Leopold sees the land not as a resource free for him to exploit, but as a community in which he must participate. In considering the land community, Leopold includes the physical landscape, like rocks and rivers, as well as all the living beings that require the land to survive, including plants, animals, and humans who call the environment their home. He hopes that “we may begin to use it with love and respect.” However, he realizes that many people see the land as merely something they live on, as opposed to something they live in and with. Leopold recognizes that to most people, and, crucially, to the governments that regulate the land, nature has no value beyond its economic one. As a result, Leopold is aware that many people see the land as a resource to be manipulated, mined, and extracted, as opposed to an entity to be looked after and treated well, a member of the community which can yield not only physical but cultural harvests.
Leopold recognizes that many people are trained only to view land in terms of its economic resources. Because of this, he recognizes that much of land management is structured around economic interests, as opposed to ecological ones. Leopold criticizes economists who “mistake physical opulence for riches,” and therefore only see land with a great “physical endowment” as inherently valuable. He describes land-relations as being “strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.” That is, people see the land as something they deserve, something free for them to take, as opposed to something they can live peacefully with and must actively maintain and support. Unfortunately, Leopold notes “one basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value.” In Wisconsin, for example, only 5% of plants and animals “can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use.” When looking for ways to protect more plants or animals than the “valuable” ones, “evidence had to economic in order to be valid.” That is, monetary value has to be manufactured to justify the continuation of a species. Unfortunately, Leopold recognizes that “entire biotic communities” like “marshes, bogs, dunes, and deserts” have no real economic value and therefore are not carefully preserved. Leopold often uses economists as a foil, a stand-in for a group of people who cannot see real value in the land, and only wonder what can be financially taken from it. Describing a beautiful weed called lupine, he wonders, “Do economics know about lupines?” later remarking “I have never met an economist who knows Draba,” another type of (economically valueless) flower.
Leopold argues that the land can offer value beyond its pure economic worth, and that economics are not necessarily a useful indicator of value. He dedicates much of the book to hypothesizing a “land ethic,” or a way to ethically live on and with the land. This, in his mind, cannot be based in economics, and so he looks for alternative sources of value. He believes, for example, “birds should continue as a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of economic advantage to us.” Similarly, Leopold looks for new metrics by which to measure the value of predators, who are often actively killed for supposed economic or biological reasons. Farmers with cows pushed for the eradication of the wolves, and governments complied, considering that this would make farms more profitable, but it destroyed a natural balance, and led to a destructive increase in the deer population. Leopold notes that “predators are members of the community” and argues that “no special interest has the right to exterminate them for the sake of a benefit, real or fancied, to itself.” Additionally, even from a purely economic perspective, this kind of disregard for the food chain or the land pyramid hurts the value of the land. Unchecked deer destroy valuable crops, and valuable scenery that helps encourage tourism. Leopold’s proposal is to “quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
In the chapter “Wildlife in American Culture,” Leopold clearly proposes three ways mankind can evaluate land aside from economics. Firstly, he argues that there is “value in any experience that reminds us of our distinctive national origins and evolution, i.e. that stimulates awareness of history.” He cites, as an example, a child who, wearing a raccoon skin hat, would feel some connection to frontiersman Daniel Boone. Secondly, Leopold argues “there is value in any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain, and of the fundamental organization of the biota.” This would include the act of farming or raising one’s own food. It would also likely extend to the act of cutting one’s own firewood, or maintaining a garden. Finally, Leopold argues that sportsmanship, here defined by “voluntary limitation” on the use of “gadgets in the pursuit of wild things,” is an important way to see value in the wilderness. A hunter, by purposefully practicing self-restraint, learns a new kind of respect for the animals he tracks, and may learn to place greater value on the few kills he makes.
Leopold also makes it clear that, just as humans consider and evaluate nature, nature is making its own evaluations of itself and of humankind. Leopold goes into the minds of the local flora and fauna he has encountered across North America. He indulges in some anthropomorphism, imagining their thoughts and motivations. He believes plants and animals only care about themselves, and their own histories — as he describes in the first section of the Almanac, “the mouse knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it underground,” and the hawk “has no opinion why the grass grows, but he is well aware that snow melts in order that hawks may again catch mice.” In Leopold’s view, each element of an ecosystem sees the world in terms of what it can offer themselves, without thinking about the wider effects. Similarly, Leopold notes “my dog does not care where heat comes from, but he cares ardently that it come and soon.” However, just because nature can be indifferent towards mankind, does not give mankind an excuse to be indifferent towards nature. Leopold argues that because human beings have the capacity to enact change (positive or negative) it is their duty to work for, and not against, the land they live on.
Leopold understands that for humankind to truly treat the environment ethically, some kind of value must be placed on it. However, he disagrees that economic valuations are the most useful way to assess the health or quality of the land. Instead, Leopold argues that using economics as the only measure of worth necessarily means overlooking other reasons plants, animals, and landscapes deserve to exist. Although he has studied ecology for the majority of his life, he admits he doesn’t understand everything, and therefore wonders how anyone could claim to know clearly what is valuable in nature, and what is not. Instead, he challenges readers to consider nature’s intrinsic value, or else to consider alternative forms of measurement.
The Value of the Land ThemeTracker
The Value of the Land Quotes in A Sand County Almanac
During every week from April to September there are, on the average, ten wild plants coming into first bloom. In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them. He who steps unseeing on May dandelions may be hauled up short by August ragweed pollen; he who ignores the ruddy haze of April elms may skid his car on the fallen corollas of June catalpas. Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about this vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.
Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.
This much, though, can be said: our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of the incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.
And so they live and have their being—these cranes—not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun. The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.
We all strive for safety, posterity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is being Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the world, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.
