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.

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In 1941, in a then-unpublished manuscript “Yet Come June,” Leopold wrote: “Empires spread over the continents, destroying the soils, the floras and faunas, and each other.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.

Lafcadio Hearn, “Chita” (1889)

In the age of ecology and our current environmental problematic it is impossible to read lines like this without imagining Lafcadio Heran as prophetic.  “How often she herself had wondered–wondered at the multiform changes of each swell as it came in — transformation of tint, of shape, of motion, that seemed to betoken a life infinitely more subtle than the strange cold life of lizards and of fishes, — and sinister, and spectral.  Then they all appeared to move in order, — according to one law of impulse: — each had its own voice, yet all sang one and the same everlasting song.   Vaguely, as she watched them and listened to them, there cam to her the idea of a unity of will in their motion, a unity of menace in their utterance–the idea of one monstrous and complex life!  The sea lived: it could crawl backward and forward; it could speak! — it only feigned deafness and sightlessness for some malevolent end.  Thenceforth she feared to find herself along with it.” (130)  The ocean as a malevolent and destructive force that easily overpowers humanity and its feeble designs is the major theme of Chita, Hearn’s novel considering the impact of a Louisiana hurricane.  The handful of humans who populate the novel are largely passive in the face of nature’s devastation.  It is not so much revenge, as we might find in 21st retellings of such stories, shaped by concerns about climate change and the human impact on nature.  Instead, nature is closer to the Lovercraftian gods, indifferent to human concerns with a purpose and consciousness of its own.

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The story begins with a long description of the lands and waters of the lower Mississippi, from New Orleans to “the islands.”  This description takes up around 1/5 of the short novel.  We immediately realize that the author is not concerns with humanity.  As the description unfolds we are introduced to the hurricane.  The human impact on the islands is limited.  “There are no telegraph lines, no telephones.” (88) Humans resort to hope and the divine for they have no technology that can salvage their homes, boats, and lives.

As we learn more of the human world, we discover that it is deeply divided by class.  A “great hall” is hosting a dance of “pleasure-seekers” when the hurricane hits.  Of course, nature respects no class boundaries and the dance hall party is broken up with the same indifference as is the homes of the impoverished locals.  It does however create an equalization of status that the poor scavengers can take advantage of.  “And swift in the wakr of gull and frigate-bird the Wreckers come, the Spoilers of the dead, — savages skimmers of the sea, — hurricane-riders wont to spread their canvas-pionions in the face of storm; Sicilian and Carsican outlaws, Manila-men from the marshes, deserters from many navies, Lascars, marooners, refugees of the hundred nationalities, — fishers and shrimpers by name, smugglers by opportunity. . . There is plunder for all — birds and men.” (95-96)  Hearn seems to lump these working poor into the same category as nature, indifferent and moving in with the same consciousness as scavanger birds, but we know better.  Nature may not be capable of consciousness of revenge, but the exploited and embittered underclass certainly are.  When the facade of civilization breaks down and equalizers power, so that those with a piece of paper declaring their wealth, and therefore power over others, find that that paper has no more worth than any other ink stained parchment, the revenge will be had.

One rich character, assumed lost on the storm, returns to find that he was forgotten with little pomp or concern.  Hearn writes: “Seldom, indeed, does it happen taht a man in the prime of youth, in the possession of wealth, habituated to comforts and elegance of life, discovers in one brief week how minute his true relation to the human aggregate, — how insignificant his part as one living atom of the social organism.” (117)  We cannot help but notice that this parallels the fate of all the humans in the delta, discovering that they are insignificant in the face of Nature.

The plot from this point focuses on the discovery, by a young religious woman named Carmen, of a young orphan who is given the name Conchita (Chita).  There is a moment of triumph over the indifferent Nature when Chita learns to overcome her fear of the water and takes up the skill of swimming.  Through this the ocean goes from being something to fear to something that gives life.  Chita becomes the means for Hearn to carry the story in a circular fashion back to the pristine state before the hurricane.  “Thou primordial Sea, the awfulness of whose antiquity hath stricken all mythology dumb; — thou most wrinkled living Sea, the millions of whose years outnumber even the multitude of thy hoary motions; — thou omniform and most mysterious Sea, mother of the monsters and the gods, — whence thine eternal youth?  Still do thy waters hold the infinite thrill of that Spirit which brooded above their face in the Beginning! — still is thy quickening breath an elixir unto them that flee to thee for life.”   (133)

Nature is not done with the characters.  In the final pages of this short novel we learn of an epidemic disease racing through the delta.  We are left with the same feeling of helplessness that we started with.  Hearn ends the novel with Carmen calling out for aid from God.

I have quoted extensively from Chita because the novel really should be read as an literary experience rather than for its plot.  The argument, is summarized in the books epigraph by Emerson “But Nature whistled with all her winds, Did as she pleased, and went her way.” (73)  We could read it as a warning or as a rebuff to the late 19th century optimism in human progress.  Hearn sets the novel in a place where the major gains of the 19th century were not evident, but yet some of its greatest sins (slavery and inequality) were deeply rooted.