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)

Lynd Ward, “Vertigo” (1937)

Lynd Ward’s final wood block novel, Vertigo, completes a series of statements on how capital had crushed the American people.   All of novels expressed to some degree the fate of individuals trapped into systems of oppression, alienation, or poverty.  In most of these novels, these forces were abstract, mythical, or not even seen.  Only in Madman’s Drum do we see the persecutor in any human terms.  In Song without Words, the horror of the world in the 1930s is represented in terrifying images, rats, or symbols.  In Vertigo we get the most complete and human portrayal of the victims of Great Depression America as well as the oppressors.  We are reminded that we can name names and that the actions of powerful people directly cause our suffering.  We may want to blame “the system” and we should.  But attacking “the system” should not prevent us from pointing out criminal behavior of our bosses.


Ward wrote on Vertigo: “During the thirties there were very few people, whether artists or not, who could remain uninvolved, either on a direct personal level or indirectly as human beings of conscience.  It seemed that only the morally crippled or the socially irresponsible could fail to react to the obvious effect that vast, complicated, and impersonal social forces were having on the substance of so many individual lives.” (654)  Vertigo attempts to give some precise blame rather than express ennui at “impersonal social forces.”

Vertigo is divided into three stories.  The first (“The Girl”) considers a young woman’s life from 1929 to 1935.  The second (“An Ederly Gentleman”) documents a year in the life of a rich capitalist.  The third (“The Boy”) examines one week in the bleak life of “The Girl” boyfriend or fiance.  There three lives are interconnected.  More importantly, the girl and the boy suffer due to the decisions of the elderly gentleman and in different ways the elder survives on the sacrifice of the two lovers.

The girl is quite talented musically.  Her father gives her a violin as a gift and she matures into a musician.  In 1929, she invites her father to her graduation.  Here the working class community comes together.  A man there gives a speech about how the working people of America built the country.  The girl and her sweetheart leave the graduation and attend a carnival.  They look into a crystal ball and see their future.  She will be a great musician and he will become an engineer.  This is the American dream as it was sold to the Americans of the 1920s.  Work hard and your effort will be repaid with success.  At the carousel, the boy grabs a ring and uses it to propose to the girl.  In 1930, the relationship is made more formal and the boy goes off to look for work.  In 1931, she hears no news of the boy.  (It is likely in this year that the final two sections of this story take place.)  In 1932, we learn more about her father.  He is an accountant at Eagle Corporation of America, but is laid off.  He purchases a life insurance policy and tries to kill himself.  He only wounds himself thanks to the girl’s intervention.  The next three years are examined only in passing.  We learn that she plays for her father during his recovery, that the family has to sell most of their possessions, and her story ends with her in the relief line.


The elderly gentleman is the owner of Eagle Corporation.  It begins with the man purchasing art, dedicating a Great War memorial, giving out food to the poor at Thanksgiving, and attending a concert.  He is clearly concerned about his image.  In January, we learn more about what he does.  He is a frail man.  Ward shows him naked in an early plate to emphasize this point.  He needs help to dress and had servants prepare his food.  At a company meeting, he learns that profits are down.  Many people give advice to him.  In February, the man vacations in some warm climate and relaxes on the beach.  In March, he returns to the city and oversees the docking of all the worker’s wages.  In April, these cuts continue with lay offs and reduced breaks.  In May, the man hires a private detective agency to crush any labor activism, which, of course, emerges in response to these cuts.  Despite his earlier charities, the man is a typical, cynical capitalist.  In June, the strike heats up into violence.  In July, although he is falling ill the man achieves victory over the strikers by brutally suppressing it with the help of the nation guard.  In August, he falls seriously ill.  In September, he nearly dies but is saved by a blood transfusion.  In October, he remains ill. In November, he learns that his new measures were a success and the company profits have increased.


The boy, who is indeed “the girls” sweetheart, who never returned from his quest to claim the American dream, is the focus of the third part.  It takes place over one week.  In a prelude, we learn that he was the son of a grocer who abused him, but remained optimist about his dreams to become a engineer.  We also learn that he left town after a violent confrontation with his father.  He had difficulty finding work on the road.  On Monday, he witnessed a terrible car accident.  He steals the dead victims clothes.  On Tuesday, he is on a train but gets off and looks for a job in the city.  On Wednesday, he passes a sign recruiting for the military.  He considers that, but sees a someone who looks like “the girl.” He realizes that without money he cannot return to her.  He follows a “Help Wanted” sign but the large number of applicants makes his success unlikely.  On Thursday, he goes to a job placement agency.  He gets a job and goes to the site but when he gets to the construction site he finds that the building has been delayed.  On Friday he finds a job but learns it is strikebreaking.  On Saturday, he almost robs a man leaving a bank but another robber gets to the victim first.  The police intervene and kill the mugger.  He finally gets some money by selling his blood.  It will be this blood that is later used to save the life of the elderly man.  The final plate shows the boy and the girl, worn down by their experiences on a carnival ride, a sad reminder of their earlier happy dreams.


Ward is arguing in Vertigo that the American dream has been crushed and that it has been crushed by identifiable individuals, such as the elderly man.  We are not in the realm of stock images an allegories, which is where we started in Gods’ Man.

I want to read Ward’s work as a window into the populist culture of the Great Depression, a reminder that although we live in an age where film, television, and literature praise wealth and the powerful that there was a time when America’s culture had a radical potential.

Ward pioneered a type of story telling that liberated the reader from the tyranny of the printed word.  More like an oral tradition, his novels have a meaning that changes on retelling.  Maybe we need more of this today.