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.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The Spinoza of Market Street”

I ended last post with a suggestion that we can take Singer’s descriptions of a conservative, inward-looking world under threat of external forces as an opportunity for liberation.  What these demons, devils, ghosts and the like challenges was the static moral world of the peasant community.  This is a moral order reinforced in many cultures through folklore.  Grimm’s fairy tales, for instance, often end with a return to normalcy after a threat is confronted or to some for of justice being meet out by the cosmos (think of “The Juniper Tree”).  I wondered last time whether we should embrace the devil and refuse to “serve in heaven”.  No small amount of the moral universe of the religious community and the peasant commune is odious to say the least: oppressive marriages, fear of outsiders, wasteful religious traditions.  And as many of these same themes are worked out in The Spinoza of Market Street I thought I would on this some more.

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I want to take the other approach and try to look at these external threats from the perspective of the peasant moral universe.  It is relatively easy for outsiders, who do not benefit directly from the traditional rural community to see it as backward and reactionary at best, oppressive and delusional at worst.  James Scott has written a great deal about the moral universe of the peasant.  In his Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance he explores this moral universe’s confrontation with modern capitalism.  “The historically given, negotiated, moral context of village life is one in which, if only ideological, the cards are stacked against the newer forms of capitalist behavior.  This moral context consists of a set of expectation and preferences about relations between the well-to-do and the poor.  By and large, these expectations are cast in the idioms of patronage, assistance, consideration, and helpfulness.  They apply to employment, tenancy, charity, feast giving, and the conduct of daily social encounter.  They imply that those who meet these expectation will be treated with respect, loyalty, and social recognition.  What is involved, to put it crudely, is a kind of ‘politics of reputation’ in which a good name is conferred in exchange for adherence to a certain code of conduct.” (Jame Scott, Weapons of the Weak, 184–185).  For Scott, capitalism broke down this moral order based on reciprocity.  The response of peasants in various times and contexts was resistance.  This same argument was made in the field of Chinese history by Roxann Prazniak and Prasenjit Duara.  Both considered how peasants responded to the destruction of what Duara called the “cultural nexus of power,” or, to put it simply, the moral economy of peasant life.  In both authors’ perspective, the destroyer was modernity in its manifest forms.  For these thinkers, the peasant world was conservative, but it was collectively lived and cooperative.  Most importantly, the ruling classes were bound by the same moral universe.  They were a part of it and their right to command the society, to tax it, or to exploit it ended when the survival of the peasants was threatened.  This is perhaps what made “The Gentleman of Cracow” such an attractive figure. He promised to restore the normalcy that was devastated by a drought.

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In The Spinoza of Market Street we start to see evidence of the threats facing the Eastern European peasant community in the later nineteenth century.  As in other peasant cultures of the time, the shtetl was under threat from encroaching capitalism and the state.  In these stories, the state is still largely a distant threat, but it is a threat and it does challenge the moral order of the village.  In “The Shadow of a Crib” a new doctor arrived.  To help secure his position in the town he sided with the values and politics of the town against that of the Russian state.  “The apothecary, the mayor appointed by the Russians, the notary public and the Russian authorities were all partisan to Dr. Chwaschinski.  Since Yaretzky [the newcomer] did not attend church, the priest maintained that the doctor was no Christian but an infidel, perhaps a Tartar — and a heathen.  Some suggested that he might even poison people.  He could be a sorcerer.  Bu the destitute Jews of bridge street and the sand flats patronized Dr. Yaretzky.” (206)  The real test came during the conscription, when he aided the Jews by providing (for a fee) deferments for service.  More broadly than the state, and much more visible in most of the stories, is the mobility caused by a changing world more shaped by capitalism than ever.  Inequality led to greater mobility as poor beggars searched for work.  In “The Beggar Said So” we are introduced to a poor man looking for work as a chimney sweep.  In the cornerstone piece of this collection “The Destruction of Kreshev” the readers are introduced to Mendel.  “No one in Kreshev knew quite where this Mendel had come from.  One story was that he’d been a love child who’d been abandoned in the steets.  Others said he was the child of a convert. Whatever his origins, he was certainly an ignoramus.”  (289)  He was also a sexual threat, famous for seducing the women of the town.    Intellectuals trained in distant cities came in with new ideas.  While “the Spinoza” of Market Street spend his life with the classic Jewish philosopher, others came in with more radical worldviews.  One of the principle characters of “The Destruction of Kreshev” was Shloimele, who married Lise – a precious and intellectually-curious young woman.  Shloimele “had studied philosophy and the cabala, and was an adept in mystical mathematics, being able even to work out fractions which are to be found in the treatise of Kilaim.  It goes without saying that he had had a look at the Zohar and “The Tree of Life” and he knew “The Guide to the Perplexed” as well as his own first name.” (293-294)  This intellectualism leads Shloimele to sexual perversions and became a threat to the town’s stability when he convinced his wife to have sex with Mendel.

It is hard to deny that Singer seems to be on the side of the moral economy as it comes under threat of the modern world.  But let us not hastily paint it as social conservatism run amok.  As the scholars of peasant economies and peasant resistance have pointed out, resistance to the encroachment of capitalism and the state could only emerge from the moral argument.  That moral universe may have much we find repugnant but it nevertheless remains a source of significant power.  In the world today, some of the most significant (if possibly doomed) movements against capitalism come from the rapidly disintegrating peasant world (Zapatistas, Maoist rebels in India).