Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1830-1832)

I am going to take a leisurely approach to reading the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, using as many entries as necessary in order to come to an understanding of him and his place in the American tradition. Over the course of a couple of extended delays, I have come to terms with impossibility of the schedule I set for myself. And as this project of reading the entire Library of America from an anarchist perspective is a wonderful experience, I see no reason to rush things too much.

Hawthorne’s work is divided into two volumes: the stories and the novels. The volume of tales collects Hawthorne’s stories from Twice-told Tales, Mosses from an Old Manse, The Snow-Image, A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, and Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys. I suppose there are about 100 stories collected within. My rough plan is to take on around 10 of these a day and see what comes of it. The editors arrange the stories in order of publication so we will be beginning along with Hawthorne’s literary career, in 1830. (Fanshawe was self-published a couple years earlier and we will get to that in due time).


Hawthorne was 28 when his first sketches and tales were published and he had not yet left New England, but he had seen the whole of it, from rural Maine to Boston. Something we notice straightaway from Hawthorne is that New England provides one of the central tensions in his work. New England was home to both an American literary tradition as well as an authoritarian tradition (seen in colonial-era British aristocracy and in the Puritan autocrats) and it was never very clear which tradition was dominant.  In any case, breaking free from the influence of tradition was a near impossibility.

I read the following stories: “The Hollow of the Three Hills,” “Sir William Phips,” “Mrs. Hutchinson,” “Dr. Bullivant,” “Signs from a Steeple,” “The Haunted Quack,” “The Wives of the Dead,” My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” and “Roger Malvin’s Burial.” Some of these are short stories, but others are biographical sketches. “Mrs. Hutchinson” (1830) is one of these, retelling the story of the life of Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan heretic. Hutchinson’s life essentially maps out the conflict between the authoritarian and the libertarian. Her crime was a rejection of the spiritual authority of the Puritan clergy and her argument for the spiritual equality of believers. Of course, brought before the court made up of these established clergymen, the outcome was not in doubt. Her punishment was exile and she was transformed into a vagabond, traveling first to Rhode Island and then to New York, where she was later killed by Indians. This, as we see in other early Hawthorne tales is one of the central conflicts in New England. The conflict between vagabondage and belonging parallels the conflict between authority and freedom.


Take for example, the description of a changing society in “Dr. Bullivant,” another biographical sketch. They sketch is set in the context of a changing New England, under siege from an English state eager to reign in the colonies, which they attempt under the leadership of the much maligned Sir Edmund Andros. A passage from this sketch is worth quoting at length: “The early settlers were able to keep within the narrowest limits of their rigid principles, because they had adopted them in mature life, and from their own deep conviction, and were strengthened in them by that species of enthusiasm which is as sober and as enduring as reason itself. . . . When therefore the old original stock, the men who looked heavenward without a wandering glance to earth, had lost a part of their domestic and public influence, yielding to infirmity or death, a relaxation naturally ensued in their theory and practice of morals and religion, and became more evident with the daily decay of its most strenuous opponents. This gradual but sure operation was assisted by the increasing commercial importance of the colonies, whither a new set of emigrants followed unworthily in the track of the pure-hearted Pilgrims. . . . Freebooters from the West Indies and the Spanish Main, — state criminals, implicated in the numerous plots and conspiracies of the periods, — felons, loaded with private guilt, — numbers of these took refuge in the provinces, where the authority of the English king was obstructed by the a zealous spirit of independence.” (36–37) The point here, is similar to the one Melville made in some of his Pacific writings. Mobility is a key to freedom, stagnation is its enemy.

A changing New England

A changing New England

Another theme in these early Hawthorne tales is burden we carry from history. It is in “The Hollow of the Three Hills” about a young beautiful woman who visits an old crone in an attempt to wash away her dubious past sins. However, washing away these sins is not as easy as walking away or moving to a distant land. This is the lesson of the rather humorous tales “The Haunted Quack” (1831). It is about an apprentice quack doctor who learned to brew and sell false potions to gullible people. After venturing on his own, the doctor (Hippocrates Jenkins), poisons an old woman and flees, only to be haunted every night. He flees and spends the last of his money running from the police. Eventually, he turns up at the place he started and learns that the old woman did not die and that he was sought after for his incredible healing skills, not for prosecution. He returns to his old craft of peddling fake medicines. The ghostly appearances are not explained but were likely a psychic projection of his guilt, a guilt that could not stop him from his immoral career.

