Leopold compares the landowner to God; just as “the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” the landowner creates with a shovel, and takes with an axe, shaping the land to his will, and assuming a “divine function”: that “of creating and destroying plants.”
Leopold believes that humans have a responsibility to take care when modifying the land. He sees the two basic tools of land modification, the shovel and the axe, as stand-ins for the two major changes a person can make to the land: creating life, by planting a seed, or destroying life, by killing a plant.
November is “the month of the axe.” It is still warm enough to work outside, but not too cold as to make the work unbearable. Leopold considers definitions of what a conservationist is, and wonders if a conservationist is best defined as someone who wields an axe with thought and care, aware that “with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
Once again Leopold divides the year into periods of time unrelated to the months on the calendar. For him, the late fall is significant as a time of destruction and death, and less significant because it is called “November.” Leopold here defines conservation for the first time, and although he will redefine it later, this simple definition requires a person to consider how their actions, their creation and destruction, affect the world around them.
Leopold considers his own biases when wielding an axe, and notices he favors pine trees over birch trees. Although he is unable to justify why, he eventually decides, “I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.” All people who wield an axe have to grapple with their own biases, and every person’s biases are different. Leopold is fascinated by the way different people can apply different biases, drawn from their own diverse experiences, onto the same tree.
Just as different people notice different flowers on the side of the road depending on who they are, different people care about different trees depending on their upbringing, their life experiences, their profession, and a thousand other factors. Leopold understands no one can act in an unbiased way, but hopes that everyone can become aware of their biases, and not necessarily fight against them, but at least monitor and investigate them when enacting change on the land.
Leopold notices that he has more biases than his neighbors, likely because he knows more about individual species that they dismiss as a monolithic category. He likes the wahoo tree because animals he likes eat it, the hazel because of its coloring, the bitter-sweet because it connects him to his father, and so on. Leopold recognizes that biases towards or against plants are partially familial, influenced by the plants one’s family favored. It is also partially professional, in that biases can be based on which plants harm or help a person’s vocation.
Ironically, greater education has made Leopold even more biased, because he has more information with which to judge the separate trees, causing him to value some more than others. This value is not at all rational—instead it is emotional and ancestral, based on his own personal experiences and the experiences of his family. It is biases like these that conservationists must recognize and work around.
Since buying his land, Leopold has realized how many types of diseases trees can get. Although he wishes there were not so many, he recognizes how oaks felled by disease provide habitats for other animals, like raccoons and grouse, which he enjoys having around.
Leopold understands the idea of the circle of life, and the ways in which the death of a single organism can benefit another. He is able to see how things like tree diseases, which he is biased against, do have a positive use in the grander scheme of the landscape.
In the winter when Leopold and his family begin to harvest dead trees and turn them into firewood, chickadees come to feast on the eggs and insects hidden within the rotting bark. Leopold likes the chickadees, and remarks that if the trees were not diseased, and did not fall, and he did not then chop them apart, there would be no chickadees at all. Leopold also loves the prothonotary warbler, a small yellow songbird. Like the chickadees, it is drawn to rotting trees, and through its song and plumage Leopold can see “proof that dead trees are transmuted into living animals, and vice versa.”
Just as Leopold has learned to appreciate tree diseases, he sees how the chickadees he shares the land with might “appreciate” the trees he cuts apart with his axe. Although a tree has died, it has become home to hundreds of new organisms, which in turn feed hundreds more.