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.

For the Love of Leps

bflyLeach, William. Butterfly People. An American Encounter With the Beauty of the World. Pantheon. New York. 388 pp. 2013.

This book, beautifully illustrated, is a history of the discovery and documentation of the butterfly fauna of the United States and of the entomologists, amateur and professional, who fed the public fascination with butterflies in the 19th century – Samuel Scudder, William Henry Edwards, Herman Strecker, Augustus Grote, W. J. Holland, and many others. The author has many reflections on the importance of both Darwin and Romanticism (especially German) on the interpretation of the biology and meaning of butterflies. There is also a lot on the collectors, scientific and commercial, who travelled throughout North America and the rest of the world to satisfy the demand for specimens, often at considerable risk and always with much hardship. Butterflies and moths were much more than a scientific concern: there was a great deal of commerce in specimens, as many, if not most, young men of middle class aspirations had a Lepidoptera collection, even if few collected themselves. It is strange to think in our day of fancy cars, world travel and electronic devices, how much one’s status might have been tied up in various collections, whether, insects, stamps, shells or books.

Leach mentions George Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty several times as a perspective on the 19th-century’s fascination with natural form and color. As well as commercial specimens, large format books with color plates were an important part of the butterfly business. He talks about the illustrators and the changing technology of color reproduction.

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia was one of the repositories of collections, including the very early and important Titian Peale collection, which was to have formed the basis of a never-completed series of books by that second-generation Philadelphia artist. The American Entomological Society, founded 1859, played a role as well. The society’s book collection, still housed at the Ewell Sale Stewart Library of the Academy, includes many of the most attractive 19th-century publications.

This is a fine account of what natural history meant to Americans in the first century and a half of the nation and of the friendships and rivalries among these early naturalists.

New world history

A Natural History of the New World. Ecology and Evolution of Plants in the Americas, by Alan Graham. 2011. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 387 pp.
This is an ecological and evolutionary story acted on the stage of two continents from the close of the Mesozoic to the recent. South America starts out isolated or nearly so, while North America begins joined to Eurasia across the proto-Atlantic. It ends with two continents joined by a narrow isthmus and a sporadic connection to Siberia across the Bering Sea. During this time as the Americas override the Pacific plates, a series of great mountain ranges form along the western edges of both continents, altering the directions of rivers and radically altering the climate of the continental interiors. Late in the period, the shift towards glacial climates turns what were temperate climates under a polar insolation regime into boreal forest and tundra, with deciduous forests to the south and new dry ecosystems in the arid west.
It is a dramatic story, with a shifting cast of characters, most impressively the higher angiosperms and the radiating mammals responding to each other as well as struggling among themselves to dominate under the shifting conditions. The rise of groups like the grasses and the ungulates with their associated carnivores are among the most visible and dramatic developments, if not quantitatively as significant as the insects and fungi, which changed much less over the same time. This is a vexed question; megafauna and keystone species enthusiasts on the side of top-down regulation and ecosystem engineering, those of us who look at energy flux and nutrient cycles as keys to ecological processes and who see microbes as the dominant force, alongside plants, on the bottom-up side. Probably both views are right some of the time. No doubt, though, that climate and geology – lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere – are the ultimate regulators, although the biosphere’s impact on carbon cycling is also significant.
This is a very detailed book, giving an account of dozens of types of communities both in the past and the present vegetation of the Americas. It also describes the phases of development step by step, tracking the geologic changes and the shifting vegetation as revealed by pollen and macro fossils. The author is a noted paleobotanist at the Missouri Botanic Garden. There are good photos, maps and graphs of changing temperatures over the epoch. Truly a history of nature.
Graham also has excellent chapters on the techniques of paleoclimate reconstruction and the collection and interpretation of fossils. The text is also a wonderful travelogue, full of historical and prehistorical anecdotes, and covering the modern biogeography of the new world as well as the story of how it came to be as it is.