It is most striking in the longer tale “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” (1832) which combines the legacy of British aristocratic traditions with the burden of the past and the necessity of independence from it. The story follows a young man who is seeking Major Molineux, a British military officer for a job. He is in the old mindset of patronage, duty, and family duties. He is an outsider in Boston and therefore is taken to be a tramp. Indeed he has all the appearances of a tramp since he has little money, no local connections he can call on except for the “Major Molineux,” and no job. Furthermore, with the American Revolution brewing in the background, most Bostonians are not eager to help this sniveling youth find his aristocratic patron. All the youth can do is wander around the town asking for leads on Molineux. He is finally discovered as old, frail, and in the process of being publicly humiliated by the Bostonian crowd (tar and feathered). The narrator is advised to seek his own way in the world. In a real sense, they are asking him to take his place as one of the American revolutionaries, overthrowing the old system, represented by the aging and weak Major Molineux. With this, Hawthorne seems to place himself on the side of rough, contentious liberty. This does not mean that the past will always be easily overcome.


Aldo Leopold: The Last Decade

A Sand County Almanac came at the end of Aldo Leopold’s career in professional wildlife management and conservation. Much of his career was spent in the United States Forest Service. He was thus an agent of state-directed conservation and “management.” As his life spanned from the Progressive era to the height of the New Deal project, it is not surprising that he looked to the state for answers. As my last post tried to map out in broad terms, over the course of the 1930s, Leopold lost faith in “civilization” and the state as agents of conservation. By the end of the 1930s, he was looking to the “farmer as conservationist” instead. If A Sand County Almanac was Leopold’s last words, it is striking that the state is almost absent. Surely it has a place in the background and he probably never thought that it had no role in rectifying the relationship between humans and the land, but Leopold was largely thinking in terms of an ethical transformation led by various vernacular forces. I even can see Leopold moving toward an idea that there is an utter disconnect between all aspects of “civilization” and the land.


In 1941, in a then-unpublished manuscript “Yet Come June,” Leopold wrote: “Empires spread over the continents, destroying the soils, the floras and faunas, and each other. Yet the trees grow. Philosophies spread over the empires, teaching the good life with tank and bomb. Machines crawl over the empires hauling goods. Goods are plowed under, or burned. Goods are hawked over the ether, and along lanes where Whitman smelled locusts blossoms morning and evening. Quarrels over godos are planted think as trees along all the rivers of America. . . . Trucks carrying goods race the railroads. Cars carrying consumers of goods race the trucks. Yet the trees grow. . . . Chemists and physicists harness power, biology harnesses plants and animals, all for goods. Politics is the redistribution of goods. Literature and the arts portray the drama of the haves and have-nots. Research is not to decipher the universe, but the step up production. Yet the trees grow.” (457)

Leopold tackled education in a 1942 conference talk called “The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education,” which worried that the place of the land in education rested on economic utility: career preparation or policy formulation. As a result wildlife education was largely rooted in the uses of the science. Of course, by this point, Leopold was done with such concerns. Instead he view that wildlife education should aim “to teach citizens the function of wildlife in the land organism.” (466) He even foreshadows the growing influence of ecology in other disciplines. Of course now, scholars in fields as far afield from biology as history and philosophy have discovered that their work is enriched by incorporating the ecological. Leopold juxtaposes wildlife education (what we may now call ecology) with “conservation education,” which is concerned with the preservation of one small part of nature for human use, often at the expense of others. “The basic fallacy in this kind of ‘conservation’ is that it seeks to conserve one resource by destroying another. These ‘conservationists’ are unable to see the land as a whole.” (528) In other words, these conservationists are unable to “think like a mountain.”

