Leopold believes that natural beauty is unquantifiable. He gives an example of a landscape that is made beautiful by the addition of a ruffled grouse. However, he notes that a grouse is a tiny percentage of the “mass or the energy of an acre.” Still, it has some special power that brings beauty to the woods where it resides.
Leopold believes that the true value of the land is unquantifiable, and is even beyond rational thought. He says this because he believes a single species can enhance a landscape in a way that has nothing to do with its actual contribution in weight or energy, but instead has to do with its spirit, or some other indefinable quality.
After listing other birds that greatly enhance their environments, Leopold observes, “ornithological texts do not record these facts.” Nonetheless, he finds them important, and tells the story of seeing a rare and shy Thick-billed Parrot in the Sierra Madre.
Many birds enhance their environments in the same way as the grouse. Although just one of hundreds or thousands of species, the presence of certain organisms somehow brighten their entire ecosystem.
Leopold offers some advice: he argues that a person should never return to a wilderness they loved when they were young. The golden lily will become “gilded,” and returning “tarnishes a memory.” This is the reason Leopold never returned to the Delta of the Colorado, which he canoed in 1922. When he traveled it as a young man, the water was clean and clear, and plants and animals were thriving. Now, he suspects the Delta has been converted into pasture for cows. He laments that a “freedom from fear has arrived, but a glory has departed from the green lagoons.”
One downside to time passing is that spaces that were once wild can become the victims of progress and industry. Although Leopold understands the human urge to expand civilization into the natural world, he wishes more of the world remained natural. He feels the trade-off of wilderness for farmland is not a worthwhile exchange.
The Delta was almost embarrassingly fertile, hunting was easy because there were so many birds in each flock, and the deer themselves were fat. However, there wasn’t a lot of water, and most of it was salty. The wilderness was so wild it did not yet have place names. Leopold recalls seeing flocks of cranes, and while he suspected they were Sandhill cranes, the name didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were wild, and he was sharing the wilderness with them. He has heard the lagoons are now used to raise cantaloupes. He proclaims, “man always kills the thing he loves,” and has killed much of the wilderness.
What Leopold loved about the Delta region was that it was wild. He is unhappy to hear that what he loved has been converted into something he personally finds much less valuable, because it is much more common—farmland. The region was only important to him because of its ecosystem. Converted into farmland, like so much of the world, Leopold feels that the unique, lovely part of the area has been “killed,” and all its value stripped away.
Reflecting on the Rio Gavilan, a river in the Sierra Madre mountain range, Leopold recalls the “pulsing harmony” of the wilderness. Most rivers have been, in Leopold’s mind, misused. Even when wilderness areas are converted into parks, the music often becomes pure noise.
Although Leopold doesn’t define his philosophy until later, this description of the river is an example of his idea of the land pyramid—a concept he’s invented in which all parts of the land are interconnected in a complex pyramid-shaped web.
Leopold wonders if it is possible for humans and nature to live in harmony. In the Gavilan region, indigenous people lived in and with the wilderness for many years. He can see the ruins of their buildings, and understands that they, like he, saw the land not as “hard and stony,” but a “land of milk and honey.” Historically, the indigenous people in the region would kill a buck on a strict schedule and only during certain months: no earlier than November, no later than January. The land kept its own time. The oak trees, for example, fed a food chain of animals, beginning with the shedding of their acorns every fall.
This is one a few moments where Leopold considers alternative ways humans can interact with the land, and one of the only times where he acknowledges the indigenous people who lived on much of North America before European settlers moved in. These people lived more in line with what Leopold will call his land ethic—they saw they land as a living thing worthy of respect, and treated it with care and kindness.
Leopold criticizes academia for having experts and professors focus their studies so narrowly. He compares this to listening only to a single instrument in the symphony of nature. He argues that looking at the whole symphony, or nature as a whole, is “the domain of poets.” He continues, “professors serve science and science serves progress.”
Leopold sees academia as forcing people to specialize too narrowly. He believes the best way to consider the natural world is to look at it as a complicated entity made up of many important, diverse parts, as opposed to focusing in on only a single element.
Science contributes to the world both materially and morally, but Leopold argues its most important (if most dangerous) contribution is the scientific point of view, the use of facts. For example, he worries that ideas about the music of a river have no place in science, such that a scientist would argue in favor of making a river more accessible to the public, as opposed to preserving its wildness.
Leopold also worries that science is concerned less with understanding the natural world and more with taming it. He considers science as serving progress more than it serves the preservation of nature, and sees many scientific discoveries as contributing to the destruction of the wilderness.