'A Sand County Almanac' at 50
Fifty years ago, Aldo Leopold's ecological testament, "A Sand County
Almanac" was published. It was a posthumous book, appearing a year and a
half after Leopold died of a heart attack in April l948 at the age of 61.
A graduate of the Yale Forestry School and a 17-year veteran of the United
States Forest Service, Leopold had his greatest influence, during his
lifetime, as a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin.
But it is the "Almanac," his meditations on a Wisconsin River farm and an
unequivocal statement of conscience, that will carry his influence and his
good name down the generations.
Leopold's principal and extraordinary contribution to our world was to
articulate the idea of a land ethic. The human relation to land, he wrote,
"is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations."
Leopold believed that the basis of successful conservation was to extend to
nature the ethical sense of responsibility that humans extend to each other.
This idea has acquired tremendous force since "A Sand County Almanac" first
appeared. The fact that the idea now seems unexceptionable is a measure of
its widespread influence.
Fifty years is both a very short and a very long time in the life of a good
idea. The power of Leopold's argument—buttressed as it is by his clear,
vigorous prose—has not been blunted in the least. In fact, his argument
seems more urgently true now than ever. In the past 50 years Leopold's work
has helped drive the environmental movement. Yet the tendencies he lamented,
summed up in the phrase "despoliation of land," have accelerated almost out
Leopold will last not because he captured a moment or a feeling, though he
does both in the first sections of the book. He will last because we have
scarcely begun to work out the implications of his ideas.
He suggested an "ecological interpretation of history," which has only
recently begun to be written. He recognized that the "ability to see the
cultural value of wilderness boils down...to a question of intellectual
humility." He described a dynamic that still threatens wilderness: "the very
scarcity of wild places, reacting with the mores of advertising and
promotion, tends to defeat any deliberate effort to prevent their growing
still more scarce."
These are formidable ideas. But none are more challenging than Leopold's
land ethic. It requires a re-rooting in nature, a forsaking of the hope that
we can save wild or even open land on the basis of its economic value. We
are busy, Leopold says, "inventing subterfuges to give [nature] economic
importance." They will not work. There is a risk involved in creating a
truly ethical relation to the land. But Leopold believed in risk. "Too much
safety," he wrote, "seems to yield only danger in the long run."
-- Jay DeLong Olympia, WA
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