Since the ice age, Leopold says, cranes have arrived on the Wisconsin peat bogs. The bogs themselves contain layers of history, of moss, trees, and the bodies of cranes, the whole landscape a “bridge into the future” and into the past.
Leopold feels like he can see the entire history of time written in the landscape of Wisconsin, and in the bodies of the cranes that migrate there each year. Their behavior is a continuation of the same pattern that has been occurring for tens of thousands of years.
Leopold observes that nature’s worth often derives from its beauty, but that nature can hold value in other complex and difficult-to-describe ways. The cranes, for example, are important because of the longevity of their species, not just because of their physical beauty. The cranes are a “symbol of our untamable past,” a reminder of the scale of “evolutionary time,” their very migration “the ticking of the geologic clock.” The cranes and their behavior serve as a timekeeper and an anchor for humans and for the landscape.
Although humans often want to extract economic value from the land, Leopold also notices that people will look for stunning physical beauty as a marker of a place’s value. He dismisses this outlook, instead finding value in the more everyday qualities of stability and longevity. He loves the cranes and finds them valuable not because they are beautiful to look at, but because they are remnants of the ancient past, reminders of the land from before Europeans, or perhaps any humans, had walked it.
Leopold recounts a broad survey of the history of the cranes and the marshland. First, a glacier cut through the land, then a lake filled the land cleared by the glacier, then it drained away. Instead of waterways, mossy meadows and bogs took over, and the cranes migrated through them. Leopold imagines French trappers stopping by the marshes, then Englishmen making farms and cutting hay from the prairies a century later.
Leopold enjoys taking opportunities to trace back the history of a landscape back through time. Here, he mentally excavates the layers of a peat bog, which naturally preserve layers of sediment back through time. This exercise is part of what is valuable to Leopold—he likes land that allows him to see and consider its history.
During these “haymeadow days,” marsh dwellers celebrated an “Arcadian age” in which plants, animals, and humankind lived together in peace. However, the humans didn’t understand the delicate balance they had struck with the marshes. They wanted to farm not just by the marshes, but in the marshes, and so they converted them into dry farms. This destroyed the area, as the farms were unsuccessful, and the remaining marshes dried up and caught fire. As a result, the number of cranes diminished.
Leopold criticizes the European settlers who moved into the marshes of Wisconsin and were unable to appreciate them for what they were—complex and densely populated ecosystems. Instead, these settlers only saw them for what they were not—arable land. Because of this, they destroyed the wild, but to them worthless, land to make room for farms, from which economic value could be more easily extracted.
Leopold believes that the engineers who drained the marshes didn’t care about the cranes, and imagines them thinking, “What good is an undrained marsh anyhow?” However, the government eventually began to regulate the area, and the marsh was partially re-flooded.
Leopold disagrees with the decision to drain the marshes, and specifically attacks those who he sees as agents of progress—the engineers, who, in his mind, assume that science and mechanization are the solution to every problem. Leopold often argues that people like this seem to create problems in order to be able to solve them with industrialization.
Leopold argues that “the ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate.” However, to many people a marsh that is truly wild and inaccessible is worthless. He alleges that, unfortunately, to appreciate wilderness “we must see and fondle” and therefore destroy the wilderness we were trying to protect.
Leopold is practiced in seeing value in a wilderness that is not technically economically valuable or conventionally beautiful. Here Leopold begins to lay out his land ethic—that land deserves to exist even if it does not directly benefit a human.
Leopold bought a farm in the Sand Counties in the 1930s. The counties are economically poor, but ecologically rich. The counties are full of plants and flowers (like the draba), as well as many endemic bird species. No economist would stop and look at any of these plants or animals, but they enrich Leopold’s life.
Leopold has managed to see beyond the economic richness or the poorness of the land, to other, less easily quantifiable aspects of it. He finds value in many (economically worthless) plants and animals, and in living and working on his farm, even if it is not profitable labor.
Leopold traces the life of an atom from the Paleozoic era to the present. The atom began lodged in a piece of limestone, but was released by the root of an oak tree, traveled through many flowers, into a plover, back to the prairie, and eventually into the sea (taking many detours along the way), where it is lost forever.
Leopold undertakes another historical mental exercise. This time, he travels back in time to visit a single billion-year-old atom, and then follows it into the present, underscoring the age of the landscape, the tiny amount of time humans have inhabited it, and the interconnectedness of all matter.
