Leopold’s Land Ethic Legacy Remembered

Mural from Growing Power, Milwaukee, WI
Mural from Growing Power, Milwaukee, WI

I am typing awkwardly on my laptop twenty thousand feet over the midwest–taking a break from the pages of my yellowed copy of Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. If you don’t know this book, you should.

Soon the plane will touch down in Madison, Wisconsin, and on the final night of the Society of Environmental Journalists conference, we’ll celebrate with a party and bonfire and meal at the Leopold Center near the iconic “shack” from which the conservationist nurtured his love of the intricate systems of nature some decades before the word “ecology” came into common language.

And as I turned those pages–first turned this month forty years ago in my college junior year–I realized it had been from Leopold I learned for the first time that one could write with both a passion for language and a love of land.

This gentle epiphany settled in as we put on our seat belts for the landing. Leopold’s seeds of influence had, some thirty five years later, germinated into the light. They had sprouted in simple narratives and photography of nature of the Appalachians and of our home in Floyd County, powered by the energy of a resurrected urgency to speak on behalf of the earth in word and image.

We don’t know, as Leopold would not live to know, the small but powerful influences that guide and encourage others in our sphere of contact, how we mold and channel the values and hopes of those around us through our words, and more, by our example. Leopold’s book was published posthumously by his son the year after I was born. I wished I could thank the man for teaching me what I did not know at the time I was learning.

It is for his eloquent honesty and his genuine respect and reverence for the land around him–for the “good oak” in his forest, for cranes and geese and grasses; it is for his meticulous perception of the dance of season and cycle; and it is for his vision and bold voice as a steward-educator and wilderness ethicist that he is remembered and loved.

Aldo Leopold last stood outside the doorway of his modest country cabin in the spring of 1948. I will soon stand in that same doorway where he attended with such deep care the symphony of changes in the seasons in that prairie marsh. I will hear what he heard: the melancholy sounds of out-bound sand hill cranes against the sunset, the querulous chevrons of geese winging south, just over the horizon, following the flow of the Wisconsin River.

A favorite Leopold quote says that “we abuse land because we regard 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.”

It is from this basic tenet that his “environmental ethic” is derived. If ever we needed to act on that lesson, it is now. At this week’s conference of environmental journalists from all over the world, the issues will be focused at the level of the global community and the earth: on our imperiled water resources, on the daunting prospects of feeding a growing population, on sustaining viable oceans and creating resiliency in our basic life-support systems in the face of certain climate chaos. Think globally; write locally.

I tried to imagine Mr. Leopold suddenly in our presence in the conference sessions in Madison this year. Of much he would be proud, especially at how his influence has guided his state to become an example of stewardship, particularly in the realm of wildlife and wetlands management and environmental research towards sustainability.

But I was saddened and ashamed to realize that Aldo Leopold, viewing the state of the world after a sixty year sleep, would find we have largely not yet acted together on his words to form a planet-wide land ethic. We have failed to embrace the soil and oceans as the foundation for community. The last words, a moral call to our critical times, are his:

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise.”

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I read Leopold for the first time only a few years ago, and I think I shall read it again soon because it was so beautifully written and a joy to read. All I remember about my first reading was being amazed at how Leopold realized all the truths that he did so very long ago, which the majority of us are only now becoming aware of.