An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.... All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.... The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. — Aldo Leopold

When it comes to writing about the forests and waters, mountains and animals and all the land that is North America, there are some authors whose works are so powerful they changed our way of thinking about nature. Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey come to mind. Perhaps less well known was Aldo Leopold, whose work “A Sand County Almanac” is a classic of conservation writing that has influenced generations of foresters, land managers, environmentalists and wildlife biologists.

Each year the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, celebrates the first week in March as Aldo Leopold Week. Wisconsin, where Leopold lived, and Iowa, where he was born, have made the week official, but the event is observed in other states as well, thanks to devotees of Leopold. This year it runs from March 3 to March 11. 

Leopold, who graduated from the Yale Forest School in 1909, pursued a career with the newly established U.S. Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico. By age 24, he had been promoted to the post of supervisor for the Carson National Forest in New Mexico, and in 1922 he was instrumental in developing the proposal to manage the Gila National Forest as a wilderness area. It became the country’s first official wilderness area in 1924.

Following a transfer to Madison, Wisconsin, Leopold continued to investigate ecology and the philosophy of conservation, and in 1933 he published the first textbook in the field of wildlife management. 

In 1935, he and his family initiated their own ecological restoration experiment on a worn-out farm along the Wisconsin River outside of Baraboo. During weekends at “the Shack,” the family planted thousands of pine trees and restored prairies. This is the present-day site of the Leopold Foundation, which is a popular place to visit for those who summer in the Wisconsin Dells, where Circus World and an Indian casino, water parks and shopping outlets compete for tourists’ attention with the natural gorges and lakes and the International Crane Foundation, where work is done to conserve all 15 species of the world’s cranes. Traveling through the Dells on trips out West, I’ve often wondered what Leopold’s take would be on this weird mix of natural beauty and commerce that is repeated, it seems, all over the globe. After re-reading his “Land Ethic” essay this morning, which was published in 1949 as the finale to “A Sand County Almanac,” I’ve come to believe that anything that gets people out into the natural landscape is good, even if it means hiking a trail during the day and gambling at night. 

In this essay, Leopold says, “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.... Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff. If crops could be raised by hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well.” And this was written well before most of the population began interacting with the rest of the world through a tiny lit screen.

Leopold doesn’t preach; his essays use science, history, humor, and his own observations to call for a land ethic to communicate the true connection between people and the natural world. Incredibly, “Sand County Almanac” almost didn’t see publication. While Leopold was a prolific writer for scientific journals and conservation magazines, it wasn’t until sometime after his 53rd birthday that he became focused on reaching the general public with his conservation message. Working over a 12-year period, he wrote and re-wrote the essays that both informed readers of how the natural world worked and inspired them to take action to ensure the future health of the land and water that sustains all life. Just a week after Oxford University Press agreed to publish his manuscript, which was then titled “Great Possessions,” Leopold died of a heart attack while fighting a grass fire on his neighbor’s farm. After his death, his son Luna spearheaded a group of family members and colleagues who collaborated on the final editing of the book, and changed the book’s name from “Great Possessions” to “A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.”

Luna Leopold followed in his father’s footsteps, with his groundbreaking research on water resources perhaps more relevant now than ever before. Luna is most famous as a pioneer in researching fluvial geomorphology — the study of how rivers are formed and shaped by their surrounding landscape. He was trained as a civil engineer, meteorologist and geologist, and his hundreds of academic publications reflect that rare blending of fields. However, Luna also actively fought many on-the-ground battles for the environment, all the while trying to instill his father’s land ethic in those around him. He produced a scathing environmental impact report that was instrumental in forcing the Dade County (Florida) Port Authority to scrap a proposed 39-square-mile airport slated to be located in wetlands just six miles north of Everglades National Park and also prepared an assessment of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, in which he chastised the plan for not taking into consideration basic engineering mechanisms and warned of a costly environmental disaster if the plans were not revised. In the end, the permit was granted under a safer plan. If alive today, he’d probably be standing alongside the indigenous leaders at Standing Rock who are protesting installation of the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Even those who don’t live in the Midwest can take part in the activities of Aldo Leopold Week. In Maine there will be readings from “A Sand County Almanac” at the Wayne Town Library, and the Maine State Library is planning a lobby book display of Leopold’s work to mark the week. The Leopold Foundation will also post daily social media challenges that allow people to participate whether they live in Madison, Wisconsin, or Madison, Maine. If you’d like to join in, start by reading “The Land Ethic,” which is available online in PDF format. Read for yourself the reasoning that led Leopold to conclude, “The ‘key-log’which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” 

Thanks to “Forests for Maine’s Future” for some of the information included in this column.