When Leopold first moved to Arizona in the early 1900s, the state’s White Mountains were inaccessible except by horse. Although in other areas of the state there were multiple modes of transportation, only horsemen could make it to the top of the mountain. This was before cars were widespread, and Leopold notes that now, automobiles and airplanes have made the world accessible to all. However, the mountain was temperamental, and in the winter even horsemen couldn’t go up. In the spring and summer, when the paths were clear again, terrifying lightning storms served to impede travelers.
Leopold finds a special kind of value in landscapes that are inaccessible. He is often able to experience these landscapes despite their inaccessibility, and therefore gets the best of both worlds—a relatively unspoiled wilderness, and the ability to explore it. However, Leopold manages to appreciate wildernesses that even he cannot access, and wishes more people could appreciate landscapes that they don’t personally benefit from.
At the top of the mountain was a huge meadow. Although Leopold felt he was freshly discovering it every time he crossed it, the names and dates carved into many of the trees he passed told a different story. These dates stretched back in time, and allow Leopold to trace the history of individual adventurers who had traveled up the mountain before him, year after year, signing the same trees.
Once again Leopold enjoys the ways history is physically carved into trees. Ironically, although he appreciated how untouched this wilderness was, one of his favorite parts was this gesture that clearly demonstrated other humans had visited.
Leopold has not recently returned to White Mountain, and is nervous to see the effects “tourists, roads, sawmills, and logging railroads” have had on it. Still, he is happy to hear that young people describe it “as a wonderful place.”
What Leopold valued was the wildness of the place, and while he appreciates that new people are getting to explore the landscape, what he loved and valued most is likely gone now that it is open to everyone.
Leopold believes mountains have opinions on the wolves that roam them. Leopold himself used to kill wolves on sight, when he was younger and assumed killing wolves would mean more deer for the hunters. However, after seeing a wolf die as a young man, he realized that the mountain did not agree with him that fewer wolves were better. In the years since then, wolf populations were essentially killed off by the state, and deer ran rampant, destroying much of the mountain’s vegetation. Leopold realizes “as a deer herd lives in mortal fears of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.”
As a young man, Leopold belonged to the same camp as many other people, who believed that predators were a threat to human well-being, and should be killed. It was only after watching a wolf die, and considering the perspective of the mountain itself, that Leopold began to realize that the mountain is a complex ecosystem, in which every organism plays a role. Just because humans don’t like a certain animal, doesn’t give them the right to kill it off—it still deserves to live, and still serves an ecological purpose.
Similarly, cowmen, freed from the threat of wolves, fail to “think like a mountain.” Instead of culling their herds (thereby keeping the grazing of the cows sustainable), cowmen let their animals run wild, contributing to the environmental devastation of the dust bowl. Leopold reflects that “too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.” He continues, saying that Thoreau may have been right when he said, “In wildness is the salvation of the world,” but perhaps it is the danger of the wilderness, not the comfort, that saves.
Earlier in the book Leopold argued that true conservationists had to consider how their biases shaped the land, and had to make careful decisions regarding what they would create or destroy. He sees that many farmers and cowmen are not considering how to ethically create or destroy, and instead made decisions based on economics, not on the idea that the land is a living thing, deserving of respect.
Escudilla Mountain in Arizona housed another apex predator, the grizzly bear. Although no one saw the bears, evidence of their kills would be scattered around the mountain. Eventually, progress came to the mountain. Automobiles came, and telephone lines, and eventually a government official asking locals if there were “destructive animals in need of slaying.” The government official went up the mountain and killed the bear, the last grizzly on the mountain. The bear itself was unimpressive, with a patchy, worthless coat. Leopold felt the death of this bear was an unfair trade for so-called “progress.”
As with the wolves, Leopold sees the grizzly as important and inherently valuable, even if it makes agriculture more difficult. In this moment, he sees culture and industry and progress as the opposite of wilderness, and it is only because progress has come to the mountain that a government official even comes to kill the bear. He sees the bear itself, and the way it symbolizes the untamed wilderness, as more valuable than any kind of “progress” humans could make on the mountain.
Killing the last grizzly made the land safe for cows, but twenty years later the cows would be gone and tourists would take over. Leopold remarks that the area has “greater need of bears than of beefsteaks,” and that killing the grizzly was a mistake. Leopold recalls being a young man and criticizing Spanish settlers who eradicated the Native Americans living in the state hundreds of years before. At the time, however, he failed to realize that he too was contributing to an invasion and eradication.
Leopold frequently questions humankind’s ability to make smart decisions about what is valuable in the landscape. Here is an example of humans choosing wrong—assuming agriculture was the most important industry, before realizing tourism was in fact more lucrative. However, this realization came too late, after the wilderness was already being destroyed.