4 minute read

Field Notes: Land Ethic

~by Jim Eagleman

“There are some that can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.”

These words printed in a book titled A Sand County Almanac, were written by scientist and biologist, Aldo Leopold. The book has occupied a prominent place in my library since I was first introduced to it as a student in the 1970s. Like Leopold, my professors knew the study of natural resources was more than just a discipline. Learning technical forestry and wildlife science was a human endeavor—how to work for the land and the people who inhabit it. We were to look for qualities any good manager should possess, not just those needed for wildlife and forest work. Good habits of a human resources manager, understanding how people act, how people live and work together, were also qualities for a natural resources manager. Psychology and sociology classes were requirements outside the school of natural resources. We learned how the human animal functions in its ecosystem.

Leopold graduated from Yale school of Forestry in 1909 and was first hired as an assistant forester for the U.S. Forest

Service. It was in this capacity he witnessed how western lands were utilized and impacted by livestock allowed to graze on federal lands. By 1922, he submitted a formal proposal for the Gila National Forest as a wilderness area.

Leopold saw conservation working only when applied with a deep sense of awareness. As we depend on nature for all living, necessary things—food, water, wood, oxygen—we must monitor our lifestyles in order to live compatibly with the natural world.

He said, “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher standard of living is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us in the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque flower in bloom is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

During his time, geese overhead and a pasque flower (one of the first perennials to bloom in a Wisconsin spring), were still uncommon. Now, of course, we see geese everywhere in the Midwest, but the pasque flower may be one to add to our search list. Both occupy a place in the ecosystem. And though important in their own capacity, he mused, “What merits to mankind might they possess?”

Leopold’s acceptance, and maybe his appeal, meant being direct, to write what he observed, even of pending doom. He speaks with caution and an awareness of consequences. Resource exploitation and habitat destruction were already pressing issues.

A Sand County Almanac was published in 1949. Leopold, a chair of new game management department at the University of Wisconsin, became disillusioned with man’s regard to the natural world. He said, “Conservation…is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our concept of the land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Leopold includes the human emotion of love. Can we love and respect the land the way we love and respect our spouse, our children? If I borrow something from the land, like I borrow something from a neighbor, ethically I am required to return it. Can I do this with the land?

Maybe not. To borrow something implies it’s returned unmolested and unchanged. But development of land means it will never be returned to its original state. In Brown County, we are obliged to decide what land requires while meeting the public needs.

An idea of ecological conscience evolved on how to encourage mankind’s thoughtful existence with the earth. He called it the “Land Ethic,” reflecting a conviction of an individual’s responsibility for the health of the land. “Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal and conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

I’ve often wondered if my professors knew what impact Leopold had. Understanding man’s existence with the natural world was an important lesson. They saw us as young and impressionable, while we were excited. Anxious to work in some capacity of natural resources, we were to be guided by Leopold’s words. What we gained from formal class lectures and labs was reinforced by our time afield and in the woods. But as any resource manager knows, it’s the people they work with, and for, that will determine how well we live on the land.