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373-The Land Ethic: Aldo Leopold’s Conservation Philosophy

| Care, Podcast

Aldo Leopold is considered to be one of the most consequential conservationists of the 20th century. In his posthumously published book “A Sand County Almanac,” he put forward the “land ethic” — the idea that the fates of humans and land are intertwined. To talk about Leopold’s influence on the conservation movement, joining me on the podcast this week is Aldo Leopold Foundation senior fellow Dr. Curt Meine.

Curt is a conservation biologist, environmental historian and writer. In addition to his role with the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, he is a senior fellow with the Chicago-based Center for Humans and Nature and a research associate with the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo. He also serves as an associate adjunct professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison department of forest and wildlife ecology. He is a scholar on Aldo Leopold and the author of “Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work.”

 

Curt Meine

Curt Meine, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation and an Aldo Leopold scholar.
(Photo Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

 

Leopold was born in 1887 and died in 1948. In just 61 years, he witnessed vast changes over the span of his life, from the horse and buggy era to the nuclear age, Curt points out. He was born in a time when there was no such thing as conservation, in anything like the modern sense, and he saw the dawn of the modern environmental movement. “So it’s a short life, but an amazing arc that he experienced and that he helped to bend,” Curt says.

Leopold’s “The Good Oak” essay is well-known among many gardeners and others interested in self-sufficiency. In the essay, he wrote in part: “There are two spiritual dangers of not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace. To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue. To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside.” 

How Curt Meine Discovered Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic

“Leopold isn’t all I do or have done over these years, but he’s inevitably a part of all that I’ve undertaken in my own work,” Curt says.

During a college break, his closest high school friend recommended Leopold’s book “A Sand County Almanac.” His friend was reading the book in literature class and thought Curt would enjoy it, so he gave Curt a copy to read.

“It didn’t quite sink in fully that first time,” Curt says. “But it didn’t take long. Within a year or so I’d gone back to it many times and began to explore the deeper layers.”

He said that for people of his generation who came of age with Earth Day and the rise of the environmental movement, Leopold’s book was one of the key texts, along with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and other landmark books.

Curt wanted to learn more about conservation and environmental ideas. He went up to the University of Wisconsin to do some graduate work at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. He says to make a long story short, he pursued a master’s and, unwittingly in some ways, a Ph.D. on Leopold. That work included writing the first full biography of Leopold at a time when Leopold’s reputation and influence had continued to grow. 

The “Sand County Almanac” was published in 1949, the year after Leopold’s death. Curt says the book had modest sales when it was first released but with the rise of the environmental movement, it began to sell in the millions. The momentum picked up in 1966. “It really helped shape the modern environmental movement and all that’s happened since,” Curt says.

When Curt was a young student, the influence of Leopold and his book was growing, but there had still not been much scholarly work done on him. 

“That became my task,” Curt says. “I devoted a good chunk of my 20s to it.”

What appealed to Curt was not just Leopold’s story but also “how it helped to inform and fill in the context for all that we care about when it comes to thinking about human-land relationships, history and our emerging environmental challenges.”

 

The Sand County Almanac

“A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold.

 

Aldo Leopold’s Origin Story

Leopold was the grandchild of German immigrants. He was born in Iowa, on the Mississippi River, in a little city called Burlington and grew up in a family that was not wealthy, but comfortable, according to Curt. 

“His father ran a furniture factory, which is important in a number of ways because his father was well aware of the status of the forests and where the wood he used in his manufacturing came from,” Curt says. 

In the late 1800s, during a wave of deforestation across the Upper Great Lakes, Leopold’s father was what might be called a proto-conservationist. He was an enthusiastic hunter and well aware of the depletion of wildlife that was occurring, Curt explains, adding that Leopold’s mother was a great appreciator of the arts, literature and ideas.

“This is about two generations after the Indigenous peoples of Iowa had been removed, and so Leopold was coming in the wake of that wave of European settlement, after the removal of the native peoples,” Curt says. “And that’s increasingly important as we try to learn from our history.”

Leopold’s grandfather was a landscape engineer who passed on German gardening and landscaping traditions and practices. He had worked on everything from designing infrastructure to planting orchards and gardens at their home in Iowa. 

“It’s the late 1800s. Leopold is growing up at a time … of rapid resource depletion,” Curt says. The Northwoods and the Great Lakes region were being deforested. Wetlands across the Midwest were drained. Native prairies and savannas were converted to agriculture. Every form of wildlife that could be hunted was exploited.

“It was a very dark time in terms of looking at the future of the state of the land,” he says.

“So Leopold was observing, literally firsthand, these changes in the American landscape and the state of the natural and assets of the land, particularly his love of hunting. His father was an enthusiastic, very conscientious hunter, and they were observing literally the decline of the waterfowl on the Mississippi Flyway, as Leopold was a boy. And at a very young age, he was expressing his intent to have something to do about this as he grew up.”

There weren’t many choices for a young person in the early 1900s who was interested in a career in conservation issues. 

