Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic for 2012


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The Wilsons' prairie restoration included a mixture of eight native grasses and eight native flowering forbs. (Jerry Wilson)

By Jerry Wilson

When Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” was published in 1949, I was four years old and climbing my first tree to peer in wonder at the sky-blue eggs a robin had laid. In college I absorbed the vision of Henry David Thoreau, and on two pilgrimages to Walden Pond swam naked by moonlight and slept beside Thoreau’s foundation stones. When my wife and I took responsibility for land on the Missouri River Bluff in 1982, I had lived three decades in largely undisciplined efforts to make sense of the natural world. Then a friend gave me “A Sand County Almanac.” I found described in a thoughtful, orderly way the rough and sometimes vague perceptions and conclusions to which living was bringing me.

I had been prepared by experience to comprehend Leopold’s wisdom. I grew up on a blown-out farm on the edge of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. My father, my brother and I invested countless hours digging out sand-drifted fences and coaxing depleted hills back to productivity. In a generation of hard and caring work, my family set in place processes of restoration and renewal.

By adulthood I recognized that in the “postmodern” world, the era that grew from and after World War II, many of the liabilities of “progress” had, in seemingly irreversible ways, come to outweigh the assets. Farmers had depleted the soil, but we learned that we could still force production by the infusion of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, petrochemicals produced by an industry that itself was the product of war. We had rapidly converted what many agricultural economists viewed as the inefficient diversified farm into a Mecca of monoculture. In my lifetime we doubled bushels per acre of wheat and corn, then doubled them again, all the while ignoring or unaware that we were at war with basic principles of ecology, that we were undermining what Leopold called the “land pyramid” of which we are part and upon which our lives are built.

My first two books explore questions of sustainability. In 1995 I drove the Pan-American Highway from Canada to Panama, seeking signs of sustainability. I found the devastation of great swaths of the continent—eroded topsoil, silted rivers, fallen trees and fouled air, diversity and native peoples and species replaced by imports and monoculture. By then I had read Leopold, and I borrowed his words for an epigraph in “American Artery: A Pan American Journey.” “We abuse 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. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man.”

In his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold says, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf… The cowman who cleans his range of wolves… has not learned to think like a mountain.” Neither have the sheepmen or the “sportsmen” who attempt to clean the Missouri River bluff of coyotes and foxes; indeed I fear they might laugh at the notion that a mountain—or a bluff—could have thoughts.

But neither have I lived long enough to listen objectively to howls of joy or despair; my head is still half full of inherited assumptions it hasn’t occurred to me to question, the other half filled with notions I have produced or picked up along the way. Some of those ideas I put in my second book, “Waiting for Coyote’s Call: An Eco-memoir from the Missouri River Bluff,” the story of my family’s growing relationship with a swath of prairie and woods, our work to build a geo-solar home, to grow garden and trees, to restore native prairie and to learn from and evolve with the plants, birds, mammals, water and stones of which we are part.

For 30 years Norma and I have cared for what eventually grew to 144 acres of woods and hills. But whatever skills we have learned from other people or from the land are incomplete, at times incoherent, frequently experimental and often misguided. Thus, rather than “manager,” I prefer the humble title of custodian of the land.

A land custodian’s goal should be perpetuation of the natural integrity of the entrusted plot, whether a tiny backyard garden or a 10,000-acre ranch. But for all of us life is short, the needs of the land eternal. That is why, to protect the integrity of nature’s restorative process, we placed our land in a perpetual conservation easement with the Northern Prairies Land Trust.

Aldo Leopold’s insight evolved over the several decades of his life, culminating in his masterpiece, “A Sand County Almanac.” The wisdom that has taught and inspired thinking conservationists and environmentalists for six decades since his death is conveyed in vivid images and crystal prose.

Aldo Leopold sitting on rimrock with a quiver and bow at Rio Gavilan, Mexico, 1938. (Starker Leopold/Aldo Leopold Foundation/

Charles Darwin showed us that “men are only fellow voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution,” Leopold said. “This knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures.”

