Aldo Leopold: The Ecologist and the Story of Job

Aldo Leopold. A Sand county Almanac and Essays on Conservation from Round River. Illustrated by Charles W. Schwartz. Oxford University Press. 1966.

Image from Maxpixels.net

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.”

 – Aldo Leopold, Round River

Reading Aldo Leopold’s ecological classic, A Sand County Almanac, with my college classmates at our 50th reunion this fall, I made an unexpected connection to a much older story that also concerns humans’ relation to the wilderness. In an earlier blog post (https://nearctictraveller.blog/2019/06/26/the-book-of-job-traveler-in-a-strange-land/), I compared Job’s comforters’ understandings and Job’s understanding of God’s creation. Their conventional wisdom cannot satisfy Job, who has directly experienced disaster that he is certain cannot be punishment for any transgressions on his part. Misfortune pushed Job beyond the boundaries of human society, into “the place of the jackal.” When the voice from the whirlwind opens his eyes, Job sees that the world which God’s created works in ways that defy his and his friends’ concepts of right and wrong. 

Aldo Leopold also was forced to give up the comfortable sense humans know best what is right in the natural world and that all is manageable for human benefit. Leopold began his career as an ardent proponent of controlling wildlife for what he viewed as human interest, but also with an openness to a deeper experience of wild things. His revelation came on a mountain, far from human society. As he describes it, the fading of the “fierce green fire” in the eyes of a dying she wolf revealed that his understanding had been too simple. In “Thinking like a Mountain,” he acknowledges that although he once sought to exterminate them, he came to recognize that wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears, like Behemoth and Leviathan in Job, have a place in the world.  

Unlike the Job of the story’s ending, Leopold is not able to recover what he has lost. On the other hand, his suffering is neither so physical nor so personal. Instead, suffering comes from a growing recognition that the world’s wealth of ecological communities are being lost to human progress.

In the essay on cutting down an old dead oak tree for firewood, he uses the saw’s progress through the annual rings of the tree to recount all that has been destroyed over the century and more since the tree first grew. It’s a history of extirpation of many species, of vast changes in the landscape and of a few uncertain steps to save some of the remainder.

Like Job, Leopold wants to rebuild our human life on a new foundation of knowledge: the way the world works is deeply counter to our conventional wisdom. He makes this especially clear in his essay, “The Land Ethic,” where he calls for a new standard for judging our actions in relation to the ecological community. In the Old Testament, the voice out of the whirlwind commands Job to consider behemoth, “whom I made as I made you.” Behemoth and the other beasts described in that passage are as much a part of the world as Job and his friends. As he came to understand ecology, Leopold was similarly convinced that we are not a separate, privileged species, above the rest of the ecological community, but ordinary members and citizens of it. In other words, we are all in this together. 

Like all living things, we must live by exploiting other lives, at least to some extent. Unlike others, we can ask ourselves whether there are limits to exploiting the natural community beyond which we will be less just and less happy as a human community. Leopold cannot say for certain what those limits should be, though he can see plenty of examples of wanton and careless destruction that we do too little to prevent. What he feels sure of is that we ought to preserve at least some of all the components that make up the ecological community and that we ought to regard ourselves as part of it, not its masters.

The Book of Job wraps up the story neatly, I would say a bit too neatly, in the end. Is that because as some think, the redacted version has been made to fit into a conventional framework of religious piety, however bizarre that seems to make God’s actions? In any case, Leopold can have no such replacements for his losses, because they are not his alone, and it will take generations to stop the losses and begin to recover. For instance, the United States passed The Endangered Species Act, on paper one of our strongest environmental laws. Implementing it, however, has been an uphill battle against both lack of scientific understanding and determined resistance by those who must forego immediate gains. Even as we make incremental progress, habitat destruction, climate change and pollution are endangering ever more species.

The sentiment expressed in Round River is as true today as when Leopold wrote. To learn ecology is to come to realize how extensive the world’s wounds are. Let us hope that they can be healed.

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