While Leopold officially owns one hundred and twenty acres of land, he remarks that he owns all the land he can walk across at dawn, regardless of what is legally his. When he walks in the early mornings, Leopold remarks that “it is not only boundaries that disappear,” but the human sense of being bounded, limited, and fenced in.
During certain times of day, certain boundaries no longer matter. Arbitrary human borders do not technically divide the land, as Leopold has observed earlier in the book. Like the birds before him, he is happy to treat the entire landscape as a single, unified entity.
Leopold lists the “tenants” of his land. He jokes that they don’t pay their rents, but do police their own boundaries. In the early morning in July he goes out onto his porch and watches his animal “renters” start their days. First a series of field sparrows call out and declare that a small portion of the land belongs to them. Then a rabbit claims his small corner, then a robin, then an indigo bunting, then a wren, and then a series of other birds. Leopold refers to these animals as “performers.”
Leopold thinks of his land as something that belongs not only to him but to the animals that live upon it. As opposed to thinking of them as intruders or outsiders, Leopold understands that he is living in a complex community, rather than “owning” it, and the animals deserve a place on his property as much as he does.
Together with his dog, Leopold leaves his porch and begins to explore. He notes that his dog is uninterested in the performances going on around him, and is more interested in the scents of their tenants than their sounds. Leopold waits for his dog to “translate” the scents of the animals for him, each animal and its corresponding odor a “poem.”
Leopold understands that his dog has a different set of knowledge than he does, and that this knowledge can be useful. He feels no sense of jealousy or wounded pride, but instead defers to his pet, who better understands the scents and behaviors of the animals living on his property.
As the sun rises, the birds begin to quiet and Leopold hears his neighbor’s tractor. He observes that the world is no longer his, as the boundaries drawn by the county clerks, who keep track of who owns what land, have been reinstituted with the rising of the sun.
As the day progresses, dawn redraws human boundaries. Clocks don’t merely mark the passage of time, but the strength of laws and human influence.
Each week, from April to September, many new wild flowers begin to bloom. Leopold remarks that while no one could observe the blossoming of every flower, everyone is bound to notice at least a few. He suspects he could find out a lot about a person based on the flowers he or she noticed.
Different flowers would interest different people depending on their hobbies and jobs. Farmers, for example, would be more likely to notice weeds, while florists would notice flowers that they could sell in their shops. This is unrelated to a person’s education, Leopold suggests—the highly educated might notice few flowers, but the self-educated might notice many.
In July, Leopold is especially happy to celebrate the “prairie birthday” of the Silphium plant, which blooms in a stretch of unmoved prairie protected by the fence of a cemetery. It is the only patch of Silphium left in this half of his county, and a few weeks after it blooms, in early August, Leopold notices that the fence of the cemetery has been moved and the flowers mowed. He mourns its mowing, predicting that eventually it will be unable “to rise above the mowing machine.” When it finally dies, “with it will die the prairie epoch.”
To Leopold, Silphium represents the prairie. It is one of the last native plants that continues to bloom, and although it has no agricultural purpose, it has, by accident, been allowed to remain. Much of the wild prairie has been domesticated, and so Leopold especially appreciates this economically valueless plant, that nonetheless represents the long history of the native flora of the region. It is no accident Leopold observes it growing by a cemetery, since the loss of the final Silphium will be the death of the idea of the wild prairie entirely.
Each year, Leopold calculates, 100,000 people drive past the patch of Silphium. But of those people he bets only twelve or so would even notice if it disappeared forever. Leopold complains that “mechanized man” is happy to clean up the landscape, disregarding the flowers that grow upon it. He ironically suggests that no one should be allowed to take a history or a botany class, lest it make them miss the flowers which will soon be mowed to extinction.
Leopold criticizes both the educational system, which makes people ignorant of the natural world, and the industrialization of the land, which destroys it. He finds that the educated are more likely to be happy to “clean up the landscape” by domesticating it and turning it into cities or suburbs or farmland. He also finds that education often turns students inwards, making them less likely to notice the natural world around them.
During the weekend, when Leopold lives on his farm, he lives in the backwoods and sees all kinds of wild plants. During the week, when he is teaching in the city, he must hunt for flowers in the suburbs and on the university campus. He has observed that approximately twice as many species of flower bloom on his farm as on campus. He wonders “whether we cannot have both progress and plants.”
Leopold often sees scientific progress and the preservation of the natural world as being at odds. As a professor and a scientist, he does hope there is some way to have “both progress and plants,” but anecdotally has not found many people to find this kind of compromise.
Leopold notes how, surprisingly, railroads have ended up protecting many native plants, by preventing anyone from plowing the prairie between the tracks and railroad fences.
Although only Leopold finds these stretches of free prairie to have value, he appreciates the railroads, which find it more financially practical not to mow these strips of grassland, thus allowing the natural prairie to endure.
Leopold notes that humans “grieve only for what we know,” and do not miss the loss of species we did not know existed, or even people from other cultures who we did not know well or personally. The Silphium, for example, will not be missed by those who know it “only as a name in a botany book.” From personal experience, Leopold knows the Silphium plants are hearty, with deep roots. He suspects the oldest plants in the cemetery are older than the oldest gravestones. Leopold compares the eventual loss of the Silphium to the loss of the buffalo, a loss no one mourned at the time it occurred.
Leopold complains that not enough people consider the health of the entire landscape, and do not consider the ways the loss of a single species can affect the land as a whole. He also reflects on how the death of a single species is often not noticed until much later. A single hunter killing an animal has no way of knowing how that death will impact the world, even if it is the last of its species. Leopold also criticizes those who are educated only in books, and not in the world, and who therefore only know plants and animals as static and dead, and never observe them in nature. Later, Leopold will argue that one central quality separating humans from animals is the ability to acknowledge mistakes and mourn for extinct species.