by Donella Meadows
— January 21, 1999 —
In 1949 a small book was published shortly after its author, Aldo Leopold, died of a heart attack while fighting a forest fire near his homestead in rural Wisconsin. The book was a collection of his nature writings, crotchety writings, lyrical writings, praise for nature and manifestos for people from a man who spent his life in some of the wildest parts of America.
The title was A Sand County Almanac. The book was little noticed until twenty years later, during the environmental awakening of the 1970s, when a paperback edition turned into a surprise best-seller. Now, 50 years later, the book is high on the most-beloved list of environmentalists, including me.
Leopold’s way of seeing nature is etched into my brain. He taught me that whenever I cut through the growth-rings of a tree, I’m sawing through history. “We cut 1906, when … fires burned 17,000 acres in these sand counties; we cut 1905 when a great flight of goshawks came out of the North and ate up the local grouse. We cut 1902-3, a winter of bitter cold; 1901, which brought the most intense drought of record.”
Whenever I see soil washing downstream, I think of Leopold’s story of a molecule called X traveling through nature. “The break came when a bur-oak root nosed down a crack and began prying and sucking. In the flash of a century, the rock decayed, and X was pulled out and up into the world of living things. He helped build a flower, which became an acorn, which fattened a deer, which fed an Indian, all in a single year.”
Finally X ends up in a beaver, ”an animal that always feeds higher than he dies. The beaver starved when his pond dried up. X rode the carcass down the spring freshet, losing more altitude each hour than heretofore in a century. He fed a crayfish, a coon, and then an Indian, who laid him down to his last sleep in a mound on the riverbank. One spring an oxbow caved the bank, and X lay again in his ancient prison, the sea.”
That story conveys a strange ethic — help life hold precious nutrients by arranging to defecate and die higher than you feed and live. But that’s only part of Leopold’s morality, which is firmly articulated in his most famous chapter, “The Land Ethic.”
He starts with the legend of Odysseus returning from Troy and hanging his slaves. In ancient Greece slaves were property, governed by expedience, not community, governed by respect toward equals, partners, brothers and sisters, extensions of ourselves.
Since then our ethical boundaries have enlarged to include slaves, women, children, people of other races and beliefs. It is time, says Leopold, to expand once again, to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
It is necessary to do this, not just because we love nature, but because we are connected with it. We eat from it, we drink from it, it is our life-support system. Caring for it is no different from caring for ourselves. “All ethics so far evolved 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 to cooperate…. A land ethic, then, reflects … a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.”
Then comes the thundering ethic, the most famous two sentences in the book. “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.”
That idea is engraved in my soul. If we applied it, we would live in a healthier, more beautiful, more bountiful world. We would stop whining about the inconvenience of the Endangered Species Act and see, as Leopold says, that “the last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Leopold loved nature and loved people too. He saw humans as the only creatures endowed with the capability for a land ethic. At a monument to the passenger pigeon, he gave a speech that was as much a tribute to us as to the pigeon:
“We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the on-rushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin….
“For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. DuPont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.”
Not many books still ring true after fifty years, still teach relevant lessons, and still inspire.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999