Although Aldo Leopold himself attended the Yale School of Forestry and spent the last fifteen years of his life as a professor at the University of Wisconsin, he was acutely aware of the limits of schooling, and of academic knowledge. Instead, in A Sand County Almanac, Leopold extols the virtues of a natural (or naturalist’s) education — one that comes from careful, patient observation of the natural world. He understands the purpose of a conventional education, and the ways in which children and adults can learn in academic settings, however, in his personal experience, and in his surveys of the world, Leopold has observed that much essential knowledge is either un-teachable, or else left untaught. He instead dreams of a world where the content of a school’s curriculum more closely aligns with a useful working knowledge of the natural world, and through his book attempts to inspire a generation of self-motivated students to go outside and learn about nature.
Leopold criticizes what he sees as a failure of the educational system, which has left thousands of people without a working knowledge of the natural world. Leopold has many theories of education, one of which is that education might be “a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth,” leaving its recipients (intellectually) poorer than when they began. He compares students to a goose, who, once he has traded away his natural instincts “is soon a pile of feathers.” Although perhaps less fatal, Leopold argues that abandoning one’s innate sense of the natural world is potentially dangerous, both for the student and for nature itself. In describing one of Wisconsin’s native flowers, the Silphium, he remarks that although 100,000 cars pass by a graveyard where it blooms extensively, almost no one has noticed the flower. Leopold has been charting its demise due to the development of its natural range and overzealous landscapers, but fears he will be the only one to miss it. He notes that in those cars “must ride at least 100,000 people who have ‘taken’ what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who has ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise.” Education, in this situation, has failed to attune its students to the very real threat of the eradication of a native species. Leopold also criticizes his own education, during which he learned nothing about ornithology or Mammalogy — the study of birds or mammals — that would prove crucial in his later field studies. He sees schooling as an “educational marathon,” during which an outsized importance is placed on laboratory technique and memorization, as opposed to “some understanding of the living world,” which is more useful to the average citizen (if not to a medical student or a doctor, who will, Leopold acknowledges, benefit from memorization of bones as well).
Still, despite his skepticism, Leopold has a sense of what an ideal education would look like. He believes a proper “conservation education” would build “an ethical underpinning for land economics and a universal curiosity to understand the land mechanism.” His entire book is a lesson on ethical environmentalism. Although not always explicitly didactic, he continually attempts to convey a sense of the importance and fragility of the environment with each anecdote and illustration. Leopold proposes a list of questions he believes a well-educated student should be able to answer. For example, if they see ragweed growing in a field can they speak about whether “this field [would] be a good place to look for quail?” or “if all the ragweed in this watershed were short, would that tell us anything about the future of floods in the stream?” Leopold suspects most students would find his questions “insane,” but argues that “any amateur naturalist with a seeing eye should be able to speculate intelligently on all of them, and have a lot of fun doing it.” He wonders, “If education does not teach us these things, then what is education for?” However, Leopold also acknowledges there are downsides to receiving the proper education. Because so few do, they are disproportionately left to live “alone in a world of wounds.” As a result, an “ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the mark of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
Leopold proposes that there are many places to uncover information outside of traditional academic settings, and that the best educated men and women will not necessarily come from the academy. He describes two amateur naturalists — one man, a professional and industrial chemist, has “read 100,000 documents in his search for pigeon data,” and has become the most knowledgeable man alive on the extinct passenger pigeon. Leopold notes that this task, which would be boring for many, brings to this man “adventure, exploration, science, and sport.” The second naturalist is an “Ohio housewife” who tagged and tracked the song sparrows who visited her backyard garden. “In ten years she knew more about sparrow society, sparrow politics, sparrow economics, and sparrow psychology than anyone had ever learned about any bird,” to the point where she was recognized by trained ornithologists. Leopold argues that deep learning and discovery can, and perhaps should, be born out of a genuine personal passion, not because someone is looking for fame.
Leopold argues that although deep learning can be facilitated in traditional academic environments, in his personal experience, the best students are students of the natural world. The questions that he finds most interesting and exciting are questions that can only be answered after deep immersion in the outdoors, after hours, if not years of intensive observation and study. He questions if a classroom education is the best way to train students to truly notice and understand the world around them, and proposes an alternative course of study.
