- Historic Sites
A Signature On The Land
The naturalist ALDO LEOPOLD not only gave the wilderness idea its most persuasive articulation; he offered a way of thinking that turned the entire history of land use on its head
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
The trouble began at midmorning on Wednesday, April 21, 1948, when a neighboring farm’s trash fire got out of control. Flames skittered across the grassy farmyard and began chewing swiftly through a marsh toward the “plantation” of white and red pines that the professor and his family had been nurturing diligently on their 120-acre patch of worn-out Wisconsin farmland since 1935. He, his wife, Estella, and their daughter “Estella Jr.” had driven up from Madison four days earlier, settling in at the renovated chicken coop they called “the shack” and preparing for the annual spring planting of even more trees in the family’s ongoing effort to recreate the land as it had been before farmers and loggers had stripped it clean of its original forests.
The three of them had managed to get a couple of hundred trees in the ground by Wednesday morning. The professor had also done some serious bird counting; that morning alone, he noted in his journal, he had been pleased to tick off 871 geese streaming across the quickening sky, even though these were but a sorry remnant of the successive waves of migrating birds that three generations before had blocked the sun through much of the Mississippi River Valley. “A man can’t find any but remnants of wildlife nowadays,” he had remarked to his daughter Monday night.
It was about ten-thirty in the morning when the family spotted the pall of smoke rising from the east. They loaded the car with an assortment of firefighting equipment, including gunnysacks, a shovel, a sprinkling can, and a small hand-held fire pump, then raced off to meet the flames being driven across the marsh by the wind. Leaving his wife near the car with the instructions to wet a gunnysack in the marsh and try to keep the flames from jumping the road into the young trees- and if that failed, to get in the car and escape—the professor and his daughter moved down the road to measure the dimensions of the threat. Finally, telling his daughter to run to a neighbor’s farm and telephone for help, he took the fire pump and disappeared into the smoke.
There was no one to witness Aldo Leopold’s last moments. He was not found until early in the afternoon, when the last of the flames were beginning to diminish and the gray, still-smoking landscape slowly began to reveal itself. At some point as he walked along the edge of the fire, he apparently had suffered a heart attack. It had not killed him immediately. He had been given enough time to put down the fire pump, stretch out on his back, fold his arms across his chest, and die with some measure of dignity just before a branch of the fire flickered across his body and moved on. The dignity would have been important to him.
Sixteen years later, on the sunny afternoon of September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson took pen in fist at a little table in the Rose Garden outside the White House and scrawled his name across the Wilderness Act, passed by Congress a few days before. The men and women who had gathered on the steps behind the President to watch him do this knew that they were witnessing history. Like the Omnibus Civil Rights Act that preceded it and the Voting Rights Act that would follow it, the Wilderness Act of 1964 validated an important idea in the evolution of human behavior. It was the wish of Congress, the act says, “to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness,” and in a moment of sudden poetry it defines wilderness to be “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain …”
A moment worth celebrating. But the witnesses also had to be conscious of a pervasive irony in this otherwise triumphant afternoon: Not one of the four men who had given the greatest substance to the dream of a National Wilderness Preservation System was alive to stand there with them—not Robert Marshall, the government Forester who had actually surveyed and hiked through most of the biggest primitive areas left in the national forests, who had prodded the Wilderness Society into being in 1935, and who had died in 1939 at the age of thirty-eight; not Olaus M’fbrie, the great wildlife biologist who had served as the Wilderness Society’s president from 1946 until his own death in 1963, most of the time administering the tiny Washington, D.C.-based organization out of a log cabin in Moose, Wyoming, with his wife, Margaret; not Howard Zahniser, the bespectacled erstwhile poet who had left his job as an editor with Rachel Carson at the U.S. Biological Survey in 1946 to become executive secretary of the society, principal author of the Wilderness Act, and its most indefatigable Washington lobbyist before exhaustion killed him just a few months before the legislation was passed.
