I own a well thumbed Special Commemorative edition of A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, by Aldo Leopold. It was published in 1989, one hundred years after his birth and hosts a faithful introduction by Robert Finch. It’s an assembly of pieces originally intended by the author to be called, “Great Possessions.” Sadly, Leopold died unexpectedly a week after Oxford University Press accepted his submission. It was re-named Sand County Almanac, and the essays were edited by his son, Luna, friends and colleagues. The process must have been, at once, difficult for them yet cathartic.
It is a shortish book of thoughtfully communicated knowledge, loaded with ideas and with a spine of steel. Leopold bore close witness to human/nature discordancy, and his anger emerges from time to time. It is not beyond reason that those enlightened with understanding basic ecological principles should find emotional distress, solastalgia 1, in the destruction of such systems ~ home ~ as well as a profound sense of the illogic. As Leopold said:
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”2
As someone who has had a lifetime’s passion for nature and the living world, I’m familiar with the strong emotion that is solastalgia, though I’m comforted this book intended to counter it. At the time, of course, there was no single word for it in English.
The accompanying drawings by Charles W Schwartz, are perhaps undervalued by reviews in the past, and bring a sense of biophilia 3 firmly into the occasion. Combined, the language and imagery don’t ostracise the reader but retain a strength of statement. They present a case for both a shift in ethical considerations of natural and technological worlds, and a cultivation of ecological literacy, in a multi-disciplinary sense, with consequential positive actions of humankind. The book is a clarion call.
Here, I introduce Leopold, the book in three sections, the “Land Ethic” and his implicit, yet broad, call for ecological literacy.
Leopold was a Yale forestry graduate, employed later by Gifford Pinchot’s newly formed USDA Forest Service. Pinchot, controversially, advocated commodification of nature as human resource, in the belief (and I think mistaken), that humans would consent to abundance on the understanding that rewards are reaped economically. Although influenced by the nature-as-utility argument (he was a farmer, after all), Leopold went on to reject Pinchot’s purely anthropocentric, economic determinism.
Leopold also helped found the Wilderness Society, as an agency for implementing evidence into preserving pristine ‘natural’ environments. He secured the first US professorship in ‘wildlife management,’ now viewed as wildlife ecology, at the University of Wisconsin. At this time, he purchased eighty acres of barren farmland, The Shack, and began attempts to restore it to balance. Sand County Almanac is an expression of bearing witness to ‘the law of diminishing returns,4’ as the human species cast dark shadows upon the land. Consequentially, Leopold seeks to shift human consciousness to an integral way of living, within what we now describe as Earth’s ‘planetary boundaries.5’
The Book in Three Parts
The essays, written over a twelve year period, focus on the human intersect with the biosphere, and works toward a cordial, non-abusive relationship, or community with the land and its varied inhabitants over and above property ownership.
Moreover, the book is itself an act of love, it’s obvious Leopold’s intent was to share and nurture this core emotional response in others. His ethical ruminations have inspired a number of environmentally minded philosophers to respond, develop and inform on human relationships with nature, contributing to the development of the new academic field of environmental ethics.
Part I ~ A Sand County Almanac (or shack sketches)
This section contains verbal and visual images of Leopold’s experiences at The Shack in monthly episodes. They are brief narratives on local natural history, noting some of the seasonal explorations, or ‘god-like’ decisions, he made in attempting to reconcile the needs of nature with those of a more sympathetic farmer; the food and heat requirements of himself and his family. They are underpinned by experience and knowledge, though the latter being more subtle at times, driving the drama of the narrative. There’s a smattering of human history (natural and social, national and local), and the patterns of ownership, abuses and restorative processes.
And there are questions, some unanswered, and so by their presence, engender trust by the reader in the vulnerabilities he shares. A wonderful example is found in the section on March, The Geese Return. Why do geese annually return to corn growing on old prairies? Is it the nutritional content of the new flush of corn, or an ancient homing instinct to the lost prairie? He notes:
“…I am well content that it should remain a mystery. What a dull world if we knew all about geese.”
Leopold is an educator, a good one, and well qualified in ecological understanding. But he has a humble idea of his limits. Those questions too are the drivers of discovery. Sometimes, as Rilke says, we simply need to ‘live the questions’6.
Schwartz’ illustration of geese on the ground calling to a skien above implies their language is, perhaps, beyond our full comprehension. But implicit is the need for us to recognise they have their own language, and a need to express it.
