Aldo Leopold


By Gary Suttle


In his own words, Aldo Leopold championed "things natural, wild, and free." Leopold helped create the world's first designated wilderness area. He recognized the value of non-game species as well as game species and fathered the profession of wildlife management. He authored hundreds of scientific articles and wrote several influential books including his classic A Sand County Almanac. This book, a million-seller translated into many languages, articulates Leopold's "land ethic," a beacon for environmentalists around the globe. Leopold has been called the most significant conservationist of the 20th century, on par with Thoreau and Muir. And like Thoreau and Muir, Leopold held pantheist precepts.

Born January 11, 1887 near Burlington, Iowa, Leopold displayed an early attachment to Nature, spending countless hours exploring the Mississippi River bluffs near his home . Nicknamed "the Naturalist" by his schoolmates, Leopold tramped through woodlands whenever he could, generally studied hard, and graduated from Yale Forestry School in 1909. The Forest Service hired Leopold and sent him to newly designated Apache National Forest in Arizona. Later occupations included wildlife ecologist, university teacher, and environmental activist (he co-founded the Wilderness Society). He was also a fine father and served as a role model to his five children, all of whom became renowned naturalists. Leopold practiced what he preached. He purchased a worn out parcel of farmland, and, with the help of his family and his graduate students over many years, restored its natural habitat. Leopold died while aiding a neighbor in fighting a fire on an adjacent farmstead in 1948.

Leopold's parents were non-churchgoing Lutherans, and therefore he had no specific spiritual upbringing. He married a Catholic but eschewed the Church and disliked taking a vow not to interfere in his youngsters religious indoctrination. Leopold remained reticent on the subject of religion, but his profound love of nature and his lifelong commitment to the Earth reflected a natural spirituality observed by his family.

In describing Leopold's religious beliefs, his son Luna said "I think he, like many of the rest of us, was kind of pantheistic. The organization of the universe was enough to take the place of God, if you like. He certainly didn't believe in a personal God." Leopold's wife, Estella, asked him directly if he believed in a deity. "He replied that he believed there was a mystical supreme power that guided the Universe," according to Estella, "but to him this power was not a personalized God. It was more akin to the laws of nature...his religion came from nature."

Leopold recognized that religion played a role in environmental deterioration. Conservation was incompatible with what he called the Old Testament "Abrahamic"concept of land. "We abuse land," Leopold said, " because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."

To foster love and respect for land required an extension of ethics. Leopold observed that ethics first dealt with relations between individuals, and later with relations between individuals and society, but no ethic yet dealt with humankind's relation to land and to the animals and plants living upon it. Extending ethics to our relations with Nature was "an evolutionary possibility and and ecological necessity."

Leopold's land ethic rests on the premise that all elements of the biotic community are interdependent. Leopold first came to this realization during a hunting trip in the Southwest where his party killed a female wolf. He reached the animal in time to see "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."

That "something" entailed an understanding that every species--be it predator or prey, useful to humans or otherwise--contributed to a healthy natural environment. Consequently, the well-being of each species depended upon the well-being of the community as a whole. And as the dominant species, each of us share responsibility for the health of the land. Leopold invites us to "think like a mountain", that is, think ecologically, beyond short term economic self interest. His land ethic asks us to "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."

Leopold knew the shift from an anthropocentric outlook to a biocentric one would not come easy. Countering the Judeo-Christian notion of the Earth made exclusively for man's use and benefit, Leopold observed facetiously that deity had started the show "...a good many million years before he had any men for (an) audience--a sad waste of both actors and music..." And even supposing "...a special nobility inherent in the human race--a special cosmic value, distinctive from and superior to all other life--by what token shall it be manifest? By a society decently respectful of its own and all other life, capable of inhabiting the earth without defiling it? Or by a society like that of John Burroughs' potato bug, which exterminated the potato, and thereby exterminated itself?"

Another impediment to the acceptance of a land ethic, abetted by both orthodox religion and mechanistic science, involved the concept of the Earth as "dead matter." Opposing this view, Leopold embraced a belief that the Earth itself has "a certain kind and degree of life, which we intuitively respect as such." He thought that if we could see the Earth from afar, over a great length of time, we might discern the air, oceans, and land surface as a living organism carrying on life processes similar to our own (these thoughts, penned in 1923, presaged today's Gaia Hypothesis, which formulates the Earth as a self-regulating entity and lends credence to Leopold's vision).

Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, Burroughs, and especially the Russian philosopher-mystic Piotr Ouspensky influenced Leopold's view of a living Earth. Ouspensky noted that "sometimes we vaguely feel an intense life manifesting in the phenomena of nature.." "Possibly," Leopold observed, "in our intuitive perceptions, which may be truer than our science and less impeded by words than our philosophies, we realize the indivisibility of the earth--its soil, mountains, rivers, forests, climate, plants, and animals, and respect it collectively not only as a useful servant but as a living being, vastly less alive than ourselves in degree, but vastly greater than ourselves in time and space--a being that was old when the morning stars sang together, and when the last of us has been gathered unto his fathers, will still be young."

Leopold's eloquent expression of the immanence of life in Nature rings a pantheistic chord, as does his belief in a "mystical supreme power" grounding life and being. His own life and work exemplifies the ability of a dedicated individual to better our relationship with "things natural, wild, and free."



Aldo Leopold Nature Center.

Flander,Susan L. Thinking Like a Mountain, Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude Toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests. University of Wisconsin Press, 1974.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, With Other Essays On Conservation from Round River. Oxford University Press, 1966.

Lorbiecki, Marybeth. Aldo Leopold, A Fierce Green Fire. Falcon Publishing Company, 1996.

Meine Curt. Aldo Leopold, His Life and Work. University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

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Photography courtesy A. Starker Leopold/University of Wisconsin--Madison Archives

Copyright © 1998 Gary Suttle