And not Aldo Leopold, the lanky, bald, hound-faced ex-forest ranger and renowned wildlife ecologist in whose supremely rational mind the romantic dream had first bubbled up more than forty years before. Until he lay down to die in the smoke and flames at the edge of his tiny imitation wilderness in 1948, his scholarly authority and graceful diction had given the wilderness idea its most persuasive and memorable philosophical articulation. The concept, he had written in September 1935, demonstrated, among other things, “an intelligent humility toward man’s place in nature.” He was himself not unaware of the importance of his work and his place in his field and could defend both with some acerbity, but he did not assume that they were of any particular interest to the cosmos.
In his greatest and most lasting work, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There , he offered a definition of what conservation meant. “It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop,” he mused. “A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
Leopold’s own evolution toward this humble state had taken a while. He was born Rand Aldo Leopold (though his first name was never used) in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, to Carl Leopold, a Midwestern drummer who specialized in selling roller skates and who was a skilled and avid hunter, and Carl’s first cousin Clara Starker, a genteel middle-class woman of tender sentiments. From his father young Aldo learned to love the arts of outdoorsmanship, including hunting, in the semiwild country around Burlington, while with varying degrees of success his mother exposed him to more refined interests, including classical literature. The mix would prove significant.
He was immediately seduced by the Southwest’s clarity of light and generosity of space.
By the time Aldo was ready to enter college, his father had moved up the economic scale, becoming head of his own furniture-manufacturing business, the Leopold Desk Company. Carl invited his son to take a position with the company upon graduation from college; Aldo gently rejected the offer. More than ten years of hunting, fishing, bird watching, amateur botanizing, specimen collection, and general wandering in the woods had given him a permanent infatuation with the great outdoors and all its parts. He developed an especially intense passion for pine trees, which he could never explain satisfactorily. “The only conclusion I have ever reached,” he would later write, “is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.”
Most of his adolescent reading was in the new science of forestry, only then beginning to take on some semblance of academic respectability after fifteen years of promotion and proselytization by the wellborn German-trained Pennsylvania forester and sometime governor Gifford Pinchot, whose family had provided Yale with the money to establish the Yale Forest School in 1900. And it was at this school—after a year at the Lawrenceville preparatory school in New Jersey and two freshman semesters at Yale—that Leopold began the study that would inform the rest of his life.
The year was 1905, the very year, as it happened, that Pinchot persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to establish the U.S. Forest Service, put Pinchot in as the agency’s first chief forester, and begin the process of delineating and establishing 148 million acres of national forests across the country (see “Father of the Forests,” February 1991). These forests, Pinchot ordained, were to be managed, not preserved in the natural state. Like the rest of the natural world, the forests had been put in place, Pinchot argued, for the wise use of mankind; to manage them so as to preserve their utility was nothing less than plain common sense.
Young Leopold, who was the son of a furniture maker, after all, had no difficulty accepting this eminently practical dogma. Indeed, he had embraced it even before the Yale Forest School began to hammer it into him with classroom study and fieldwork. “It has become a generally recognized fact,” he had written in a school paper at Lawrenceville in November 1904, “that wood is, and will continue to be, one of the necessities of life. … Furthermore we know that the lumber supply of our country, once believed to be inexhaustible, is now almost used up; two decades, it is estimated, will see its end. This present supply is confined mainly to the northern and western states, and even there an average of only about ten percent remains of the original stand of valuable lumber. … Lumbering a region ought to mean ‘gathering its forest crop,’ but only too truly it generally does mean ‘destruction of the forest crop.’ This is the modern method which has caused the squandering of our timber resources, and which is everywhere employed.”
Leopold was a good Pinchotminded forester, then, when he graduated in 1909 and in July took the train to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and from there a stagecoach that rattled northwest to the little town of Springerville in Arizona Territory, where he began his duty as a U.S. Forest Service recruit in District 3's Apache National Forest. Like most people who see the landscapes of the Southwest for the first time, he was immediately seduced by the clarity of light and the generosity of space—and, not least, by the peaks and valleys of the Apache’s Blue Range and White Mountains, a confused and magnificent tangle of geography that piles up to the edge of the Mogollon Rim, with chattering creeks, grassy, flower-splashed meadows, and, above all, forests of ancient ponderosa pines that ring the fractured upthrust peaks like the dark tonsures of monks.
