The Round River was a fabled Wisconsin river, described in folktales, which was said to flow in a circle. Leopold explains that this was a parable, and the state of Wisconsin is itself a round river, a loop of energy, a circle of life. Leopold extends this metaphor, describing economics as being similar to riding on logs floating on the river, and national planning as being similar to the urge to control every log floating in the river at once.
The round river is simply another way of presenting the idea of the circle of life. Later in the book Leopold will introduce the idea of a land pyramid, which is a similar concept—the idea that the land is made up of many disparate elements and organisms, that are all connected largely based on who eats what.
Leopold complains that children in school are taught facts about biology, geology, agriculture, and engineering, but not about the importance of natural waterways. To understand water and streams, a student must understanding the “whole biotic landscape,” and must not specialize, as is often encouraged in schools. Leopold thinks the new field of ecology is the best way to understand the natural world and the round river of the ecosystem.
Leopold often complains that education forces students to focus on specific facts or organisms, but not on the greater ecosystem. He believes that to truly understand the natural world, a person must first understand how complicated and interconnected the ecosystem is, which cannot happen if everyone only specializes.
Leopold compares conservation to a friendship, in that it requires a harmony between humans and the land, and requires humans to accept everything about the land. For example, he explains “you cannot love game and hate predators.” A person can regulate the land, but not destroy any part of it, because it requires all parts to thrive.
Leopold believes that a true and successful conservationist will take into account the value of the land as a single unit, which includes all the organisms that live within it. A true conservationist will not pick and choose their personal favorite organisms to preserve.
Leopold believes the most important discovery of the century has been how complicated the land is. He thinks it is essential not to evaluate individual components of the land as useful or valuable, but to consider the land as a whole. He argues that it is impossible to fully understand it, and if it cannot be fully understood, it is unreasonable to think that a person would be able to evaluate separate parts of it.
Although Leopold has dedicated his life to studying and understanding the land, more than anything else he has learned how little he truly knows. He believes this is an important thing for any conservationist to acknowledge—even when they are doing their educated best, there will always be unknowns because the natural world is so vast and complex.
Leopold shares an anecdote about a German mountain. Humans have carefully managed it for over two hundred years. However, before it was carefully managed, one half of the mountain was clear-cut, and the other was preserved for deer hunting. Even though both sides of the mountain have benefited from two centuries of conservation, the soil on the side that was formerly clear-cut, and the trees themselves, are still unhealthy.
Even centuries out, Leopold observes that human impact on the land remains tangible. He uses this example to demonstrate how much human intervention can affect the natural world, and how hard it is to undo the effects of human damage to the landscape.
Leopold worries that conservation in America only cares about “show pieces,” and prioritizes the preservation of a few flashy organisms over the “cogs and wheels,” by which Leopold means the basic elements of an ecosystem that give it balance and harmony. He also argues that saving a single “show piece” species in a single location will not save it for long. To ensure the longevity of a species, a conservationist must save it “in many places if it is to be saved at all.”
Throughout the book Leopold has expressed anxiety around the idea that even self-proclaimed conservationists only want to conserve land that is valuable to them because it is beautiful. He argues that the natural world is incredibly complex and requires all of its elements to be protected in order to survive, not just beautiful or exciting species or landscapes.
Leopold argues that people use the wrong metrics when considering the best way to protect the natural world. He dislikes that many use economic arguments, and wishes instead people could develop “a refined taste in natural objects.” For example, scientists argue that wolves are necessary in an ecosystem because they kill deer. Hunters, in turn, argue that they can kill the deer themselves. Similarly, as forests in the north of Wisconsin are replanted, white cedars are omitted because they grow too slowly to be economically viable, even though they provide useful ecological diversity.
Leopold struggles to find metrics by which people can measure the landscape. Later in the book he will introduce the concept of a land ethic, which will provide an alternative to looking for aesthetic or economic value in the landscape. This land ethic treats the land as inherently valuable, and appreciates it for its complexity and includes all its many (ostensibly “worthless”) species.
Humans have disrupted the biotic stream, and introduced new domesticated plants and animals into the ecosystem via farming, which affects the circle of life. Leopold does not yet know how replacing domesticated animals for wild ones will change the land, but he is not optimistic about the future of the landscape.
Leopold continually worries about the accidental human impact on the land. He knows humans are changing it, perhaps irrevocably, but also understands that the land is so complicated he will never be able to predict the exact changes that have occurred.
Leopold describes an ecological education as preparing a person to live alone “in a world of wounds.” People have hurt the earth, but few take the time to examine the damage.
Unfortunately, to fully understand the natural world and humankind’s place in it is also to see the degree to which humans have destroyed and disrespected the land in which they live.
Leopold thinks that, when modifying the environment, every person should consider two criteria: whether their change will maintain the fertility of the land, and whether their change will maintain a diverse ecosystem.
This theory is related to Leopold’s earlier theory of conservation, which sees humans as stewards and gods who have the ability to create and destroy. He hopes people deploy these powers with empathy and critical thought.
Leopold worries about “clean farming,” a kind of farming which is mean to restore the soil, but also requires that every animal and plant in the ecosystem be controlled by the farmer. Wild flora and fauna, as a result, are pushed out.
This kind of farming is selfish—it considers only the immediate needs of the farmer, but none of the needs of the land, or the flora and fauna that have inhabited it for hundreds if not thousands of years.
Leopold laments that private landowners do little to conserve their own land. He has observed that economic motivation wrecks the land, and wonders if it can be repurposed to instead protect the land. He notes that there is no social stigma against owning unhealthy or polluted land as long as it continues to make its owners money. He hopes that the next generation can be provided with a “conservation education,” and learn to value the land in more ways than one.
Leopold has noticed that most people only make an effort to care for the land if they are paid to do so. It is not enough to feel some kind of moral obligation to help the land—instead, people want some kind of economic recompense, even if they are required to do very little. He believes this is an issue of personal morals and values, and believes that the next generation could be taught to more naturally value the health of the land.