Part II ~ Sketches Here and There
Fundamentally, this section recounts Leopold’s life experiences, mistakes and successes in acquiring ecological conscience. His use of language is a little less conversational, evolving to a critique of who/what is lost to human excess. Loss is the theme, and a disturbing indictment of human action. More so, he defines moments of enlightenment, crossroads, junctures in his own life, where he viscerally realised an absolute need for change. Experience, perception and logical reasoning all contribute to change of either habit or ethic. The section entitled, ‘Thinking Like A Mountain,” illustrates.
Leopold recounts, unsentimentally, the hunting of a wolf pack by shotgun, and his personal witnessing of a she-wolf’s moments of death…
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes…I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither wolf nor mountain agreed with such a view.”
Along with regret, there’s a duality of expression here. That the mountain has consciousness just like that of the wolf. Leopold, a spiritual man speaking, along the lines of philosophical panpsychism; Schopenhauer, Spinoza and, more recently, Skrbina.
Simultaneously, we interpret a mechanistic view, not about taking life per se, more in denying the wolf her particular role in which she was born to participate, in the wider scheme of things. Leopold, the ecologist, speaks, in parallel with enlightened scientists; Carson, Wilson and Paul R. Ehrlich.
Trophic cascades (ecological phenomenon on the role of predators play over trophy levels in food chains within the overall function of an ecological system), are only now receiving the attention they so deserve. Predators are inherently of value but also instrumental to entire ecosystems. There are many other prescient environmental issues foretold in SCA, and I mention some in conclusion.
Part III ~ The Upshot
In this section, the more philosophically edifying of the three, Leopold maps how to begin to reverse nature-offensive processes. There’s courage in doing so, in a time of post-war economic adversity, when there will have been pressure on primary resources as the chief price to pay for War. Leopold saw a chance for a different kind of ‘recovery’ though, sadly, his quiet yet firm eviscerations of the economic paradigm still struggle to be heard among the neoliberal raucousness of globalisation.
As Finch summarises these essays:
“They breathe a distillation of a lifetime of thinking and living in nature.”
The four pieces, not least The Land Ethic, are a culmination of his own analytical processing, and also a guide. We may shift our values, priorities and, therefore, our modus operandi. If we perceive our place within nature (as opposed to without), recognise that we are part of a community, then we can truly perceive degradation of the biosphere as self-defeating. There isn’t necessarily a virtuousness here from Leopold, but a pragmatism.
The Land Ethic
Leopold’s Land Ethic, though not technically articulated thus, is one of an holistic or ecocentric value set. Ecological systems and supporting chemicals and elements combine to be core to existence and, therefore (to Leopold, it appears), the whole requires moral standing and protection. Other environmental philosophers who came later, such as Arne Næss, Rolston III and Callicott, reinforced this holistic approach.
Human clearance of the post ice-age wildwood and prairie mosaic was well underway before industrialization but certainly accelerated with demand in timber for shipping, trade and war together with grazing pastures to feed a booming population. In our Western Civilization, we can combine this instrumental need with John Locke’s assertions on life, limb and Property as a God given natural ‘right.’ A simple equation emerges. Natural Resources (non-human nature) plus human labour equals Property. It is ‘good’ to aspire to own property. What property we deem useless can then be thrown back into nature. Nature, plundered, becomes our dumping ground.
“We abuse land because we see 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.”7
The land ethic extends our community to embrace soils, waters, plants and animals ~ the land. By doing so, there’s an inherent ecological conscience, driving our own human and individual responsibility for the wellbeing of the whole. To Leopold, Conservation is the process of facilitating self-renewal of the land, and this he valued highly.
“By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends other-wise.”8
Leopold pinpoints one of the strongest arguments against commodification of nature, interestingly, in proposing ecological complexity as being the great scientific discovery of his time.
“Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance* is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Conservation does not equate with development as Pinchot had stated. He could see there has to be more done to prevent abuses running away with themselves in the name of human advancement. In this way, Leopold forecast correctly some of the problems associated with the concept of sustainable development and ill-conceived boundaries in valuing nature in monetary terms. Natural Capital advocates still appear to make the same mistake, by implication 9, within an even more neoliberal system of exponential growth, accumulating wealth and increasing gap between rich and poor.10
Leopold steps further, with a powerful plea for love and respect for ‘land,’ for places in their entirety, locale-specific and intimate, and I am presuming he thought similarly of oceans, et al. In this sense, he inspired the Deep Ecology movement, heralded by Arne Neass, 11 in objecting to the human-centred approach of Pinchot and, later, others such as Passmore and unequivocal anthropocentrism.