For almost fifteen years the Southwest would remain the home of Leopold’s heart, and its forests the arena within which his career in the Forest Service should have flourished. He was smart, hardworking, creative, fearless, and committed, qualities much esteemed in an agency that often viewed itself (not !!logically) as locked in combat with the forces of ignorance and greed. But he also had the kind of quirk that bureaucracies tend to fear (again, not illogically): the capacity to grow beyond the intellectual confines of the organization for which he worked and, in growing, to question some of its most deeply held values. Chief among these, in Leopold’s case, was the conviction that all Creation had been put in place mainly to ensure the survival and comfort of the human species.
His talents, in fact, did take him quite a distance. After just two years on the Apache, he was made deputy supervisor, then, in 1912, supervisor of Carson National Forest, where he inherited years of incompetent (and, some said, corrupt) administration. Local sheepmen had been allowed to run so many animals on the range every summer that parts of it were stripped as clean as a billiard table. No longer, the somewhat brash twenty-five-year-old supervisor made it clear from the outset. He established a system of individual grazing allotments and vowed to monitor each and every one of them to make certain that the proper grazing fees were being paid and that no more animals than the land could sustain would be allowed to forage. “By God,” he said, “the Individual Allotment and every other reform we have promised is going to stick —even if it takes a six-shooter to do it.”
He and his rangers did arm themselves with six-shooters and other sorts of guns, but none was forced to draw his weapon, and by the time Leopold married Estella Bergère, the daughter of an old Santa Fe family, and settled down in the hamlet of Très Piedras on the slopes of the upper Rio Grande Valley, his integrity and unswerving determination had won respect from the sheepmen and the forest’s rangeland was on its way to a slow recovery. Soon enough, however, so was Leopold; in the spring of 1913 he was stricken by a case of acute nephritis that almost killed him before he could get to medical help in Albuquerque. His sick leave lasted more than sixteen months, during which he began to broaden his reading, moving away now from matters having to do with timber and grazing management and toward those concerned with the creatures that inhabited the forests. He was especially taken by William T. Hornaday’s Our Vanishing Wildlife , a jeremiad against unregulated hunting, whether for sport or for commercial purposes. Leopold would remain a sport hunter all of his life, but Hornaday’s argument that decades of abuse had brought the game animals of America to a sorry condition was supported by the facts: from the nearly extinct buffalo to the entirely extinct passenger pigeon, American wildlife had been under systematic and increasingly devastating assault for generations.
Even most hunters now recognized the fact that if their sport was not consistently and wisely regulated and sufficient wildlife habitat preserved to support it, there soon would be nothing left to shoot—a sentiment that had helped win the passage of the Lacey Act of 1900, prohibiting the interstate shipment of any wildfowl killed in violation of state hunting laws. This understanding inspired the birth and growth of such conservation organizations as the Boone and Crocked: Club, the National Association of Audubon Societies, the Conservation Department of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the American Game Protective Association (AGFA), founded by gun manufacturers, chiefly the Winchester Repeating Firearms Company, in a definitive exhibition of enlightened self-interest; and it had caused President Theodore Roosevelt, a bigstick hunter himself, to designate fifty-three federal game refuges, the beginning of today’s ninety-one-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System.