Seeing like a state. A Tennessee Valley Authority project

Seeing like a state. A Tennessee Valley Authority project

Leopold’s turn away from the state as an agent of conservation can be seen in another essay, “Land-Use and Democracy,” published in 1942. At this point he is able to look back at the entire New Deal project and its role in conservation. What he sees are the accoutrements of conservation with little meaningful movement toward a revision of our relationship with the land. “Just so we deal with bureaus, policies, laws, and programs, which are the symbols of our problem, instead of with resources, products, and land-ises, which are the problem. Thus we assuage our ego without exposing ourselves to contact with reality.” (476) This should certainly be familiar to us. As we are driving off the cliff of climate change and extinction it would be hard to find a government that does not claim to be moving toward responsible resource use (or sustainability or whatever euphemism is popular now). And what of the concerned public. Most, Leopold points out, are content voting for politicians who promise to back conservation or sending money to groups engaged in good work. That is, laying responsibility on “bigger and better laps.” (477) Democracy seems ill-suited to change the use of the land. As individuals our ecological decisions are often horrifying (putting a dead tree with many years of life ahead of it in our homes for the holidays or eating wheat produced through the destruction of the prairie), even if our sentiments are with the land. If the public cannot be trusted, it is up for government (technocracy) to mitigate our worst tendencies. Yet, government makes a hash of it. Either government simply has no power over what is most necessary to pay attention to (such as the day to day use of land involved in agriculture) or taking well-meaning and even beneficial actions that simply do not help much (artificial reforestation, regulating game fish populations, or rodent control.

For Leopold, the conclusion is that meaningful conservation must come from the bottom up: “collective self-renewal and collective self-maintenance.” (482) For this to happen, perhaps we need to accept that moral or cultural change is a prerequisite.

While most people will likely only read A Sand County Almanac as a record of Aldo Leopold’s vision, I think there is an important lesson that comes from looking at the evolution of his thought from the beginning of his career until the publication of that monumental text. In Leopold we have a state conservation worker who learned that the state looks at wildlife with one set of eyes (to use James Scott’s phrase, conservationists tended to “see like a state”). These days we still tend to look to governments (or now transnational governing institutions) to act to fight climate change. This is precisely what Leopold was warning against when he argued that conservation must come from the bottom up.

Aldo Leopold: The 1930s, Limits of State-directed Conservatiion

This blog has been quiet for a while, once again. There are a few reasons for this. One is that I have been burdened with completing my upcoming book, due out in a few months. A second reason is for the past two months I took a job to make some extra cash. That accomplished, I quit in hopes of sustaining a few other projects and working as much as possible on my Philip K. Dick project and some articles related to Taiwanese history. Freed from my temporary status as wage slave, I can return with full energies to educating myself.

I left off with Aldo Leopold’s writings from the 1910s and 1920s. Now we come to his writings of the 1930s. It is during this period that Leopold settled permanently in Wisconsin and began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, but before that he worked briefly in some of the New Deal-era conservation programs.

In Aldo Leopold’s textbook Game Management (1933) we find “thinking like a state” is really at the heart of conservation. Such state centrism takes the problem of sustaining the right population of “wild game for recreational use” and sees it as essentially a problem of managing different variables (predators, forests, number of hunters). An interesting of his discussion on game management is that he connects it to agriculture, saying that the line between farming and management is not so wide. However, more profoundly, he notices that game management has been a part of civilization since the beginning of agriculture. Agricultural societies did not only seek to tame a small number of crops and animals for their use, they almost immediately took steps to ensure a steady population of wild game for hunting. Rules established by the Hebrews, the Romans, the Mongols, and Tutor England differed greatly but they had in common a fear that the people, if not limited, will overuse the commons. The tools they had were not so different than the tools available in Leopold’s generation: faith in defense of game through private ownership, game farming followed by release into the wild, cover control to make hunting easier, and punishments for individuals over harvesting the commons.


The anti-statist critique could sound something like this: If the state manages wildlife, it ceases to be wild and becomes an extension of cultivation at best. At worst, it becomes sterile and machinelike, like the farmed forests that produce wood for paper mills but fail to sustain an eco-system. Leopold predicts this critique. “There are still those who shy at this prospect of a man-made game crop as at something artificial and therefore repugnant. This attitude shows good taste but poor insight. Every head of wild life still alive in this country is already artificialized, in that its existence is conditioned by economic forces. Game management propose that their impact shall not remain wholly fortuitous.” (315—316) Leopold, writing Game Management confesses to the end of the wilderness.

