries at which he officiates."
"There is value in any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man-food chain and of the fundamental organization of the biota. Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relation with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim." In 1949.
"There is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseys' slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations."
"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."
"Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land."
"To sum up, wildlife once fed us and shaped our culture. It still yields us pleasure for leisure hours, but we try to reap that pleasure by modern machinery and thus destroy part of its value. Reaping it by modern mentality would yield not only pleasure, but wisdom as well."