Types of Knowledge ThemeTracker
Types of Knowledge Quotes in A Sand County Almanac
Now comes the job of making wood. The maul rings on steel wedges as the sections of trunk are upended one by one, only to fall apart in fragrant slabs to be corded by the roadside.
There is an allegory for historians in the diverse functions of saw, wedge, and axe.
The saw works only across the years, which it must deal with one by one, in sequence. From each year the raker teeth pull little chips of fact, which accumulate in little piles, called sawdust by woodsmen and archives by historians; both judge the character of what lies within by the character of the samples thus made visible without. It is not until the transect is completed that the tree falls, and the stump yields a collective view of a century. By its fall the tree attests the unity of the hodge-podge called history.
The wedge, on the other hand, works only in radial splits; such a split yields a collective view of all years at once, or no view at all depending on the skill with which the plane of the split is chosen. (If in doubt, let the section season for a year until a crack develops. Many a hastily driven wedge lies rusting in the roods, embedded in unsplittable cross-grain.)
The axe functions only at an angle diagonal to the years, and this only for the peripheral rings of the recent past. Its special function is to top limbs, for which both saw and wedge are useless.
The three tools are requisite to good oak, and to good history.
One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a mark thaw, is the spring.
A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.
A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers
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.
The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who has ‘taken what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who has ‘taken’ what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of moving weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?
This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscapes on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.
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.
There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals, and soils, which are the instruments of the great orchestra. These men are called professors. Each selects one instrument and calls his life taking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for dismemberment is called a university.
A professor may pluck the strings of his own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. For all are restrained by an ironbound taboo which decrees that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets.
Professors serve science and science serves progress. It serves progress so well that many of the more intricate instruments are stepped upon and broken in the rush to spread progress to all backward lands. One by one the parts are thus stricken from the song of songs. If the professor is able to classify each instrument before it is broken, he is well content.
Science contributes moral as well as material blessings to the world. Its great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view. This means doubting everything except facts; it means hewing to the facts, let the chips fall where they may. One of the facts hewn to by science is that every river needs more people, and all people need more inventions, and hence more science; the good life depends on the indefinite extension of this chain of logic. That the good life on any river may likewise depend on the perception of its music, and the preservation of some music to perceive, is a form of doubt not yet entertained by science.
Science has not yet arrived on the Gavilan, so the otter plays tag in its pools and riffles and chases the fat rainbows from under its mossy banks with never a thought for the flood that one day will scour the bank into the Pacific, or for the sportsman who will one day dispute his title to the trout. Like the scientist, he has no doubts about this own design for living. He assumes that for him the Gavilan will sing forever.
The text of this sermon is taken from the gospel according to Ariosto. I do not know the chapter and verse, but this is what he says: ‘How miserable are the idle hours of the ignorant man!’
There are not many texts that I am able to accept as gospel truths, but this is one of them. I am willing to rise up and declare my belief that this text is literally true; true forward, true backward, true even before breakfast. The man who cannot enjoy his leisure is ignorant, though his degrees exhaust the alphabet, and the man who does enjoy his leisure is to some extent educated, though he has never seen the inside of a school.
I cannot easily imagine a greater fallacy than for one who has several hobbies to speak on the subject to those who may have none. For this implies prescription of avocation by one person for another, which is the antithesis of whatever virtue may inhere in having any at all. You do not annex a hobby, the hobby annexes you. To prescribe a hobby would be dangerously akin to prescribing a wife—with about the same probability of a happy outcome.
In our educational system, the biotic continuum is seldom pictured to us as a stream. From our tenderest years we are fed facts about the soils, floras, and faunas that comprise the channel of Round River (biology), and their origins in time (geology and evolution), and about the technique of exploiting them (agriculture and engineering). But the concept of a current with droughts and freshets, backwaters and bars, is left to inference. To learn the hydrology of the biotic stream we must think at right angles to evolution and examine the collective behavior of biotic materials. This calls for a reversal of specialization; instead of learning more and more about less and less, we must learn more and more about the whole biotic landscape.
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.
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.
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.