One thing I appreciate about reading Leopold is this total honesty about the human abolition of nature and the catastrophic consequences of it. Although he often took on the role as an agent of the state, advocating a host of policies to help manage wildlife, he knew that the state was ultimately doomed to failure and that civilization often runs counter to our basic human desires. While civilizations struggle to create sustainable systems (political, economy, social), they are always doomed to failure. This is a basic lesson of history It is interesting that around the same time that Leopold is writing this down in “The Conservation Ethic,” Arnold Toynbee was working on his massive theory of history, which brought home the idea that civilizations are always doomed to collapse. How then, is conservation (itself a form of management of the commons) possible without taking on all the other values of “civilization.” These include: the idea that nature should be conquered and that this is a benefit for humans and that a good

life comes from increasing consumer goods and technology. In this, Leopold provides a bit of prefigurative politics, within the structure of the state. Yes, the lesson of history is that civilization seems incapable of interacting with nature ethically, but conservation at least provides a space to workout, experiment with alternatives. This is his position in a short essay “The Arboretum and the University,” where he suggests that the university arboretum is a testing ground to experiment in a new definition of civilization as one working with nature. “If civilization consists of cooperation with plants, animals, soil and men, then a university which attempts to define that cooperation must have, for the use of its faculty and students, places which show what the land was, what it is, and what it ought to be.” (353) It may sound slightly naïve given the deep challenges we face, but is this not the essence of prefigurative politics: Our effort to create spaces where the future we desire is worked out. Leopold may have been too willing to work with fully despicable institutions to affect his ideal, but he is hardly the worst person to do so.

leopold Leopold lived at a time of dramatic changes in the power of the state over society and over nature. The New Deal made possible the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and other laws that would profoundly shape the relationship between Americans and their environment. This is not to suggest that unregulated capitalism did much better by the land. The Dust Bowl was caused by reckless misuse of land and overproduction in the West. The Agricultural Adjustment Act helped solve that ecological problem. The massive engineering projects, like the hydroelectric power projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority are more troubling, because they did seem to continue what Leopold warned about: the attitude that civilization and progress require the conquest of the land. “We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” (410) This is from his 1938 essay “Engineering and Conservation.” I wonder if it is at this point that he starts to grow more ambivalent about the role of the state institutions as being the agent of prefiguring.

Leopold's shack

Leopold’s shack

The following year, he came out with an essay “The Farmer as Conservationist,” where is proposes a more vernacular option. There is a practical aspect to looking at the farmer as an alternative agent. It is not so much that farmers have some sort of cosmic, spiritual encounter with the land through their work, but rather that they—through vernacular practices—can break free of some of the economism that makes some of the state-initiated plans so devastating. Some projects that may not provide immediate returns, but help conservation can be identified by people closer to the land. The central question for Leopold in this essay is: “Can a farmer afford to devote land to fencerows for a patch of ladyslippers, a remnant of prairie, or just scenery?” (429) He holds out hope that this is possible in America because of the large amounts of available land. Whether possible or not, the move toward conservation requires the destruction of the logic of crass economism. Thankfully, Leopold reminds us, America is founded on a struggle for independence. “We Americans have so far escaped regimentation by our own ideas? I doubt if there exists today a more complete regimentation of the human mind than that accomplished by our self-imposed doctrine of ruthless utilitarianism. The saving grace of democracy is that we fastened this yoke to our own necks, and we can cast it off when we want to, without severing the neck. Conservation is perhaps one of the many squirming which foreshadow this act of self-liberation.” (430)

Aldo Leopold, Writings from the 1910s and 1920s, Managing the Commons

In 1909, Aldo Leopold earned his Master of Science degree and begins work in the US Forest Service in the American southwest, then the Arizona and New Mexico territories. His first jobs there included leading forest survey teams. Around 1915 Leopold became involved in the game management. By 1920, Leopold is actively involved in forest erosion and other land questions in the region. Throughout the later half of the 1920s, Leopold moves around taking a position in Wisconsin at the Forest Products Laboratory of the US Forest Service. By 1930 he is well known among game management workers, is on the cusp of publishing his major textbook on the subject and being published nationally. His field journals also show that he travelled to wilderness areas in Canada and the Midwest during these years.


There are few things we can say about Leopold’s early career from this summary. First, Leopold was closely tied to the Progressive-era conservation movement and its institutions, such as the US Forest Service. During the early twentieth century, the service became more focused on protected forests rather than its earlier role of measuring and doling out the government-owned forest resources. Another thing we notice is that Leopold moves toward his “land ethic” as early as 1930, which we see in his evolving interests. While first focused on the management of wildlife for human use (“game management”), he eventually began to see the land itself as fragile (his studies of erosion). By the later 1920s, although continuing his work on game management, started writing on the importance of protecting the wilderness.

