Aldo Leopold, Revisited

I had long heard of Aldo Leopold but never got around to reading his famous book till my sister put it in my hands a few weeks ago. Any book considered a classic almost certainly has a lot to recommend it, and this is no exception; but before getting around to that, I would point out what were, to me, some surprising features of Mr. Leopold’s behavior and opinions.

He was first a sportsman, a hunter, fisherman and trophy-hunter, concerned that the destruction of wilderness diminished the value of hunting, fishing and trophies, by bringing too many people and too much technology to bear: “…mass use [of land] tends to dilute the quality of organic trophies like game and fish, and to induce damage to other resources such as non-game animals, natural vegetation, and farm crops. p. 171”

It was as a sportsman that he came to love Nature, even as a child. “At the end of my second season of featherless partridge hunting I was walking, one day, through an aspen thicket when a big partridge rose with a roar at my left, and towering over the aspens, crossed behind me… It was a swinging shot of the kind the partridge-hunter dreams about, and the bird tumbled dead in a shower of feathers and golden leaves. p. 121”

Before relating the above anecdote, he had told, in a section called “Red Legs Kicking,” of killing the last duck that had not left for winter. He achieved this with exquisite knowledge of fowl behavior, guessing that if one were around it would come to the only place not totally iced over. There he waited for a long time in the cold. “I cannot remember the shot; I remember only my unspeakable delight… p. 121”

Whatever one thinks of such sport it is clear that, as a young man, Aldo Leopold was prone to wanton killing. “When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

“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… When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks… I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise. But seeing the green fire die, [in the old wolf’s eyes] I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view. p. 130”

Leopold distinguishes between the young trophy-hunter and the mature. “The trophy-hunter is the caveman reborn. Trophy-hunting is the prerogative of youth, racial or individual, and nothing to apologize for.

“The disquieting thing in the modern picture is the trophy-hunter who never grows up, in whom the capacity for isolation, perception and husbandry is undeveloped, or perhaps lost. p 176” He makes clear that he has no interest in fishing or hunting stocked ponds and reserves; and that said, what were the options for a sensitive sportsman? Basically, the party was over. Thence, he addresses himself to preserving what he calls the “tag-ends” of wilderness, and he is pessimistic to the point of despair.

“The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish. p. 101”

I felt this way myself, visiting Zion National Park: anyone could see it was beautiful, but also that it had been much more beautiful; in short it looked manned. The ultimate experience of this kind, for me, was to climb to the peak of Diamond Head on the island of Oahu. There was a well-polished steel handrail on an ascending ledge that might have been dangerous, and the path we walked alongside it was worn to death.

Leopold was disdainful of ignorant farmers. He says if you asked one why his Illinois ground grew so much more corn than other places he would say, soil. But if you asked him what the white flower was by his fence he would shake his head and say a weed, probably. Apparently Leopold did not realize that most of us are ignorant of most detail, even in subjects that sustain us. Consider an auto mechanic, for example. All we have as a species to progress with is the knowledge and leadership of a very few experts.

And Leopold was such an expert. The very idea of ecology must have been something of a novelty in his time, yet he appreciated how interconnected was the web of life, right down to the pests one might have thought needed elimination. Collectively we were headed the wrong way. “Science has given us many doubts but it has given us at least one certainty: the trend of evolution is to elaborate and diversify the biota. P 216”

He saw that any hope for future human enjoyment of wilderness lay in its study, not slaughter. Gadgets, including especially, improved transport, made human influence upon Nature ever greater; so the best way to stay involved with it was with camera and notebook.

It is tempting to say off-handedly that he proposed a ‘Do-as-I-say, not as-I-did’ solution, and let his own testimony stand as indication of what he was. But this would be less than half the story. And it would overlook his life-long affection for, and great knowledge of, the land and wild things upon it. There are many examples of this love and knowledge, right down to the mouse working under snow, but his close observation of plants is one of the most striking.

He says that during every week from April to September there are on average ten wild plants coming into bloom in Wisconsin. And, discussing one of them, he observes, “the compass plant, or cutleaf Silphium, is a man-high stalk spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. P 45” He tried to dig one up to take home and found that after a half-hour of hard work, the root was still expanding. The only way to kill it was by continuous mowing or grazing, which happened, naturally or unnaturally. On Wes Jackson’s experimental farm in Kansas, there are examples of prairie perennials with root systems extending ten feet. They are washed clean for exhibition.

Leopold hoped that humanity might develop a land ethic; and though there was no indication of any such development at the time of his writing, he prefaced this notion with a description of primitive social ethics that had changed. Once we had slavery and summary execution by authorities. We were past that, but in earlier days such practices were considered normal. Might we, then, have a land ethic?

Nowadays, and in Leopold’s day, it is/was customary to regard the land on which we live as no more than an economic commodity, taking from it what it could yield and disregarding all but those facts pertaining to our own pleasure and short-term profit. Leopold wished for an ethos whereby “If the private owner were ecologically minded he would be proud to be the custodian of a reasonable proportion of such acres [meaning those cared for ethically]. p.212”

Here is an idea I had lacked previously. “The most important characteristic of an organism is that capacity for internal self-renewal known as health.” It explains health in terms other than mere synonyms.

“There are two organisms whose processes of self-renewal have been subject to human interference and control. One of these is man himself (medicine and public health). The other is land (agriculture and conservation)… It is now generally understood that when soil loses fertility, or washes away faster than it forms, and when water systems exhibit abnormal floods and shortages, the land is sick. P 194”

There is the possibility of improvement: we might regard ourselves as part of the ecology which has the land as its base. Were we to think like this, we would develop some appreciation for the intricate interrelationships on which our continued existence depends. The land is our own origin, as well as everything else’s, and we need to do right by the parts we use, leaving other parts untrodden. Says Leopold: “This is a plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel or study the origins of their cultural inheritance. p. 188”