Since the beginning, time had gnawed at the basaltic hulk of the Escudilla, wasting, waiting, and building. Time built three things on the old mountain, a venerable aspect, a community of minor animals and plants, and a grizzly.
The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire of an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together.
The bureau chief who sent the trapper was a biologist versed in the architecture of evolution, but he did not k now that spires might be as important as cows. He did not foresee that within two decades the cow country would become tourist country, and as such have greater need of bears than of beefsteaks.
The Congressmen who voted money to clear the ranges of bears were the songs of pioneers. They acclaimed the superior virtues of the frontiersman, but hey strove with might and main to make an end of the frontier.
The physics of beauty is one department of natural science still in the Dark Ages. Not even the manipulators of bent space have tried to solve its equations. Everybody knows, for example, that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead. An enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost.
It is easy to say tat the loss is all in our mind’s eye, but is there any sober ecologist who will agree? He knows full well that there has been an ecological death, the significance of which is inexpressible in terms of contemporary science. A philosopher has called this imponderable essence the numenon of material things. It stands in contradistinction to phenomenon, which is ponderable and predictable, even to the tossings and turnings of the remotest star.
The grouse is the numenon of the north woods, the blue jay of the hickory groves, the whisky-jack of the muskegs, the piñonero of the juniper foothills. Ornithological texts do not record these facts. I suppose they are new to science, however obvious to the discerning scientist. Be that as it may, I here record the discovery of the numenon of the Sierra Madre: the Thick-billed Parrot.
There is much confusion between land and country. Land is the place where corn, gullies, and mortgages grow. Country is the personality of land, the collective harmony of its soil, life, and weather. Country knows no mortgages, no alphabetical agencies, no tobacco road; it is calmly aloof to these petty exigencies of its alleged owners. That the previous occupant of my farm was a bootlegger mattered not one whit to its grouse; they sailed as proudly over the thickets as if they were guests of a king.
Poor land may be rich country, and vice versa. Only economists mistake physical opulence for riches. Country may be rich despite a conspicuous poverty of physical endowment, and its quality may not be apparent at first glance, or at all times.
Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and co-operate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the co-operations. You can regulate them—cautiously—but not abolish them.
The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little is known about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.
I am sure those thousand geese are paying human dividends on a dollar value. Worth in dollars is only an exchange value, like the sale value of a painting or the copyright of a poem. What about the replacement value? Supposing there were no longer any painting, or poetry, or goose music? It is a black thought to dwell upon, but it must be answered. In dire necessity somebody must write another Iliad, or paint an ‘Angelus,’ but fashion a goose? ‘I, the Lord, will answer them. The hand of the Lord hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel created it.’…If, then, we can live without goose music, we may as well do away with stars, or sunsets, or Iliads. But the point is that we would be fools to do away with any of them.
A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.
In short, a land ethic changes the role of Home sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.
In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating. Why? Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves.
In the biotic community, a parallel situation exists. Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: it was to drip milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth. At the present moment, the assurance with which we regard this assumption is inverse to the degree of our education.
The ordinary citizen today assumes that science knows what makes the community clock tick; the scientist is equally sure that he does not. He knows that the biotic mechanism is so complex that is workings may never be fully understood.
When the logic of history hungers for bread and we hand out a stone, we are at pains to explain how much the stone resembles bread. I now describe some of the stones which serve in lieu of a land ethic.
One of the basic weaknesses in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.
It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to the land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.
Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of the land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than towards, an intense consciousness of land.
Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.
Wilderness was never a homogenous raw material. It was very diverse, and the resulting artifacts are very diverse. These differences in the end-product are known as cultures. The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflects a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.
For the first time in the history of the human species, two changes are now impending. One is the exhaustion of wilderness in the more habitable portions of the globe. The other is the world-wide hybridization of cultures through modern transport and industrialization. Neither can be prevented, and perhaps should be, but the question arises weather, by some slight amelioration of the impending changes, certain values can be preserved that would otherwise be lost.
To the laborer in the sweat of his labor, the raw stuff on his anvil is an adversary to be conquered. So was wilderness an adversary to the pioneer.
But to the laborer in repose, able for the moment to cast a philosophical eye on his world, that same raw stuff is something to be loved and cherished, because it gives definition and meaning to his life. This is a plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.
Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility. The shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage in the land assumes that he has already discovered what is important; it is such who prate of empires, political or economic, that will last a thousand years. It is only the scholar who appreciates that all history consists of successive excursions from a single starting-point, to which man returns again and again to organize yet another search for a durable scale of values. It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise.
Recreation, however, is not the outdoors, but our reaction to it. Daniel Boone’s reaction depended not only on the quality of what he saw, but on the quality of the mental eye with which he say it. Ecological science has wrought a change in the mental eye. It has disclosed origins and functions for what to Boone were only facts. It has disclosed mechanisms for what to Boone were only attributes. We have no yardstick to measure this change, but we may safely say that, as compared with the competent ecologist of the day, Boone say only the surface of things.
The trophy-recreationist has peculiarities that contribute in subtle ways to his own undoing. To enjoy he must possess, invade appropriate. Hence the wilderness that he cannot personally see has no value to him. Hence the universal assumption that an unused hinterland is rendering no service to society. To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part. (Is my share in Alaska worthless to me because I shall never go there? Do I need a road to show me the arctic prairie, the goose pastures of the Yukon, the Kodiak bear, the sheep meadows behind McKinley?)
It would appear, in short, that the rudimentary grades of outdoor recreation consume their resource-base; the higher grades, at least to a degree, create their own satisfactions with little or no attrition of land or life. It is the expansion of transport without a corresponding growth of perception that threatens us with qualitative bankruptcy of the recreational process. Recreation development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.