After several months of recuperation back in Burlington, Leopold returned to work in October 1914 —though at a desk in Albuquerque now, not in the field. His health was still not good, and he spent the next nine months working in the district grazing office for a man who, Leopold felt, was entirely too accommodating to the desires of local stockmen. He chafed in the job but kept his mouth shut and was more than ready for a change when District Supervisor Arthur Ringland reassigned him in 1915 to an amalgam of duties that included recreation, fish and wildlife, and publicity. Armed with his newfound interest in wildlife, Leopold took to his new responsibility with considerable enthusiasm, and except for a nineteen-month leave during World War I, when he served as secretary of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, he spent the next nine years sharpening protean skills as a selftaught wildlife ecologist, soil and erosion-control analyst, fire-management technician, and, especially, game manager. He wrote the Game and Fish Handbook , a guide that proved indispensable to Forest Service rangers for many years. He persuaded hunters and hunting clubs throughout Arizona and New Mexico to form local affiliates of the American Game Protective Association and for the Albuquerque branch produced in December 1915 the first issue of The Pine Cone —the revival of a similar newsletter he had briefly edited in 1912 for Carson National Forest. This incarnation of the reasonably elegant little publication, which like the earlier version often featured his own modestly gifted artwork, was designed, as he wrote in the preface to that first issue, “to promote the protection and enjoyment of wild things. As the cone scatters the seeds of the pine and fir tree, so may it scatter the seeds of wisdom and understanding among men, to the end that every citizen many learn to hold the lives of harmless wild creatures as a public trust for human good, against the abuse of which he stands personally responsible. Thus, and only thus, will our wild life be preserved.” The Pine Cone was a great success—and not just in District 3. “My dear Mr. Leopold,” former President Roosevelt wrote in January 1917, “I have just read the Pine Cone. I think your platform simply capital. … It seems to me that your association in New Mexico is setting an example to the whole country.”
He grew to welcome the idea that too much management of land and creatures had been going on for too long.
Slowly, then, Leopold’s instincts began to turn in the direction of preservation, not use. Still, as the references to “human good” and “harmless wild creatures” in the preface to The Pine Cone ’s first issue suggested, he was not quite ready to give all of the wild equal standing with the unwild. Like most people of his time, he would have agreed that there were “good” animals—mainly the birds and ungulates that sportsmen liked to shoot—and “bad” animals—predators like hawks, eagles, owls, vultures, bears, mountain lions, wolves, and coyotes, all of which were universally described as “vermin.” Even William T. Hornaday called such critters “noxious predators” and advocated their elimination, and Leopold himself, in a 1919 essay in the Bulletin of the American Game Protective Association, declared baldly that “the advisability of controlling vermin is plain common sense, which nobody will seriously question.” After more than thirty years of steady indoctrination in the protocols of utilitarian conservation, it would take nothing less than an epiphany to change his mind, and even then it would be years before his mind would fully accept what his heart had learned.
It happened, he remembered in his 1944 essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” during a hunting trip with a few companions in the Blue Range of Apache National Forest. While sitting on a ridge eating lunch, the hunters spotted an old mother wolf and her nearly grown pups cavorting on the slopes below them. “In those days,” he wrote, “we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf.” They began firing at random into the pack. Leopold continued: “When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide rocks.
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
Those sentiments were written a quarter of a century or more after the fact and, like most such memories, probably cannot be trusted to represent what Leopold truly felt at the time. But it is equally clear that the incident had set something loose in him, some- thing that made him increasingly receptive to the notion that perhaps entirely too much management of land and creatures alike had been going on for too long in the world and that sometime, somewhere, a line would have to be drawn between what human beings merely thought they needed to manage and what they truly needed to save: wildness itself.
In 1921, after much time thinking things through and exchanging views with such like-minded colleagues as Arthur Carhart, a young “recreational engineer” in Colorado’s White Mountain National Forest, Leopold outlined his own thoughts on the subject in an essay for the November issue of the Journal of Forestry . After paying tribute to Pinchot’s belief in the “development” of natural resources under the principles of “highest use” for the good of mankind, Leopold took his argument out into territory previously unexplored (at least in the pages of the staid Journal of Forestry ). Perhaps, he reflected, utilitarian use had gone far enough by now to “raise the question of whether the policy of development… should continue to govern in absolutely every instance, or whether the principle of highest use does not itself demand that representative portions of some forests be preserved as wilderness.” By “wilderness,” he went on to say, “I mean a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.”
