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The land ethic of Aldo Leopold
on 4 December 2010
"A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold was first published in 1949. I have the Oxford University Press paperback edition (the one with the honkers at the cover). As far as I understand, this edition contains all of the original work. Other editions leave out parts of sections II and III. The OUP edition is beautifully illustrated by Charles W. Schwartz.
Although less known than Carson's "Silent Spring", Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" is considered a classic by the conservationist and environmentalist movements. Leopold was a leading conservationist himself and a co-founder of the Wilderness Society, an organization devoted to the expansion and protection of wilderness areas. Deep ecologists consider "A Sound County Almanac" a precursor to their own philosophy, because of Leopold's attempt to formulate a "land ethic" which takes into consideration the entire "biotic community", not just humans. Said Leopold: "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."
Most of the almanac consists of short descriptions and reflections on wildlife, most of them based on observations around Leopold's backwoods farm in Wisconsin. He seems to have deliberately obtained a small and run down piece of property. Occasionally, the area was so flooded that Leopold couldn't make it to his job (he was professor at the university of Wisconsin-Madison).
Often, Leopold's sketches simply deal with the beauties of trees, flowering plants and animals (such as honkers). The author also writes about his hunting trips - in contrast to animal rights activists, Leopold was no vegan. However, he seems to have given up killing large mammal predators, preferring instead to hunt birds strictly for food. Still, this part of the book will definitely be objectionable to animal liberationists, as when Leopold glowingly retells a childhood memory of his first (and succesful) duck hunt.
At other times, Leopold's descriptions of nature and wildlife have a more political or philosophical tinge. A recurrent theme is the interdependence of living organisms, as when Leopold muses that his refusal to deal with various forms of tree sickness around his farm has made the environment more diverse. A nostalgic encounter with a Silphium plant becomes an opportunity to bemoan the disappearence of the original prairie landscape. The author admits to like aspens, tamaracks and cottonwood, three species of trees heartily hated by his neighbours, not to mention foresters. The message is clear: the trees are good in themselves, they are aesthetically pleasing and make the environment more diverse and interesting. That they are economically unviable or a nuisance to humans should be irrelevant. Leopold's panegyric to the extinct passanger pigeon is my favourite piece. The fact that humans can mourn the loss of the pigeon, while the pigeon cannot mourn the loss of humans, is to Leopold what really makes us higher than the brutes.
In the third section of the book, called "The Upshot", Leopold presents his philosophical views. He wants to extend ethics to all of creation: animals, plants and the land itself. He attacks the massive tourism in wildnerness areas, and in general opposes human encroachments on wild nature. He doesn't idealize farmers as somehow being closer to the land. Quite the contrary: there are plenty of sharp attacks on farmers in this book, farmers who farm for profit only, and take conservationist measures only if given handouts from the public treasury. It seems that Leopold is calling for more government regulation. National parks should be made much larger by buying out farms or compensating the farmers for livestock lost to predation. Obviously, this can only be done by state or federal authorities.
"A Sand County Almanac" criticizes the utilitarian and economic ethos of modern civilization, where animals and plants are saved only to the extent they are believed to be useful to humans. The author believes that only about 5% of the species of "higher" animals and plants found in Wisconsin have economic value for humans. Yet, all species have the right to exist, since the stability of the environment or "biotic community" as a whole depends on it. (Presumably, this principle also applies to environments that aren't economically useful to humans.) I get the impression that Leopold was somewhat pessimistic about the prospects of saving nature from the encroachments of modern civilization. The situation has hardly improved since his death in 1948.
Despite its descriptions of animals and plants, "A Sand County Almanac" isn't a natural history. Nor is it a stringent philosophical work. The chapter on the land ethic isn't argued at great length. "A Sand County Almanac" is rather a series of short meditations on nature, wildlife and the human predicament. If you like it or not probably depends on your mood or personal attitude.
People who feel nothing when walking in a park or visiting a duckpond won't like the "real" nature sketches in this book. Those who admire the steelworks of Hank Rearden or railways of Dagny Taggart will reel! As already noted, animal rights activists will (ironically) be horrified by the author shooting grouse, partridges and ducks. Even more ironically, the almanac might strike avid hunters and outdoorsmen as too boring. Most of the time, Leopold doesn't stray far from his small farmstead and the beloved tamaracks. He is no Bernd Heinrich, hot on the trail of wolves in Yellowstone and fascinated by their blood-curling hunts. Nor is he ready to throw geese to caged, hungry ravens just to see some action!
"A Sand County Almanac" is a book for those who like solitude, peace and quiet, and don't necessarily identify wilderness with Alaska or the Rockies. A bit of nostalgia about what has been lost will also help you grasp the deep ecology of Aldo Leopold.