Leopold was a state actor throughout these years as well. He responded to, and tried to shape, policy regulating forests. The most important question he grappled with the question of the commons. At least since Gerald Winstanley and the movement of the Diggers in 17th century England, the survival of the commons has been one of the most important questions facing revolutionary movements. As Peter Linebaugh argued in The Magna Carta Manifesto, the Charter of the Forest has been at least as important as the Magna Carta in ensuring our rights to the “common treasury.” It is not a betrayal of those rights to confess that the questions of the commons is vastly more complex now than it was in the time where it amounted to rights to hunt on the king’s land.

Apache National Forest: Leopold's workplace in the early 1920s.

Apache National Forest: Leopold’s workplace in the early 1920s.

I went through Leopold’s collected works from the 1910s and 1920s, consisting of essays, speeches, manuscripts, field journals and letters. We see that he was constantly concerned with the competing interests of different groups. Now while taking a deer or some firewood from the king’s land in medieval Britain did not have any impact on other people, Leopold was dealing with real competing interests in the national forests, between “game farmers” and “wild lifers,” and between humans and the wildlife itself. Leopold’s sentiment in this period seemed to be that these were not necessarily unbridgeable divides. The correct rules and the right policies are all that is necessary to prevent the overuse of one resources or preserve the wilderness for the use of all. The protection of access to all required some form of regulatory state. In a 1919 essay on this subject her wrote: “We can immediately draw one conclusion from the foregoing discussion of the proposed commercialization of game-meat and hunting privileges, and that is that to grant the wishes of the radical Game Farmers would be tantamount to adopting the European style of game management. A wide-open market, almost universal game farming, commercialized shooting privileges, and some incidental overflow shooting for the poor man – is this not the sum and substance of the European system? It is. And the European system of game management is undemocratic, unsocial, and therefore dangerous.” (202) Now, while the market seems to be dangerous to democratic access (which for Leopold includes sustaining access for even minority uses – such as wilderness hunting – not just the most popular use), he knows some broader understanding of market logic is necessary. If the state will protect some land for hunting, for instance, it will need to manage the wildlife populations there, according to some market logic. Ultimately, a state-regulated market is his stop-gap solution, because at least that would protect democracy and minority rights. This is all discussed again, with more foreboding, in “Goose Music,” a manuscript from 1922, in which Leopold predicts that majority recreations, like golf, will swallow up the wilderness from people who enjoy hunting and fishing. In another place, Leopold concedes a bit of seeing like a state when he argues that protecting wilderness is just another form of “land use.”

Superior National Forest, which Leopold visited in 1925.

Superior National Forest, which Leopold visited in 1925.

Does such “management” of forests, even if it means just keeping some places off limits, require a centralizing agency like the US Forest Service? This century has proven that the largest threats to the environment have come from external and relatively disinterested players. Carbon polluters in the global north who externalize the costs of climate change to the poor, corporations who strip-mine mountains for investors hundreds or thousands of miles away, or states committed to industrial development who destroy the lives of thousands for “development projects.” Centralized power may provide some force to conservation efforts, but it is more often much more damaging than a few too many hunters or tourists. I suspect local, vernacular control over resources might be better, but in even this area Leopold introduces an important, and very American problem: the booster spirit.

In an essay, “A Criticism of the Booster Spirit,” Leopold shows how indifferent local governments can be to their own environment during their quest for a loosely defined “prosperity.” The goal of boosterism is to attract capital, tourists, industries, and “growth” to your town using advertizing campaigns, speakers, favorable taxation policies, institutions and parks. While promoted by the local governments, it is almost always indifferent to the local needs (economic or ecological). “The booster is intensely provincial. A year ago he demanded a National Part for New Mexico. He did not know where or how, but he knew jolly well why: A National Park would be a tourist-getter of the first water, and tourists are to be desired above all things. They come, they see, they spend, and they are even known to come back.” (240) Leopold thought this was an American perversion, but the “booster spirit” is now global. In Taiwan, local “development” projects are often concerned with attracting Chinese tourists, conferences, or investment. Some are now calling for a free trade zone to compete with the recently-opened Shanghai free trade zone. Boosterism is interested only in the short-term, attracting this years tourists. What suffers, of course, is the local population, vernacular economies, and “sound economic reason.” As Leopold says, the booster, although provincial is completely oblivious to the land, the animals and the forests of the place they are promoting, unless they promote interest in the town.

I suppose the solution is not to focus first on the local or the national or the global causes to the systematic destruction of nature, but to move away from market-driven conceptions of nature.

Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949): Part Two

“Seeing Like a Mountain” in the second part of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac touches on the dramatic turn in his own mind about wildlife management. In earlier years, Leopold believed that the killing off of wolves would increase the deer population, thus ensuring the survival of deer (one type of wildlife) for the use of hunters. In a sense, this was seen in the early twentieth century as a mutually beneficial act, a way of mitigating the divide between the human need for outdoor sports and nature. “Seeing like a mountain” suggests the poverty of that view. Although he did look into the “green fire” of the eyes of the wolf, he did not need to in order to take the broader perspective. Leopold’s realization was that the mountain needed the wolves to prevent the destruction of the mountain ecosystem by uncontested deer populations. “I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn.” (116)


The second part of A Sand County Almanac branches out from Sauk County Wisconsin and draws from Leopold’s experiences in wildlife management and conservation across the country, particularly the Southwest, where he worked for almost two decades after he earned his degree. While the first part are more impressionistic, in which he hopes to allow the dynamics of the woods around his farm to speak for itself. Starting with part two, he embraces a more polemical tone challenging many of the assumptions about conservation that he embraced throughout his career. Centrally, his idea is that wildlife management is fundamentally flawed because it requires an intrusion by humans. Managing the wilderness means the end of the wilderness. “Thus always does history, whether of marsh or market place, end in paradox. 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.” (89)

When reading this I was thinking of the consequences of this for human freedom. This goes beyond Leopold’s belief that human’s requires some relationship with nature to be free. What I considered was that even within human societies Leopold’s point about managing is true. James Scott’s books Two Cheers for Anarchism and Seeing Like a State argues about our preference for vernacular organizations rather that state-managed organizations. He shows how the vernacular order tends to look messy but work very well (the bartender providing mental health counseling or the local naming of roads to match their real purpose are two examples he gives), but state-run attempts at order (Stalin’s collectivization or general urban planning) tend to both destroy the vernacular order and make things objectively worse. We are reminded that dangerous, disorderly and often bizarre nature can teach us about the virtue of the vernacular in our own societies. A minor extension of “seeing like a mountain,” if you will.
A similar lesson about nature comes from “Cheat Takes Over,” an essay showing that “solidarity and co-operation among plant and animal pests” exists much like the human “honor among thieves.” While Kropotkin suggested that such mutual aid tended to exist only within species, Leopold sees it among entire subcultures of plant life, the “ecological stowaways.” (136—138)


The third and final section of A Sand County Almanac, titled “The Upshot” is made up of four essays. The first of these “Conservation Esthetic” takes on the dilemma of humans in industrial societies seeking wilderness, while that quest rapidly destroys that wildness. Mass-use of these resources necessitates (it seems) a degree of artificiality, whether it is a road or a pier or a restroom. Mass-use also seems to destroy the reason humans seek the wilderness, solitude and communion with nature. Leopold could not fully answer the questions brought up by democratic access to the commons, although he was burdened by it his entire life. It may be one of his most important questions for free societies to grapple with, as we all know too well.

“Wildlife in American Culture” makes the same point but goes deeper into the American affection toward nature. “Wildlife once fed us and shaped our culture. It still yields us pleasure for leisure hours, but we try to reap that pleasure by modern machinery and thus destroy part of its value. Reaping it by modern mentality would yield not only pleasure, but wisdom as well.” (160)

“Wilderness” begins to propose a solution. Some wilderness needs to be sustained for “the primitive arts of wilderness travel” such as hunting and foot travel. This may be undemocratic but as most of the woods are already conquered by the “mechanized recreation” this amounts to minority rights. Another part of wilderness needs to be sustained for science, mostly untouched so that they can understand how the land sustains itself. Finally, humans needs to devote some part of their land to “permanent wilderness.” This is only a “rear-guard” action, however. However, if this is the best we can do, we will expect wilderness to slowly decline.
This leads up to Leopold’s famous “Land Ethic,” the final essay of the A Sand County Almanac. Its beauty is in its simplicity. The Land Ethic consists simply of including the land (and now we can add oceans and air) to our ethical decision making process. It does not require accepting any of the metaphysical baggage that comes with some aspects of deep ecology. For Leopold it was as simple as extending our obligations to one another to the lands that we have power over. “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.” (176–177) Leopold does not fail to add that for many farmers at least (if not quite so much for the people partaking in “mechanized recreation”) this is in their self-interest anyway and an easy sell.


