Aldo Leopold: The Father of Wildlife Ecology
Nowadays, the ideas that living things are connected and that nature is a process of delicate balance may seem commonplace, but they were not always part of public consciousness. We now think of these things as the science of ecology, which has become the basis for much thinking about the natural world. Like many leaps forward, we can point to one person who advanced the idea of wildlife ecology into the public view: Aldo Leopold.
Sometimes called “the father of wildlife ecology,” Aldo Leopold used his writing to explore the ecological web in an approachable, down-to-earth manner. He was one of the first to popularly expound the idea that the natural world is a system of interdependent parts, and he argued strongly for wilderness preservation.
Leopold’s practical approach to nature is a product of a varied professional life marked by both field in academic work. Like many nature writers, he began his nature observations as a child and would go on to receive a degree in forestry from Yale. In his early career, he worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico but later became a Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin.
Throughout his career, Leopold authored numerous articles and even a textbook on wildlife management, but he is best known for his work, A Sand County Almanac, which is a series of essays describing a year at his family’s hobby farm in Wisconsin.
A Sand County Almanac
Leopold’s seminal work was published posthumously in 1949. Structured as an almanac, this work offers a month-by-month description of the flora and fauna that Leopold encounters on his farm in rural Wisconsin. Some call it a quiet book, in that it seems to only observe natural processes and reflect on them, as opposed to, say, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which combines nature observation with pointed critiques of modern life.
Leopold’s prose offers an approachable voice married to concrete natural description, which can teach the reader both how to observe nature and how to track the seasonal changes in their own homeplace. This implied lesson is one of the joys of A Sand County Almanac. You can learn not only about Leopold’s observations but also learn how to make them yourself.
The book also includes a series of essays. Some are sketches of the landscapes Leopold visited, but there are two that are famously referenced and that argue for a new relationship to nature.
For this reason, some believe A Sand County Almanac to be a revolutionary text. Read on, and you decide.
The Land Ethic
Probably Leopold’s most famous concept, “the land ethic” that he suggested advanced the idea that ethics should apply not only to people but also to land.
Always a realist, Leopold recognized the difficulty in getting the public, especially industry and government officials, to care about land that had no apparent economic value. Nonetheless, he felt that it was the duty of conservationists to extend the sense of ethics to land. If humanity did not gain a land ethic, then we could not expect environmental destruction to halt.
So, the question: How does one know if they are acting ethically towards the land?
According to Leopold, “[a] thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
That’s a clear definition, and many people, if they tried to follow it, would find it taxing. However, the land ethic serves as a guidepost that conservation-minded people can strive to meet. Even if you fail, the efforts will mean an improvement over the status quo relationship to landscape.
Thinking Like a Mountain
Because Leopold worked in both forestry and wildlife management, he witnessed firsthand the destruction that human activities—even well-intentioned activities—could cause. In “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he shares a story when he participated in the very destruction he would come to decry.
In an era where wolf-killing was commonplace, Leopold and some other men fired on a wolf and her pups who are hunting a deer. As the grown wolf died, Leopold saw “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” a fire that has since come to symbolize something unknowable that animates animal and wilderness life.
In time, Leopold realized that as wolves were exterminated, the deer overpopulated and denuded their landscape, which in turn led to the deer’s demise as well (or as Leopold puts it, the deer would be “dead of its own too-much.”)
“Thinking Like a Mountain” suggests the value of long-term thinking and implies that human interest should not always take center-stage when considering nature.
Though published in 1949, A Sand County Almanac still delights readers and remains relevant even today. Given the current climate crisis, Leopold’s insistence on developing both an ethical relationship towards nature and a holistic long-term view should make his work required reading.
A Sand County Almanac is available on Amazon and likely also at your local bookstore.