A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is a classic of environmental literature and is quite good, with beautiful sketches of Leopold’s life and work on a sand farm in Wisconsin and his travels through Mexico, Canada, and the American west.  These sketches alone would make the book well-worth reading, but his underlying philosophy is also very solid, particularly in his recognition that conservation cannot be grounded in economic motives or even motivated by taking pleasure in the wilderness.  Rather, conservation must be founded on an ethics of the land, one in which contributing to the integrity and (importantly) beauty1 of what he calls the “biotic community” (essentially all the organisms living in a given habitat) is morally good and harming this community morally wrong.  So far, excellent and true.  Yet, the actual grounding of this ethic was lacking, resting largely on a gesture towards the beauty described in the opening sections of the book and a vague mention of Darwin.  This weakness stems, I think, from my one real quibble with the book.

The quibble is that Leopold tends to cast the mindset of his present (i.e. the late 1940s) as a perennial one, when in fact it is quite modern.  As a consequence, he’s not able to fully diagnose the severity of the problem nor is he able to draw on the wisdom of the past, a fault that ultimately undermines his arguments and cripples his ability to construct a truly robust land ethic.

For example, he writes about mourning the passenger pigeon, a bird once so numerous that its flocks blotted out the sun for miles, now vanished:

To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons

Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 112

Certainly poetic, but to cast loving what was as a newly emergent phenomenon is rather silly.

how terrible it will be,
when all the wealth of this world
lies waste,
as now in various places
throughout this middle-earth
walls stand,
blown by the wind,
covered with frost,
storm-swept the buildings.
The halls decay,
their lords lie
deprived of joy,
the whole troop has fallen,
the proud ones, by the wall.
War took off some,
carried them on their way,
one, the bird took off
across the deep sea,
one, the gray wolf
shared one with death,
one, the dreary-faced
man buried
in a grave.
And so He destroyed this city,
He, the Creator of Men,
until deprived of the noise
of the citizens,
the ancient work of giants
stood empty.

He who thought wisely
on this foundation,
and pondered deeply
on this dark life,
wise in spirit,
remembered often from afar
many conflicts,
and spoke these words:

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?
Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast?
Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup!
Alas for the mailed warrior!
Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away,
dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been!

The Wanderer

Of course, you might object, the anonymous Anglo-Saxon wanderer is not mourning for nature, but for a place, a time, and a people.2 But we’ve mourned for nature too:

I never had noticed it until
‘Twas gone, – the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill

It was not more than a hedge overgrown.
One meadow’s breadth away
I passed it day by day.
Now the soil is bare as bone,

And black betwixt two meadows green,
Though fresh-cut fag got ends
Of hazel made some amends
With a gleam as if flowers they had been.

Strange it could have hidden so near!
And now I see as I look
That the small winding brook,
A tributary’s tributary, rises there.

First Known When Lost, Edward Thomas

Of course, Thomas wrote only a few decades before Leopold, but nevertheless mourning for nature’s loss has a long history (I just don’t have any beautiful poems demonstrating the point that come readily to mind).  Medieval authors were well aware that it is not simply man who was cursed in the fall, but through him the world as well, and they grieved mightily for this loss, strove with all their might to restore it (this restoration is, after all, what salvation consists of).   They knew that we have always loved what we once had.  This is the love that leaves us restless, until we rest in Him.

Leopold recognizes the destructive stupidity of a lack or denial of this love, but misses that it is not the love that is “new under the sun,” but the pervasiveness of its absence. Certainly there were always those who did not cherish what was, but we used to not let them blather on about it so loudly in public.  We did not actively work to deaden the awareness that something has been, is being, lost.  In missing the novelty of what he diagnoses, he misses out on the full extent of its destructiveness.  Man could hardly have thrived without a love of what was, could hardly have called himself man at all, and indeed we’re struggling to do these things now.

Leopold  wants to transform man from a conqueror and ruler of nature, an absolute monarch despotically ruling the world, to a member of a community.  That sounds well and good, but here again we see that his mistaking of a current attitude for a perennial one has led him into error.  The mistake here is a prototypically modern understanding of authority, one which casts all exercise of authority as essentially tyrannical domination.3 But rule does not entail absolute, untrammeled power. Dominion over nature does not necessitate domination. Indeed, there is no such thing as earthly authority without obligation. The ruler is constrained, often more so, than the ruled. He rules insofar as he serves.

This truth is demonstrated by considering how Leopold’s solution undermines itself.  For what ethical obligation would man have to creation as a mere member of the biotic community?  As he notes, pigeons have no love of what was, bison do not worry about the environmental impact their grazing has on the field mice.  No, it is only because we are not mere community members that we must care for our fellow creatures.  It is because we are meant to rule that we are obligated to rule well.  Thus, the grounding of a land ethic, an ethic that is of vital importance, cannot be in our refusing the crown but only in our acceptance of it, and a realization that treating the crown as if it entitles us to rule like Louis XVI only leads to the guillotine.4

1. Remind me to delve into this deeper when I write about John Muir. Alternatively, remind me to write a book about environmental theology predicated on the idea that the aesthetic recognition of nature’s beauty is a salvific instance.
2. How distinguishable these were/are from nature is a question we’ll set to the side for the time being
3. In the background lurks the flawed anthropology of the modern era, that understands humans as, at their core, fully autonomous individuals defined above all by their wills. Any restriction on that will, therefore, is a suppression of the essential nature of a given individual and must, of necessity, be tyrannical. Thus, the end state of politics, ethics, etc. is a perfect freedom of the will. The consequences of this anthropology are far too far-reaching to delve into deeply here.  Leopold’s error is simply one manifestation.
4. There is a lesson in both Louis’s pretensions to absolutism and his mushy concessions to the people, each a misconceived half-measure.


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