The definition was important. Leopold himself was not yet ready to offer—and most of his fellow foresters certainly were not ready to accept—the opinion of someone like John Muir, the hairy old wood sprite who had founded the Sierra Club, that humankind should preserve the wilderness simply because it deserved to be protected as part of the original creation and as a measure of our obligation to that creation. Nor would he yet present such arcane arguments as those of Henry David Thoreau, who had insisted as long ago as 1861 that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” Instead Leopold built his case around the notion that in some rare and wonderful places the highest recreational “use” was primitive backcountry hiking and camping, with no facilities and no conveniences. True, he said, only a minority of Americans would want to use such areas for such purposes, but “it is our duty to vary our recreational development policy, in some places, to meet the needs and desires of the minority also.”
After this carefully crafted citation of democracy as his governing principle, Leopold got down to specifics: he pro- posed that about five hundred thousand acres of the headwaters region of the GiIa River in GiIa National Forest be established as the first officially designated wilderness area in the national forests. “It is,” he said, “the last typical wilderness in the southwestern mountains. Highest use demands its preservation.”
This was no idle burst of eloquence. On October 2, 1922, Leopold presented a formal proposal for the preservation of the GiIa to Frank Pooler, supervisor of District 3. While Pooler was not especially opposed to the idea, it did not sit high on his agenda and was still languishing in the files when a letter came from the chief forester, William B. Greeley in Washington, proposing that Leopold be transferred to Madison, Wisconsin, to become assistant director of the Forest Products Laboratory. Greeley, like Leopold’s Southwestern superiors, had taken note of his growing interest and expertise in pure research and his uncommon abilities as a public spokesman. “I have felt,” the chief wrote, “that Leopold has rather exceptional qualifications for this position.”
It is a good deal less clear why Leopold accepted the transfer. Certainly there was more money in the job, and his family was growing; there were four children by now—Carl, Starker, Luna, and Nina—and a fifth, Estella, would be born in 1927. Still, he loved the Southwest and was clearly reluctant to move until meetings with Greeley and other Forest Service officials in Washington persuaded him to give in. On May 29 the family left Albuquerque for Madison. Five days later Frank Pooler slid Leopold’s GiIa proposal out of the file, and the first federally designated wilderness area in American history became a reality. Neither Pooler nor Leopold ever remarked on the moment.
As it turned out, Leopold was not especially happy operating in what he called the “industrial motif ” of the Forest Products Laboratory. When it became obvious after several years that his chances for advancement elsewhere in the Forest Service were limited, he left the agency with few visible regrets, accepting an offer to head a national survey of game populations and habitat conditions for the Sporting Arms and Ammunitions Manufacturers’ Institute in 1928.
It was a wise move. Nothing like this survey had ever been undertaken—not even by the U.S. Biological Survey —and its accomplishment enhanced both Leopold’s expertise and his reputation. Two important publications came out of the experience: Report on a Game Survey of the North Central States , published in the spring of 1931, which was, as his biographer Curt Meine described it, “a groundbreaker, an empirical companion to the ideals of the game policy,” and Game Management , published in 1933, a textbook that established Leopold as both a pioneer in and the unquestioned leader of a discipline that had not even existed a few years before. The experience also led directly to another job: in July 1933 he became a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin. It was the first such position ever created, and he would hold it for the rest of his life.
By then the balding self-made scientist was the “professor” to his students and acquaintances alike, a wry and rumpled intellect given to unceasing pipe smoking and the wearing of disreputable slouch hats. “He was the embodiment of mind—,” one acquaintance said, “almost always serious, or thinking of serious problems.”