“If you’re professionally interested, you had one choice, and that was to go to Yale University where the first, the oldest forestry school was set up,” Curt says. “And Leopold became one of the first trained American foresters coming out of the Yale Forestry School.”

 

Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm

Aldo Leopold at the Shack, his family’s summer retreat. (Photo Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

 

Aldo Leopold in the Forest Service

At 22, he joined the U.S. Forest Service, where he would spend the first 15 years of his career in the American Southwest. His first field assignment was in the then-territories of Arizona and New Mexico. 

“He was a kind of a well-regarded, respected young forester. He was a sharp young guy with a lot of creative ideas,” Curt says. “… He was responsible for a few innovations. He was very interested in early efforts to protect wildlife. He was very interested in early efforts to address the problem of overgrazing by, especially, cattle ranching. And that’s connected to his interest in watersheds, the state of our watersheds, how the water works on the land, and the problem of soil erosion.”

He was also interested in the protection of large roadless areas as automobiles were becoming part of the American landscape.

“The road system was expanding with lots of money coming into it from federal sources,” Curt says. “Leo was keenly interested in trying to protect at least a few areas where roads would not be allowed to penetrate to the vast open wild lands of the West.”

2024 is the 100th anniversary year of the designation of the Gila Wilderness Area, the first designated wilderness area in the world, prompted by Leopold’s work.

Predator Removal

In 1914, the federal government launched a campaign to do away with grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions and wolves. The thinking at the time was that the way to protect game animals was to wipe out the predators.

Leopold was a product of his time. He was a leader in promoting that idea and was directly involved in shooting wolves. 

“He recorded an incident at the very start of his career that later on he would come to regret as he began to think more ecologically,” Curt says.

Leopold and the conservation movement began to consider the intricate relationships between soil, water, plants, animals and people — the whole land community. 

He said of predators, “You can’t love game and hate predators. It’s like loving your right hand and chopping off your left.” 

That was Leopold’s way later on of saying we have to be thinking about predators in a way that gets over the mythologies and prejudices that certain parts of our culture have inherited, Curt explains.

“The mark of Leopold is his ability to constantly grow, revisit his own ideas, correct his own mistakes, and try to think ahead to what would help us live in a more — we would say now — sustainable way, or live in a more loving way,” Curt says.

Aldo Leopold’s Family

Leopold married into a prominent Hispanic ranching family. 

“His wife, Estella was the daughter of this storied family of New Mexico, whose own story went back generations,” Curt says. “Many of us have come to think that his relationship with his wife, Estella, which was very close for the rest of their lives, allowed him to think in a little different way than most of his peers coming from the east and coming from their Northern European backgrounds. That it just brought a different perspective and appreciation of the cultural role of our communities in conservation.”

They had five children who each went into various fields in conservation.

The Restorative Role of Fire

Leopold started out with the same prejudice that any forester of his time had: that fire is a bad thing.

It didn’t take long before he began to rethink the role of fire in ecosystems. And by the end of his trajectory, he was using fire as a management tool, especially to restore prairies and savannahs in the upper Midwest, Curt says.  “So again, Leopold’s story is one of just constantly revisiting his own assumptions and ideas and tweaking them and changing them in some cases pretty dramatically.” 

 

Aldo Leopold burning fire breaks in shack prairie

Aldo Leopold burning fire breaks in shack prairie
(Photo Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

 

Back to the Midwest

Leopold moved back to the Midwest, to Wisconsin, after working for the first half of his career on national forest lands and national refuges. Back in the Midwest, he was in a farming landscape, dominated by small family farms.

His work began to shift. His interest turned to how we can encourage landowners, farmers, foresters, ranchers, etc. to steward their lands in a more healthy way for the entire land community. And that becomes a strong focus for the rest of his life.

Midwest farmland then was really broken: overgrazed, overused and tapped out.

“You didn’t have to be a professional ecologist or land manager or a farmer to recognize how messed up we were,” Curt says. “It was quite evident on the land.”

Soil erosion in the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s changed the attitudes of an entire generation of conservationists, according to Curt.

Leopold once said it this way: “The destruction of soil is the most fundamental kind of economic loss which the human race can suffer.”

“He recognized that fundamentally our health and our wealth and our well-being and even our social and political stability rests on how well we tend our soils,” Curt says. “And this was a lesson an entire generation of conservationists and Americans were learning in the Dust Bowl years.”

Aldo Leopold’s Lessons from Germany

Leopold went to his grandparents’ homeland of Germany in 1935, which was his only trip overseas. He learned a lot from observing how they were managing their forest and their wildlife. When he came back to the United States, he recognized what had gone wrong here.

Ecology was a brand new word to most people — even to most university professors — at the time Leopold went to Germany.

“This new science has fundamental implications for the way we think about all the things we ask the land to provide for us,” Curt says.  “It fundamentally underlies the way we have to think about farming and fisheries and forests and all the other gifts of the land.”

For the rest of his life, Leopold was devoted to trying to understand this field of science as a scientist, share it as a teacher, demonstrate it as a landowner, and advocate for it as a policymaker.

“All these different roles that he played. He was basically trying to say, we have to adjust the way we think about this and the way we interact with the land to reflect these new insights of this science,” Curt says.