The problem, of course, is if someone asserts that individual lives are worth sacrificing in order to maintain the whole. I can’t agree this is an acceptable moral tenet. Each life is intrinsically worthy, each individual being as a will to flourish. Sure, we humans, and other species also, need to take life as part of food webs, but we ought to be doing so only according to need not want or excess.
“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.”12
Is this really a truism? The decision to take life for the benefit of what we may ‘deem’ to be whole, say in conservation terms, given science already reveals to us that ecosystems are dynamic and evolving (and with, at least, some uncertainty always present), can be clearly framed as an anthropocentric process. Let’s not forget, anthropocentrism stands accused, and rightly so, of being the driver of environmental degradation. Can we realistically expect the same ethic to somehow begin to work positively? I think not.
Further, land (or sea) is community only when there is life present. The inorganic matter, water and sunlight that supports the life is of worth, of course, but does not have the moral standing of life. There is an important distinction to be made here, as advanced by later biocentric environmental ethicists, such as Taylor 13 (egalitarian) and Attfield 14 (consequentialist). It is the lives of individual intrinsic worth, which constitute community to which Leopold wishes us to acknowledge, love and belong. Inert materials in support may not be the community, but provide sustenance and, therefore, deserve protection and certain obligations, but not the same moral standing.
Geologists dream of land without the ‘green stuff’ because they can analyse the rocks, gravels and sands clearly. The fossil life is important too, the life that once was, as it informs of the evolution of life, our origins and the importance of temporal and climatic events. But I still could not assert that a planet full of fossils would be as worthy of protection as a planet full of life, sentient or not.
As Attfield says:
“Rather than ecosystems embodying all value (as Callicot used to hold) or at any rate somehow embodying independent value (as Rolston sometimes seems to suggest), our obligations in their regard could relate primary to living creatures, present and future, without the importance of ecosystems being in any way downgraded or diminished.” 15
Albrecht delineates a love of the whole (living and inert), thus the human struggle against environmental injustice against home and place, as Soliphilia.16 Inherent in the emotional concept there must be moral considerations of the interests of individual non-human, as well as human life.
Ecoliteracy (or ecological literacy)
“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home,” (Snyder)
When one becomes intimately familiar with the living systems of home, place, your locale, your ‘wild’, as Leopold did, almost to perfection, it’s difficult not to develop a deep sense of respect and love for them. I argue, the relationship we may develop for individual beings, the butterfly, otter or bee, their daily, monthly and seasonal patterns stand proud. From these relationships, the guidance of strong mentors, and any hard-wired remnants of biophelia, comes the strong desire to protect and conserve. Finch says:
“Though there are genuine bitterness and pain in the essays, he remained convinced that most environmental mistakes are due, not to some inherent baseness in human nature, but to ignorance.” (xxi)
Ignorance* leads to the disconnect and Leopold even admits his own in the case of the she-wolf. His ecological conscience, derived from both formal study and self-learning, supplied insight into the general lack of human awareness as the main driver of economic and environmental destruction. Russell says:
“The desire to understand the world and the desire to reform it are the two great engines of progress without which human society would stand still or retrogress.” 17
I understand well, as a woman with a life long passion for such beings, the vitality of both affinity and observation of the non-human world. Leopold was an educator, but also an advocate, and his agency for both is perhaps the authenticism in the message of this book. Education, via storytelling/ narratives, is an ancient human methodology to further the human cause, enhanced this last few centuries by the glorious invention of the printed book. Now, we are able to apply it all to further the causes beyond the human realm. The ‘cultural harvest.’18
Ecoliteracy is a term coined by American educator David W. Orr (who has served on the board the Aldo Leopold Foundation), and physicist Fritjof Capra, to promote nurturing ecological values, and ultimately the well-being of the Earth and its ecosystems, through mainstream education (inside and outside of the classroom). It’s obvious that Aldo Leopold’s authenticity is deeply influential to the systems overview apparent in the development of the idea. They have taken forward the idea by suggesting a more egalitarian process of mentoring and exposure to ecological systems.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” (Angelou)
An ecologically literate society would be a sustainable and resilient society that did not destroy its own ecological roots. Centre stage, the student, child or adult, an individual human person with empowered potential to address urgent and complex environmental issues whilst being nurtured herself into a life of competent opportunity, peace and fulfilment.