A Sand County Almanac came at the end of Leopold’s life. It was accepted for publication just days before his death of a heart attack after helping his neighbors with a fire. The rest of the Library of America collection consists of his assorted writings, his journals, and some of his letters. In the coming posts, I will explore Leopold’s ideas with an eye to his changing values as well as take on some of the very practical issues of the management of the commons in free societies.

Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949): Part One, The Almanac

I first encountered A Sand County Almanac when I was in high school biology. At the time I suppose I thought that the teacher (I forgot his name) was just wasting time reading selections from Aldo Leopold book to use, but in hindsight I wonder if I should have appreciated his generosity in sharing Leopold’s words with us. In any case, I did not appreciate it at the time.  There is nothing I can do about my ignorance and the lack of curiosity I had as a teenage. I wonder if I went to high school in any place except Wisconsin, would my teacher have had the same relationship to Leopold? (The growth of importance of the text is certainly ending whatever provincial character it had.)  I can say, living now in Taiwan, at the time of year that I miss my home state most of all, reading Leopold’s little book is a joyous experience.  While living in Taiwan, I suspended by Library of America subscription, but I did make a point of having this recent publication shipped here. Published in 2013, the LOA collection of Leopold’s writings is a wonderful contribution to the series.

coverFor those who have not read A Sand County Almanac, I can only urge that they pick it up. It only takes a couple hours to read through the first section, the almanac proper. It is a series of vignettes from his life on a rather unproductive farm in Sauk county Wisconsin. The vignettes are arranged throughout the year, starting with “January Thaw” and ending with “65290” (about chickadee’s winter survival). Each month has at least one story, some have several. This is followed by a broader set of essays set in other parts of Wisconsin or in other states but like the almanac are autobiographical and tell complex stories of ecological systems through his own experiences. The first part are some of his more formal essays on conservation, including “The Land Ethic.”


Leopold always combines a serious scientific approach while casting doubt on the human ability to understand the minds, perspectives, and lives of the animals he writes about. Much of the power of the work comes from his subtle celebration of the diversity and otherness of the natural world. The reader sees this in his attempt to explain the inexplicable survival of chickadee 65290, banded by Leopold as part of his local conservation work. Falling short of learning very much, the banding experience gave Leopold a chance to just enjoy being in awe of the otherness of the chickadee, and in particular this small life. “I know so little about birds that I can only speculate on why 65290 survived his fellows. Was he more clever in dodging his enemies? What enemies? A chickadee is almost too small to have any. That whimsical fellow called Evolution, having enlarged the dinosaur until he tripped over his own toes, tried shrinking the chickadee until he was just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat. Then he regarded his handiwork and laughed. Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.” (81–82) Even in the small locale of his farm and surrounding forests, there was so much unknown about the plants and animals. One need not travel far to find radical otherness.  Take for instance his discussion of the evening “sky dance,” put on by the woodcocks. “I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May. Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance… It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them. ” (29)

A second thing that struck me while reading these vignettes was the deep sense of natural history. He reminds us that with every human act on nature we are intruding (and often ending) creatures with experiences deep into the past, making us neophytes at best. Most clearly laid out in “Good Oak” about the cutting down of an aged oak tree. With each pull of the saw blade, he goes deeper and deeper into that history, reversing (if only in his mind) the damage done to the Wisconsin landscape. ” The mental journey ends with the birth of the oak tree in the 1860s, “when thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered? They settled it, but they did not see, nor do we yet see, that the same question applies to the man-land community.” (15) Later, he writes: “It is an irony of history that the great powers should have discovered the unity of nations at Cairo in 1942. The geese of the world have had that notion for a longer time, and each March they stake their lives on its essential truth.” (20)

Another message, and one that is particularly important. is that we need the land in order to be free and creative. On one level, we learn about agency from observing the land and its residents. They are not simply following evolutionary programming but are engaging with their world. In one chapter Leopold describes himself as a landowner with tenants, but his sovereignty is completely contingent on the acquiesce of the animals.  Bottom-up political systems had always been there, it just had to be observed.  But I will say more on these radical political conclusions of A Sand County Almanac in the following posts.

leopoldWith a book like A Sand County Almanac, I find it useful to just enjoy the beautiful prose and the profoundly simple prose, which can carry such significant ideas. I wish people could speak so clearly.