Tracing another atom, Leopold imagines a farmer coming into the prairie and failing to understand the value of natural diversity. Instead, the farmer only makes room for what he finds useful: wheat and oxen. As a result, he makes no effort to protect the natural landscape, allowing the loam to slowly erode, restricting the rivers, and allowing the passenger pigeon to die off.
Following another atom, Leopold again emphasizes the length of history and the complex web of life. This time, however, he looks at human impact. For almost a billion years the landscape remained unchanged, or changed slowly, but after humans began to aggressively modify it, much of the landscape has changed for the worse.
Leopold meditates on the now extinct passenger pigeon, for whom a monument was built and dedicated in 1947. Society grieves for the passenger pigeon, which was once so populous that its flocks could blot out the sun, but which was hunted to extinction in the early 20th century. Leopold sees that the pigeon was part of a greater exchange: a natural world for an industrialized one. He wonders if this was a fair trade. Although “the gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did,” he asks, “do they add as much to the glory of the spring?”
Leopold is concerned that humans do not view the natural world as something they are obligated to respect or take care of. Additionally, he is upset that not more people care about the human impact on species of plants and animals that have become endangered or completely extinct. Some people see progress as more important than the natural world, but Leopold wonders if the loss of entire species is too steep a price to pay for increased industrialization and convenience.
Leopold worries that not many people know what he now deeply understands: humans travel forward in time not alone, but with all the plants and animals on earth. Choices humans make not only affect them, but the wider natural world as well. Although the individual person who killed the last of any endangered species likely didn’t notice or mourn its loss, Leopold believes it is society’s ability to collectively mourn for a species whose extinction we have caused that separates humans from animals.
Leopold lays out his land ethic again—the idea that humans are part of a community that includes the natural world—without strictly defining it. He sees that many humans act as though they are alone in the world, when in fact they have an impact on, and are therefore responsible for, the well being of much of the natural world. Unlike animals, who are presumably unaware of their greater impact, Leopold argues that humans, who are able to see the destruction they have wrought, should also feel a responsibility to mitigate it.
“Economic moralists” might argue that if the pigeons did not go extinct when they did, farmers protecting their land would have killed them later. Leopold feels this misses the point. He believes that the ability “to love what was” and to celebrate the history of the land is another way in which humans are superior to animals.
Leopold feels that seeing only the economic loss of pigeons is looking at their extinction too narrowly. He believes humanity has a moral obligation to the natural world, and that while humanity is superior, this does not give humans a free pass to destroy the environment. Instead, their superiority burdens them with the responsibility to mourn what they have destroyed, and try to do better in the future.
Leopold considers childhood and the wilderness after some young men canoe past him on a river. He sees that, for them, this trip down the river is “their first and last taste of freedom,” an opportunity for them to make mistakes and take control of their own lives in between the order of school and their professional lives.
One way in which the wilderness is valuable is its ability to grant a person solitude and freedom from the burdens of civilization. Later in the book Leopold will outline a more comprehensive theory of the value of wildernesses and outdoor recreation.
Leopold remembers his own childhood. Going down a nearby river, he felt that the wilderness was unimpressive, interrupted by docks and cabins. On a wider scale, much of the wilderness had been destroyed or developed, to the point that many Wisconsin log cabins were made with wood from Idaho or Oregon. However, in 1943 the State Conservation Department began to actively try and restore a stretch of wilderness along this river. Then, in 1947, dairy farmers organized and petitioned to dam the river to create a cheaper source of local power. Their petition was approved, the river dammed, and the wilderness destroyed for good.
This anecdote about Leopold’s childhood underscores one of his recurring beliefs about how mankind interacts with nature. Leopold does not believe that humans understand the natural world well enough to make huge decisions about how the landscape should look or function. This is an example of humans making a selfish choice that provided them with short-term economic incentives, but destroyed the environment, which they did not value, in the long term.
In his final passage in the chapter, Leopold reflects upon an old oak that had been girdled, and had died. Killing this tree for its wood, to Leopold, seems equivalent to burning one’s furniture in order to keep warm—a last ditch effort that will bring you no joy in the end.
A girdled tree is one that is tied tightly around its trunk with wire, which slowly kills it. Leopold, who only harvests wood from trees who have already died of natural causes, sees this as a selfish way to extract value from the land, and one that is even foolishly self-destructive to the humans themselves.