This is not simply an ode to science, per se, but also to colour, to creativity, to storytelling. Leopold, wary of higher education at the time deliberately ignoring ecological concepts, asserted labelling the process of sharing ecological understanding wasn’t as necessary as the act itself. There is a difference between what may remain a mystery without harm to human/nature integration, and what is lacking in our human understanding leading to definite problems, demonstrated as baselines shift and degradation exponentially accumulates.
I have enormous faith in the altruistic powers of an informed community, the route to true sustainability and peaceful coexistence. There’s a natural justice to it. Cross disciplinary, multi- intelligences (not simply academic), applied action. Not one person should be excluded; an exciting prospect.
SCA is many things, an expression of a man deeply connected to nature, but also communicating his dual desire to both berate and educate his fellow homo sapiens. In doing so, it’s a final act of honour for what he loved deeply. I am reminded just what a diverse, enriching book of knowledge, observation and judgement it is; way ahead of its time, and in many aspects of ecology, responsibility and political conscience towards non-human life and the land.
Many of the recent wildlife campaigns emerging from Conservation NGOs are prescient in the book. Examples include using highways verges as wildflower and pollinator reserves, the vitality of farming set-aside, trees as the staple of slope stability and rainwater absorbency, predator re- introduction and the positive effect upon trophic cascades.
What is clear is that idea of anthropocentric focus is problematical. We cannot isolate ourselves from all other life. We are part of a complex web, sharing one biosphere. Any notion that we homo sapiens prevail at all cost is a huge misnomer, and a dangerous one. It is legitimate to question anthropocentric behaviour and policies, even if purporting to support life.
After Muir and Thoreau, along with later great American writers and thinkers of the twentieth century on the human relationship with nature, such as Carson, Wilson, Erhlich, Snyder, Dillard, Carroll, Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” has a lasting modern cultural explorations of place and landscape, and is still influential with modern writers such as Robert MacFarlane 19 and Rebecca Solnit 20.
Not only does Leopold set out a vision in order for ecologically aware ‘dissenters 21’ to act on their 22 dissent, he highlights the need for a higher accord or purpose of our communing with nature to enhance and enrich our perception and connection with nature at an intimate level, and a re-connection with ‘place.’ In this sense it is a call for understanding and an ecological conscience ~ Ecoliteracy.
I suggest, however, it is the non-human communities which make the place community, the interconnected lives and the will to flourish. Therefore, my own biocentric leanings are affirmed. None-the-less, SCA rightly asks the following of us.
Are we simply owners of land as chattels, purveyors/traders of property, heading down a cul-de-sac of obsessing over a materialist, wealth accumulating economy, whilst the ability to produce is itself undercut by the very ethic of land as commodity?
Or are we members of the community of interconnected life, with responsibilities in loving and, therefore, nurturing the land, and so benefitting our own sense of liberty in reaping a rich cultural harvest in doing so?
As Leopold says,
“Perhaps a shift of values can be achieved by re-appraising things unnatural, tame and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free.” (ix)
The answer is surely the latter ~ after all, there is natural justice to it.
1 <https://www.academia.edu/8713454/Psychoterratic_Geographies> (G. Albrecht)
2 Leopold, A “Round River” Oxford University Press, New York (1993) p 165 3 Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
3 Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
4 Leopold, A ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ Oxford University Press (1989) p vii 5
6 “Letters to a Young Poet” Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Xaver Kappus, translated by Reginald Snell, Courier Corporation (2002) Chapter Four.
7 Leopold, A ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ Oxford University Press (1989) p viii
8 Converging Philosophies and a Land Ethic: Leopold text, Aldo Leopold, “The Conservation Ethic.” Journal of Forestry 31(6): 634- 643 (1933)
12 Leopold, A ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ Oxford University Press (1989) p224-225
13 Various ‘Environmental Philosophy From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology’ 3rd Ed. Prentice Hall New Jersey (2001) ‘The Ethics of Respect for Nature’ by Paul Taylor p71
14Attfield, R ‘Biocentric Consequentialism & Value-Pluralism: A Response to Alan Carter.’ (2005) Utilitas 17 pp 85-92
15 Attfield, R “Environmental Ethics” Polity Press, Cambridge (2011) p41
16 <http://psychoterratica.com/soliphilia.html> (G. Albrecht)
17 Russell, B. “Marriage and Morals” Routledge, London and New York. (2009) p184
18 Leopold, A ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ Oxford University Press (1989) p ix
20 https://orionmagazine.org/article/live-event-robert-macfarlane-and-rebecca-solnit-on-nature-writing/ (R Macfarlane & R. Solnit)
21 Leopold, A ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ Oxford University Press (1989) p viii
22 ibid p176