Leopold observes that people are more passionate about their recreation than they are about nearly anything else. While he has spent the book arguing about the importance of getting back to nature, he also has observed the problem of too many city-dwellers flooding the countryside. He worries “recreation has become a self-destructive process of seeking but never quite finding.” As people search for wilderness to relax in, they end up destroying it.
As Leopold has observed in less detail earlier in the text, people’s desire to experience the wilderness has the unfortunate side effect of destroying the very thing that they love. Leopold is constantly searching for ways to allow people these outdoor experiences without incurring such a high environmental cost.
Recreation can often be evaluated in economic terms. Governments will measure how much the public spends pursing it, or how much it costs to live or buy land in a recreational area. However, there is also an ethical component to recreation. Leopold has observed the evolution of “outdoor manners,” and a code of sportsmanlike conduct.
Like the idea of sportsmanship introduced earlier, Leopold hopes wilderness lovers can learn to develop “outdoor manners.” By this he means he hopes wilderness lovers will be able to ethically enjoy the land in a way that does not destroy it through recreation, and leaves it for future generations to enjoy.
Leopold understands that humans receive joy from interactions with nature. However, he also sees that there are many different perspectives on how to conserve nature. The Wilderness Society wants to exclude roads from many areas, whereas the Chamber of Commerce wants to extend them. Both groups, ironically, make arguments “in the name of recreation.” Similarly, game-farmers often want to kill hawks that attack their animals, whereas bird-lovers want to protect them. Both, again, base their positions on protecting recreation.
Leopold founded the Wilderness Society, and so it follows that he and this organization would have similar views regarding the preservation of the wilderness. This conflict between the Chamber of Commerce and the Wilderness Society is the same basic conflict Leopold has been grappling with throughout the “The Upshot” and “A Taste For Country”—is accessible wilderness a right or a privilege, and at what point does the protection of the wilderness take precedent over human recreation in a place?
Leopold breaks down the idea of recreation into five components. First he looks at the act of trophy gathering. This includes hunting or fishing, taking photographs, or collecting plants or rocks. Trophy hunting allows the recreationist to take home a “certificate” proving that they spent time in the wilderness, and to demonstrate some skill in the process. It is easy to generalize and say that “mass-use tends to dilute the quality of organic trophies like game and fish,” but a greater volume of participants does not dilute some trophies, like photographs, which can be taken again and again by different people.
Trophies are one way that people can extract value from the wilderness. However, depending on the kind of trophy, this can actively destroy the wild space a recreationist is in. Still, harmless trophies like photographs enhance people’s experiences of the wilderness, and make them more likely to want to protect it.
The second enjoyable aspect of recreation is “the feeling of isolation in nature.” Leopold defines a wilderness area as being without roads except on the borders. Ironically, extending roads into the wilderness to make it accessible destroys the wilderness, making it even rarer.
This natural experience is one that cannot be had by an infinite number of people. Like certain kinds of trophy gathering, if too many people travel to a wilderness to feel isolated, they will end up surrounded only by other tourists and nature lovers.
Leopold contrasts the idea of wilderness as a place to isolate oneself with the idea that recreation can provide “fresh-air and a change of scene,” the third component of recreation. This simply means that people go into nature as a contrast to city or suburban life. Mass-use does not dilute the ability of a landscape to provide fresh-air to visitors.
Unlike the previous two ways of experiencing nature, this type of recreation can be experienced by an infinite number of people. Although isolated wilderness can only service a set number of visitors, fresh air can be experienced by anyone coming from an area where the air is less “fresh.”
A fourth facet of recreation is its scientific study. This can be the study of evolution (how things came to be) or ecology (how the environment has maintained itself). Although this field is in its early stages, Leopold hopes nature study will help “the mass-mind towards perception.”
Although often a critic of conventional education, Leopold has always supported education that takes place directly in nature. This, he hopes, helps people develop their own land ethics independently, which will make them better biotic citizens.
Leopold notes that recreation “is not the outdoors, but our reaction to it.” A person’s experience in nature is partially based on the world around them, but also based on their perception of it. Ecological science has opened the eyes of those who study it to “incredible intricacies” of the natural world and the “intrinsic beauty” of the American landscape. Leopold believes “the only true development in American recreational resources is the development of the perceptive faculty.” In other words, it is not the wilderness that needs to be changed, but how visitors see it.
Although wilderness, Leopold believes, is inherently valuable, he also believes that less pure or isolated landscapes are also valuable. He believes people should be able to appreciate these less inherently beautiful or valuable spaces. This is not a question of developing the natural world, but of changing how people perceive it, and teaching them how to find value in all types of land.
Leopold believes that people can learn to appreciate nature anywhere. Weeds growing in the city, grasses in a pasture, redwoods in a forest—all of these can offer a viewer the opportunity to truly “see” the natural world. A person does not need a Ph.D. to become an expert in ecology, since perception “grows at home as well as abroad,” and “cannot be purchased with either learned degrees or dollars.”
As Leopold has often argued, education need not come from a classroom. A person can become a scholar of the land or a responsible biotic citizen simply by observing the natural world. This can happen in the wilderness, but it can also happen in the city—Leopold encourages everyone to take time during their day to practice finding value in what they once believed to be worthless.
The fifth component of recreation is husbandry. This includes any management of the land. Leopold argues that the government should give land to its citizens to manage, as opposed to giving it to field officers to maintain. Instead of paying people to maintain it, citizens could do it for leisure.
In Leopold’s ideal world, everyone would have a land ethic, and so when they took care of a patch of land they would care for it as a member of their community. They would value it inherently, and monitor its health and wellbeing, all while receiving joy from their labor.
Leopold introduces the idea that trophy hunters are “the caveman reborn.” He does not criticize trophy hunters as a category, only those who begin trophy hunting in youth and never outgrow it. Leopold alleges that trophy hunters who never develop a land ethic or conscience are happy to “possess, invade, [and] appropriate” the wilderness. Because of this, these people do not value any land that is not easily accessible to them.
Leopold returns to the idea of trophies one final time. He sees trophy gathering as a way to access the wilderness as a young person, but hopes that a love for physical artifacts will eventually transform into a love for the land as an organism, and a concept, both of which offer nothing physical in return, but are valuable nonetheless.
Leopold concludes his book by stating that recreational development should not focus on making wilderness more accessible to people by building roads into it, but instead should try to build “receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”
In the end, the question of a land ethic and the question of where humans should find value in the land is unrelated to the land itself. The land has always existed for itself, and never for the benefit of humankind. Humankind must then adjust itself accordingly, to care for, respect, and appreciate the land as it is.