A major figure in the environmentalist movement, Aldo Leopold anticipated by a generation the need to recognize the interdependence of humankind and its natural environment. Leopold studied at Yale but felt limited by the laboratory; for him, research was best carried out in the environment, where both flora and fauna worked together. For many years, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service, studying erosion and preservation of the environment. He published more than 350 articles, but his quest was for an understanding that would bring together the natural world and the human being. He is remembered as the originator of the term “land ethic,” a naturalist, a hunter, and a member of the Ecological Society of America, the American Forestry Association, and the Audubon Society.
Leopold’s best-known books were both published posthumously. A Sand County Almanac was written as observations throughout the year at his sand farm in Wisconsin and prepared for publication by his son after Leopold died in 1948; Round River, a second collection of essays, was published by his son in 1953. The gentle, musing quality of Leopold’s essays and verbal sketches, as well as his carefully detailed observations of the unusual, the beautiful, or the wonderful in ordinary birds, fish, deer, flowers, trees, and sunrises appealed to a wide audience. Leopold has been widely read as a natural historian and for his concept of the “land ethic,” which treats the land as a “community” and emphasizes the symbiosis of all things, animate and inanimate. In the foreword to A Sand County Almanac, Leopold explains his attempt to bring together the ecological notion of community, the need to love and respect land, and the cultural insights that land can give. In blending these three concepts, he goes beyond ecology into the ethical principle of love and respect for land and into the land as a repository for human history.
Indeed, his cultural insights are among the most memorable in his work; he writes, for example, on the impact on human culture of diverting streams or eliminating the fires essential to the prairie as an ecosystem. Leopold calls for a reexamination of “unnatural” things with an eye to “things natural, wild, and free.”
Leopold’s major themes include not only the interdependence of all nature, but his own and, potentially, humankind’s joy in participating in the ecosystem: working on the land (making a well-filed shovel “sing”), arising at 3:30 a.m. to catalogue the territorial chants of assorted birds, following the flight of migrating geese. He contextualizes his essays by noting that in the century since Darwin published Origin of Species, we should have had time to develop a sense of kinship with other life forms and an awareness that we are merely partners in the voyage of evolution.
Leopold’s style is simple, laced with poetic images such as that of a tiny spring flower that is “only a postscript to hope.” He is sometimes whimsically ironic, as when he writes of the “alphabetical conservationists” who work for the U.S. government but often lack a holistic view of nature and humankind, or of an educated woman, “banded [like the birds he banded to track] by Phi Beta Kappa,” who had never heard the geese overhead.
Leopold speculates that education seems to suggest “awareness” of material objects that are worth far less. He is poetic when he traces an atom through a cycle—outside time— from breaking off a rock to passing into the bodies of animals, into a river, and finally into the sea, where it remains trapped for thousands of years.
The essay most representative of Leopold’s style and his ethic is “The Round River,” the title essay of the second collection. Drawing on the legend of Paul Bunyan, who was said to have discovered a circular river that flowed into itself, Leopold takes the notion and applies it to what he calls the “biota,” the circle of ongoing and constantly modifying life in which each species plays a role. Understanding this circuit, he argues, requires thinking that runs “perpendicular” to Darwin’s stream of evolution, looking at the whole rather than the individual species. Continuing the metaphor, he defines conservation in terms of learning to navigate the biotic stream. Declaring that the acknowledgment of land as organism is the major discovery of 20th-century science, he argues that we must learn to keep every part rather than to be profligate in destroying streams, prairies, creatures, species. By tracing the history of a German mountain and its greater fertility on one slope, he exemplifies the human lack of awareness of the effects of farming, cutting, trenching, diverting waterways, and otherwise tinkering with the earth as organism.
Stability and diversity are interlocked, he contends, and we have neglected the small “cogs and wheels” in the larger whole. But not only do we need greater public awareness of the interweaving of individual and whole; we need to “refine” our “taste in natural objects.” Whereas fertility and diversity should be the keys to conservation, public debates link economics and biology and omit other considerations.
The essay ends with a whimsical analogy based on a bird dog that, in the absence of pheasants, hunted meadowlarks. Conservationists, Leopold writes, are like the bird dog: after failing to convince landowners to practice forest conservation, wildlife management, and fire control, they decided that a bureau could take care of the problem. Bureaucracy, he concludes, is the meadowlark that helps us forget that we really wanted a pheasant.
For Leopold, ethics must be added to economic and biological considerations. If we try to understand the cycle of the round river and to develop a land ethic, we may eventually achieve conservation.
Long before such awareness became fashionable, Aldo Leopold encouraged development of an ethic of environmental management, an awareness of the interrelationship of all things. To accomplish his ends, he used whimsical humor and irony, imaginary journeys of atoms, tales of animals on his sand farm, and hunting lore.
He has been compared with Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, but Leopold’s writings are unique: they speak of the need of one species for another, of animate life valuing the inanimate in landscape, of going beyond Darwin to a holistic view that incorporates human respect for the environment that produced us.
MARY ELLEN PITTS
See also Nature Essay
Rand Aldo Leopold. Born II January 1886 in Burlington, Iowa. Studied at the Sheffield Scientific School, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, B.S., 1908; Yale School of Forestry, Master of Forestry, 1909. U.S. Forest Service assistant, Apache National Forest, Arizona Territory, 1909–11; worked in various capacities as a forester at Carson National Forest, New Mexico, 1911–2,4. Married Estella Bergeve, 1914: three sons and two daughters. Secretary, Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, 1918–19; associate director, Forest Products Laboratory, Madison, Wisconsin, 1924–28; game consultant, Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute, 1928–31; professor of wildlife management, University of Wisconsin, 1933–48. Contributor to various journals, including the Journal of Forestry and the Wisconsin Agriculturalist and Farmer.
President, American Wildlife Society, 1939, and Ecological Society of America, 1947;
founding member, and vice president, 1945–48, Wilderness Society. Awards: Permanent Wild Life Protection Fund Medal, 1917; Outdoor Life Medal; John Burroughs Medal, 1977. Died (of a heart attack while fighting a grass fire) in Wisconsin, 21 April 1948.
Essays and Related Prose
A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches from Here and There, 1949
Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold, edited by Luna B.Leopold, 1953
Aldo Leopold’s Wilderness: Selected Early Writings, edited by David E.Brown and Neil B.Carmony, 1990; as Aldo Leopold’s Southwest, 1995
The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays, edited by Susan L.Flader and J.Baird Callicott, 1991
Other writings: a book on game management (1933), and game surveys of various regions.
Callicott, J.Baird, editor, A Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987
Flader, Susan L., Thinking like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude Toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994 (original edition, 1974)
Lobiecki, Marybeth, Of Things Natural, Wild, and Free: A Story About Aldo Leopold, Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1993
McClintock, James, Nature’s Kindred Spirits: Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, Gary Snyder, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994
Meine, Curt, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988
Paul, Sherman, “The Husbandry of the Wild,” in Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre, edited by Alexander J.Butrym, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989
Potter, Van Rensselaer, Global Bioethics: Building on the Leopold Legacy, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1988
Sayre, Robert F., “Aldo Leopold’s Sentimentalism: ‘A Refined Taste in Natural Objects’,” North Dakota Quarterly 58, no. 1 (1991): 112–25
Scheese, Don, “‘Something more than wood’: Aldo Leopold and the Language of Landscape,” North Dakota Quarterly 58, no. 1 (1990):72–89
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