From the 1840s to when Leopold wrote his book in the 1940s, farmers in Wisconsin happily chopped down tamarack trees for wood. However, they’ve recently begun to plant the trees, realizing that the tamaracks have a hidden value. The trees allow moss and wildflowers to grow, and so by chopping down this one type of tree, for almost a century farmers have been accidentally destroying an entire ecosystem. Leopold applauds this “revolt against the tedium of the merely economic attitude towards land.”
Leopold has always loved the tamarack trees for the golden color they turn in the fall, and is happy to see that other farmers have begun to see that the trees are valuable for more than just their wood. They contribute to the complex Wisconsin ecosystem—a kind of contribution that cannot be easily quantified.
Leopold is unimpressed with contemporary formal education. Instead, he is impressed by a chemist who taught himself about the history of the passenger pigeon by extensively reading archival material about it, and an Ohio housewife who obsessively observed and banded sparrows in her backyard, becoming a world-renowned ornithological expert.
Leopold frequently applauds those who are self taught. These people follow their passions, as opposed to what their teachers tell them to study, and without outside help manage to develop a thoughtful, nuanced relationship with the land, the very thing Leopold is constantly trying to encourage in his readers and, presumably, his students.
Leopold feels the education system does not encourage this kind of amateur passion project. Instead, it places emphasis on rote memorization and indoor labs over outdoor exploration. Leopold admits that medical students or zoology students would benefit from memorization of animal parts or species, but believes that most people would benefit more from a broader knowledge of the natural world than they would from a list of facts and terms. Lab work and fieldwork should go hand in hand, and although they do at a professional level, in schools they remain separate. Most schools only make time for lab work.
As a professor, Leopold is not opposed to all types of formal education. In fact, he admits that for certain students it makes sense to learn specific facts and to focus narrowly. However, he believes that the general population would benefit from a broader view of the environment, and from an introduction to a kind of land ethic (the idea that humans and the land exist in a community together).
Leopold imagines a hypothetical student, who is book smart, but unable to answer questions about a patch of land just by looking at it—a skill Leopold believes more people should have. Leopold thinks it is essential that everyone understands how interconnected the natural world is. He wishes everyone understood that each individual person is only “a cog in an ecological mechanism.”
Although this specific anecdote is hypothetical, it is likely also based on real students Leopold knew. Leopold believes that a traditional formal education often robs students of the opportunities to explore the natural world on their own terms, and prevents them from understanding their place in the larger machine of the world.
Leopold knows it will be impossible for people to fully harmonize with the land, but he thinks it is important to try. He wonders how it is possible to teach people how to live in harmony with the land when so many don’t even consider the land itself. He argues “education and culture” have become “almost synonymous with landlessness.” In Leopold’s mind, the more educated and cultured a person is, the less connected they will be to the natural world.
In Leopold’s experience, the more educated a person is, the less connected with the land they become. He doesn’t have a solution, but does often argue that a formal education isn’t necessary if someone is already passionate about the environment and chooses to follow their own passions.