In Celebration of Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold is a revered figure of the 20th century environmental movement and remembered as a conservationist, an educator and a founding father of wildlife ecology. In addition to these roles, he is perhaps best known as an environmental writer and philosopher for his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac which calls for his vision of a land ethic. Leopold passed away just one week after receiving word his manuscript would be published. A dedicated group of family members and colleagues saw the manuscript was published, “reluctantly agreeing to one significant change: renaming the book from Leopold’s working title “Great Possessions” (Aldo Leopold Foundation). Leopold’s enduring legacy is truly remarkable; although A Sand County Almanac was published 70 years ago, his writing still seems prescient and ever-relevant.
Born on this day in 1887 (Happy Birthday!) Leopold grew up to study Forestry at Yale before taking positions at the newly founded U.S. Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico. While working at Gila National Forest, Leopold helped influence a proposal that ultimately led to the management of Gila National forest as a wilderness area, making it the first recognized as such in the United States. In 1924, Leopold was transferred to Wisconsin where in 1933 he published what is considered the first textbook on the burgeoning field of wildlife management. This led to a position at the University of Wisconsin, where Leopold chaired the nation’s first game management department.
While teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Leopold and his family dedicated their weekends and summers to their farm, a degraded plot of land outside of Baraboo, WI they purchased in 1935. The farm become an experimentation ground where the family tested conservation and restoration practices. In Leopold’s words, “On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger and better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere. It is here that we seek — and still find — our meat from God.” Once a dedicated conservationist, Leopold grew disenchanted with the conservation movement and felt that alone, conservation wasn’t enough to stop the destruction of land. He saw the wholesale destruction of land as intimately intertwined with modern life. Modern life was distancing people from the outdoors and obscuring how we viewed our dependence on the natural world. While the farm served as an ecological restoration laboratory, it was also a place where Leopold could embody his ideals, practice self-sufficiency and stewardship, and refine his personal philosophy -- his land ethic.
The observations and revelations Leopold experienced at the farm are the backdrop for much of A Sand County Almanac. It begins with a narrative section; Leopold takes us through a year at his farm, fluidly blending detailed observations and ambling ruminations. In later sections, Leopold lays out and explains his vision of a land ethic. Leopold’s ethic is based on an understanding that we are part of a natural community. He writes, “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, water, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” His ethic is one of moral responsibility; Leopold asks use to reconsider our relationship to nature and to acknowledge our inextricable connectedness -- then act accordingly. He explains, the “land ethic then reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land.”
Leopold considered his personal land ethic a learned and ever-evolving moral code and he attributed it to a lifetime of experience. He saw personal experience in the outdoors as fundamental to developing a land ethic of one’s own. His vision of a land ethic can be understood as universally attainable. Leopold’s message is democratic; individual human experience is the means to address broader socio-cultural attitudes. Leopold’s land ethic and writing are built on hope and the belief that individuals can enable change.
Some 70 years after it was first published, it’s message is surprisingly contemporary -- and ever more urgent. A Sand County Almanac is a beautiful narrative of a personal topography, deeply rooted in the local, yet profoundly expansive in scope. Leopold encourages exploration, reflection, receptiveness and critical thinking. Therefore, we invite you all to read this enduring book and evaluate it against your own experiences to honor its 70th anniversary.
Banner Image: Aldo Leopold with his wife Estrella and their family near the beloved “Shack” on the family farm. Photo attributed to US Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region 5.