Among these serious problems was the matter of wilderness. He continued to refine his thinking and his writing on the subject, some of it a little incendiary. In a 1926 speech before the National Conference of Outdoor Recreation, for example, he advocated the construction of fewer roads in the forests and defended the right of all people to access to the joys and solitude and beauty of wilderness. “We insist,” he said, “that the average American is entitled to these things as a privilege of citizenship rather than a chance crumb from the economic table.” This brought a charge from one critic that “he wants the ‘wilderness’ to himself and the elect few, and objects to roads because they inevitably bring other people.” That’s right, Leopold admitted in a retort to this early version of the cry of elitism that would be leveled at wilderness advocates in the decades to come. “All that we wilderness cranks are asking for,” he said crankily, “is a few roadless areas where we can go once in a while, and where we will at least have a chance of escaping the man who has bought his way.”
Defining prevailing ideas and giving them shape, he formulated what he called the Land Ethic.
He was pleased when the Forest Service surveyed the rest of the forests in 1926 and came up with seventy-four tracts of land that might qualify for designation as wilderness areas similar to that on the GiIa. He was even happier when it developed the so-called L-20 regulations, which allowed the chief to encourage the designation by district foresters of “primitive areas” that were to be kept in as wild a condition as possible, and happier still when the list of such areas had grown to sixty-three in 8.4 million acres by 1932.
All well and good, but wilderness established by such means, Leopold would come to believe, was too piecemeal and scattered to truly preserve all that needed to be saved. Something more capacious in both size and vision was needed. His thinking took on a certain urgency in 1935, when he returned from a trip to investigate the supremely overmanaged forests of Germany, where, he wrote, “the forest landscape is deprived of a certain exuberance which arises from a rich variety of plants fighting with each other for a place in the sun. It is almost as if the geological clock had been set back to those dim ages when there were only pines and ferns. I never realized before that the melodies of nature are music only when played against the undertones of evolutionary history. In the German forest … one now hears only a dismal fugue out of the timeless reaches of the carboniferous.”
The possibility that America’s forests might someday be equally bleak he found appalling, and he was ready to listen when a brilliant young forester named Robert Marshall offered a proposal. Ebullient, brash, and utterly charming, Marshall was the son of a hugely successful New York merchant named Louis Marshall, who himself had been a major force in the creation of New York State’s six-million-acre Adirondack Park in the 188Os, with its interior Forest Reserve that was to be kept, in the words of the law, “forever wild.” Exposed from childhood to the wonders of the natural world, young Marshall, like Leopold, had become addicted to wild places at an early age.
In his first letter to Leopold in 1930, Marshall had called him “the Commanding General of the Wilderness Battle,” but until his death from heart disease in 1939 it would be Marshall himself who really directed the campaign. In both the Forest Service and the Interior Department (where in 1934 he established a system of wilderness areas on sixteen Indian reservations), Marshall had been a relentless champion of wilderness, and in an article for The Scientific Monthly in 1930 he had declared that “there is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.”
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.
In September 1954 a number of admirers, including several Wilderness Society officials and Sen. Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, tried to pay the memory of Aldo Leopold appropriate tribute. Under a sky beginning to boil with increasingly black clouds and in the teeth of a wind that rattled their vehicles, they drove out to a site on the high edge of the GiIa Wilderness where the Forest Service had erected a plaque commemorating the implementation of Leopold’s wilderness proposal thirty years before. It had started to rain fiercely by the time Anderson started his speech. “The work of Aldo Leopold has been done,” he intoned before a microphone that threatened to topple with every blast of wind. “We now become trustees of his inheritance.” Before much longer the storm made it impossible to continue, and as the participants “scurried for their cars,” according to the Silver City Press , the Wilderness Society’s Howard Zahniser summed up the program by calling it a “glorious elemental occasion.”
Leopold, who was not much for ceremony anyway, probably would have been amused by the debacle. He almost certainly would have taken greater satisfaction from the fact that A Sand County Almanac is still in print and that there now exists, thirty years after passage of the Wilderness Act, nearly seven hundred designated areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System—in all, more than a hundred million acres of land whose communities of life are, by law, to remain untrammeled by human enterprise. That would bring a smile to his ghost. Indeed, he might even conclude that we, like this forest ranger turned wilderness prophet, finally had learned to think like a mountain.