Leopold believes it is important for people in society to remember the “wild rootage” of their culture. He believes there are three ways to do this. First, he thinks there is value in any experience that reminds a person of history. He calls this “split-rail value.” Second, he finds value in any experiences that remind a person of the importance of the natural world and the circle of life for their own survival. He calls these “man-earth experiences.” Third, Leopold finds value in any activities that force a person to practice “sportsmanship.” By this he means that any activity which requires a person to voluntarily limit their use of mechanical technology, so as to use another method that requires more skill and precision, is valuable.
In this essay, Leopold puts forth his concept of outdoor recreation. At the center of this concept, which he breaks down into three types, is the idea that all recreation should make a person feel closer to the land, and farther from civilization. Split-rail values remind hobbyists of their ancestors’ simpler past, man-earth experiences remind people of the circle of life, and sports force hobbyists to undertake tasks that would be easy with a gadget, but are hard with simpler tools. All of these require hobbyists to be out in the land, thinking critically and carefully about it, and being mindful and moral in their experiences.
Expanding on the concept of sportsmanship, Leopold looks back to an archetypical pioneer, the original sportsman. These pioneers traveled lightly, and adhered to a “one-bullet-one-buck” mentality. Both of these qualities were out of necessity, as a pioneer was unable to carry much equipment, and this included bullets. Additionally, once they killed an animal they had to transport it themselves, and so only killed what they truly needed.
Out of necessity, early explorers of the landscape treated it with respect. They did not have the tools or the knowledge to irrevocably change the landscape, and so they practiced low impact sports. Leopold hopes that contemporary sportsmen, who have the choice to lessen their impact on the land, will take it.
After the pioneer came the “gadgeteer,” a person who uses gadgets and mechanical tools instead of “self-reliance,” “woodcraft, or marksmanship.” The gadgets are often expensive, and their cost is equated with “the economic value of wildlife.”
The idea of the gadgeteer is just one way that mechanization and civilization have encroached upon nature. Leopold, who is skeptical of all progress, is predictably skeptical of this kind of outdoorsman as well.
Leopold admits that while gadgets often replace sportsmanship, it is possible for both to coexist. He gives the example of Theodore Roosevelt, who used contemporary rifles, tents, and dehydrated foods, but was able to use these “mechanical aids, in moderation, without being used by them.”
Still, Leopold understands that some advances are good, and can make concessions for ethical and moral sportsmen who incorporate gadgets into their practice while maintaining a respectful relationship with the land.
Still, Leopold has noticed an overall increase in mechanization, and a decrease in the cultural values (like split-rail values and sportsmanship) he finds so important. He argues that outdoor recreation is “essentially primitive,” and therefore unsuited for mechanization, even as the developed world continues to mechanize.
Leopold is such an advocate for outdoor recreation because of the values it instills. While a student could read his book and learn about his land ethic, a child could also go outside and play in the land and discover for themselves the joy of a more “primitive” world.
He also argues “mechanization offers no cultural substitute for the split-rail value it destroys.” However, he concedes that cropping—that is, reintroducing animals to fish or hunt into a former wilderness—does provide a cultural substitute, as it requires the cropper to remember the man-earth relationship, and practice sportsmanlike restraint.
Leopold explains why he is skeptical of so many types of mechanization—because he feels that it does not provide the same value to the world as the wilderness it overtakes. However, he does see some value in cropping—which is the process of reintroducing game animals that have been overhunted. Although this is unnatural, it teaches croppers to respect the land, care for it, and monitor its health, and attempts to mitigate some of the damage mankind has done.
Leopold proposes a reframing of what a “sport” can be. He suggests that more people should take up the sport of wildlife research, which uses gadgets in a positive way, and does not hurt the landscape. He relays an anecdote of various amateur naturalists who turned their hobbies into vocations. He cautions the reader to not think of this as an example of anyone making “work out of play,” but instead a lesson on how “the most fun lies in seeing and studying the unknown.”
Leopold hopes that time spent outdoors sporting will also serve as time spent learning about the natural world. More than the sports themselves, Leopold values the relationship people form with nature when they are out in it. His definition of sports is wide enough to include his own job—that of an ecologist. Although he does not hunt for trophies, he hunts for knowledge, which is even more valuable.
Leopold points out that although behavior patterns in large populations of animals is observable, individual animals are likely unaware of the role they play in a larger cycle. Leopold suggests that humans may also be playing a role in a larger, species-wide behavior pattern, while individuals remain unaware. He suggests looking to the animal kingdom for “analogies to our own problems.”
Leopold worries that humans have been destroying the natural world and not even noticing. He hopes that society as a whole will grow more self-aware and will become better at analyzing its own effects—both positive and negative— on the natural world.
Leopold ends the chapter by reminding the reader that wildlife and nature were once interesting enough to occupy a person’s leisure time. He suggests the world would be better off if people turned back towards nature as a site of leisure, while also treating it as a site of new wisdom.
Once again, Leopold explains that he finds hobbies and leisure time essential because they allow people to live in nature, as well as learn from it.