Many of us think of ourselves as “environmentalists,” but Leopold preferred the term “conservationist.” “A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land,” he said. And the land is our most reliable teacher. “Every farm is a textbook on animal ecology,” Leopold said. “Woodsmanship is the translation of the book.” “Every farm woodland, in addition to yielding lumber, fuel, and posts, should provide its owner a liberal education,” he added. “This crop of wisdom never fails, but it is not always harvested.”

For me, unanswered questions provide good reasons to go on living. I don’t expect to solve every mystery of our bluff, not if I lived a hundred years. “It is fortunate, perhaps,” Leopold observed, “that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all the salient facts about any one of them.”

But underlying mystery is indisputable truth: “The old prairie lived by the diversity of its plants and animals, all of which were useful because the sum total of their cooperations and competitions achieved continuity.”

Alongside our own acts of domestication and destruction, Norma and I have pursued restoration, including rehabilitation or replanting of 60 acres of diverse native prairie, knowing that, given what has been lost forever, true restoration is not possible. For some of our neighbors, the loss of natural diversity is not a concern. Leopold observed 60 years ago that “farm neighborhoods are good in proportion to the poverty of their floras. My own farm,” he said, “was selected for its lack of goodness—for its remaining diversity, its opposition to monoculture.”

The greatest remaining diversity is in protected wilderness, which in his first career, with the National Forest Service, Leopold worked to preserve. “Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization,” he said. “Wilderness was never a homogeneous raw material. It was very diverse, and the resulting artifacts are very diverse. These differences in the end-product are known as cultures.”

Leopold noted that “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow. The creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible.” And he adds a stinging rebuke: “Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness.” By 2012 little true wilderness remains, and there is constant pressure to open what remains to roads and motorized vehicles. The “ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility,” Leopold said.

Most of us, of course, live in former wilderness, converted to other uses. But some things do not change. As Leopold said, “The oldest task in human history is to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

“Science… has given us at least one certainty,” Leopold observed: “The trend of evolution is to elaborate and diversify the biota.” Land is not “merely soil; it is a fountain of energy…, a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life.” When we alter the pyramid by exploitation, we release stored energy and produce “a deceptive exuberance of plant and animal life.” Those “releases of biotic capital,” Leopold said, “tend to becloud or postpone the penalties of violence.” But only temporarily.

The great scientist and teacher, Edward O. Wilson notes in his book “The Diversity of Life” that “biodiversity is the key to the maintenance of the world as we know it.” Unfortunately, a central goal of modern extractive industries, including mining and much of forestry and agriculture, is to break evolution’s elaborative premise by fighting diversity. Producers simultaneously reduce labor, homogenize product and increase productivity by killing every member of a biotic community, save one. Agriculture, in particular, requires ever-increasing infusions of chemicals—what Leopold called “improvements in the pump, rather than the well.”

With corporations like Monsanto in the driver’s seat, the biotic pyramid comes crashing down. Natural food chains are disrupted or destroyed. The monarch that feeds on milkweed must bypass entire fields, and hawks that seek rodents that live on insects that pollinate naturally occurring forbs will be disappointed.

“Each species, including ourselves, is a link in many chains,” Leopold said. “…The pyramid is a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the system proves it to be a highly organized structure. Its functioning depends on the co-operation and competition of its diverse parts.” If we are to sustain the biotic communities of which we are part, Leopold concluded, we must trade “man the conqueror” for “man the biotic citizen.”

Clearly, the need is urgent. Sixty years ago Leopold saw man entering a stage he called “advanced wastage.” Yet soil and biotic communities retain their capacity for self-renewal, he observed. “Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” Unfortunately, conservation is absent from many agendas, and from the consciousness of many officials.

And how do we, struggling to comprehend our rightful places and our responsibilities in the biotic pyramid, discern what actions are right? It isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always clear. But here is Leopold’s bottom line: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Over the past 20 years, the Wilsons have worked to restore or rehabilitate 40 acres of native prairie. (Jerry Wilson)

This essay is adapted from the pamphlet, “The Land Ethic, 2012,” published by Northern Prairies Land Trust. Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” was a major inspiration for Jerry Wilson’s 2008 eco-memoir, “Waiting for Coyote’s Call.”

Image Credits: Prairie photos, Jerry Wilson; photo of Aldo Leopold, Starker Leopold/Aldo Leopold Foundation.

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