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)

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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)

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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.

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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.

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