A Signature On The Land


In 1935 Marshall persuaded Leopold and six other “spirited people” to join with him to create just such an organization. It was called the Wilderness Society, and from its inception the little group’s unflagging devotion to the single consuming cause of wilderness preservation made it effective far beyond its paltry numbers, which in Leopold’s lifetime never surpassed two thousand members. Not the least of its strengths was Leopold himself. If Marshall was the early wilderness movement’s general, Leopold was its statesman. “This country has been swinging the hammer of development so long and so hard that it has forgotten the anvil of wilderness which gave value and significance to its labors,” he wrote in the first issue of the organization’s journal, the Living Wilderness , and for more than ten years his observations on the value and character and necessity of wilderness preservation would ornament the pages of this and other publications, giving spiritual, scientific, and philosophical weight to the wilderness cause. The arguments he first made in these publications continued to punctuate the long fight that led to the passage of the Wilderness Act long after his death: wilderness should be preserved because of what it provided in the way of watershed protection, the production of abundant fish and game species, the study of natural science, and the human satisfactions of peace, beauty, and solitude.


But there was something else brewing in his mind by the end of the 1930s. Slowly, and then with increasing certainty, he began to view the wilderness cause in a more holistic manner than did most of his compatriots. In published and unpublished essays, speeches, and random notes to himself, he began to explore in greater and greater depth the character of the human relationship to the land, and during the years of World War II, the work gradually took on the coherence of vision that began to suggest itself as a book. It took years of thought and many obsessive revisions, but by the early part of 1948, the manuscript that would be called A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There was complete.

It was not a long book, but its import was enormous. The naturalist William Vogt said that it would be read “for decades, and probably centuries, to come,” and Wallace Stegner, not given to hyperbole, has called it “one of the prophetic books, the utterance of an American Isaiah.” For what Leopold proposed in the deceptively simple, unadorned prose of the book—which ranges from brief but precise and instructive seasonal observations of the natural world to long and carefully argued essays—was a way of looking at and thinking about the land that turned the entire history of Western land use on its head. Land, in America as elsewhere, had been regarded as little more than a commodity in the affairs of humankind, something to be used and, if necessary, used up in the pursuit of the main chance. With the land itself lying in ruin or near ruin all around us, Leopold said, with wilderness and all that it could offer us vanishing beneath the plow or the pavement, it was time to take another look at ourselves—or, more accurately, ourselves in relation to the land. He gracefully illuminated the exquisitely complex relationship between the land and the life-forms it supports, mused about the meaning of beauty and wilderness, and, in his most clearly revolutionary observations, predicated a moral universe that might include the needs of the land in its system of values. In various discrete forms the ideas he turned over in his quiet, rational mind had come, and gone, and come again several times during European civilization’s tenure on this continent. It was Leopold’s genius to define them, pin them down, pull them together into a single articulation, and give it shape, substance, and character. He called it the Land Ethic, and it lies at the heart of A Sand County Almanac . “All ethics so far evolved,” he wrote, “rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate. … The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land. …

“In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

For all the importance of the message—now regarded as the central dogma of the conservation movement—it took almost as long to find a publisher for the book as it did for Leopold to finish it (some of the last, most agonizing revisions were done while he was still recovering from an operation for the relief of an excruciatingly painful case of tic douloureux). But on the morning of April 14, 1948, he learned that Oxford University Press had decided to publish the manuscript in the fall of 1949. Two days after this happy news the Leopold family packed the car for the annual trip up to the shack and the waiting benediction of the flames. Aldo Leopold never saw the printed version of the book on which his immortality rests.