Leopold put these ideas out there in a way that other people could understand and would embrace.

Back in Wisconsin, he devoted the next three or four years to his core passion of wildlife conservation. Then in the midst of the Depression, he landed a position as a professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — in what is believed to be the first professorship of its kind.

“Early on in his teaching career, most of his students were young kids off of farms in Wisconsin,” Curt says. Leopold realized that even kids who had grown up on farms had hardly ever seen a rabbit or a squirrel. “It was such a clean landscape, wiped clean of its native vegetation and wildlife, that even species that are common to us today were a rare sight. And so he realized quickly he had to adjust his teaching schedule to do really basic stuff.”

That set him on a path to becoming a communicator who appealed to people’s imaginations and their ability to understand how the world works around us.

 

Aldo Leopold with group participating in controlled prairie burn, UW Arboretum, middle 1940s

Aldo Leopold, second from left, with a group participating in controlled prairie burn at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, in the mid 1940s. (Photo Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

 

Ecological Restoration

Curt credits Leopold with anticipating the modern field of conservation biology and helping to create the field of ecological restoration. 

There were two main branches of conservation: Protecting resources and sustainably using resources.

Then in the early 1930s, Leopold came along and said there is a third way:  not just protecting or using resources, but also restoring.

He undertook the first restoration of native prairie at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“That whole field has grown, of course, immensely since then, and we’re in the middle, actually, of the United Nations Decade on Ecological Restoration,” which has roots in Leopold’s work, Curt points out.

The Land Ethic

“Land ethic” is a phrase Leopold came up with in the last decade of his life.  He wanted to capture this new way of thinking about how humans ought to relate to the land community, Curt says. 

Ancient traditions of land care are found in Indigenous communities all over the world, he notes, but in the modern sense of using the modern tools of science and understanding how ecology relates to this, it was a new way of thinking in the conservation arena. 

Leopold encouraged us to treat land as a community to which we belong, not just a commodity and real estate.

That became the foundation of his essay “The Land Ethic,” in which he argues for rethinking our relationships, incentives and structures of society to reflect a sense of community in the land.  “We are a part of the land, and the land’s part of us. And it’s all connected,” Curt says. 

It was the end product of a life journey. Leopold, in that essay, observed that if the existing trends continued, they would come back to bite us not because they are bad for wildlife but because they are bad for farmers.

“Leopold was among those anticipating those trends, and from a conservation standpoint deeply concerned about what it would mean for our rural communities, for our rural landscapes, and for our rural ecologies,” Curt says.

Leopold Plays Out His Ideas

In 1935, Leopold purchased a small farm along the Wisconsin River for $8 an acre. “It had been farmed for a couple generations and pretty much depleted,” Curt says. There was nothing there except a worn-out old chicken coop hip deep in chicken manure, as his kids described it.

It became a hub for his family’s life and would become known to many readers of Leopold’s writings. 

“Leopold was such an engaging ecological storyteller,” Curt says. “He was sharing what he was observing, the intricate relationships of the plants and animals on the land, the history of the bur oaks, and of the big bluestem and of the chickadees that he was trapping and banding, on and on — these little vignettes of natural history and ecology in the landscape.”

The family was also actively engaged in restoration work on that land and figuring out how to start a prairie and how to get soil to stay in place in the middle of the Dust Bowl years. 

“Planting pines became a family ritual. Every spring they plant thousands of pines,” Curt says. 

They planted 45,000 pine trees, though not all survived as they were still learning. 

“If you were to come to that landscape today, you would hardly recognize it from the historic photos because it is a land reborn. And it’s not just reborn in ecological health, but it’s also reborn in the sense of the human connections to the land,” Curt says.

Today, the Aldo Leopold Foundation stewards that land. “Every day there’s work going on to encourage ecological health and diversity and healthy functioning back in the landscape there,” he says.

 

Also Leopold

Aldo Leopold in the garden at the Shack. (Photo Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives)

 

If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Curt Meine on Aldo Leopold and The Land Ethic, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.

How has Aldo Leopold and The Land Ethic influenced you? Let us know your experience in the comments below. 

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.

Episode 103: How to Create a Backyard Meadow: Simple Steps for Success No Matter the Space

Episode 234: Converting Lawn into Meadow

Episode 247: Promoting a New Garden Ethic, with Benjamin Vogt

Episode 284: Gardening Sustainably in a Changing Climate

Episode 281: The Chemical Age: How Tools of War Became Agricultural Chemicals

Episode 331: The Ecological Garden Blueprint: 10 Essential Steps That Matter Most 

Episode 362: The Ethos of the Ecological Gardening Summit, with Doug Tallamy

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AldoLeopold.org

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Aldo Leopold Foundation on Instagram: @aldoleopoldfoundation

 “The Land Ethic” by Aldo Leopold

Center for Humans and Nature

 International Crane Foundation 

A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There” 75th anniversary edition ebook

Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work” by Dr. Curt Meine

Correction Lines: Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation” by Dr. Curt Meine

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About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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