The final section of A Sand County Almanac (1949) is called “The Outlook.” In it Aldo Leopold considered various attitudes, from “the farmer for whom the land is still an adversary” to the urban dweller who “is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets.” He worried in the 1940s that land had become, for some, merely “the space between cities on which crops grow,” though most people still lived in those rural spaces. In our time, for the first time, more people in the world live in cities than in the country.
He also worried about the habit of viewing the land as a commodity. For Leopold–outdoorsman, ecologist, professor of game management–it boiled down to valuing our natural environment for so much more than its economic value. “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, admiration,” he wrote. He saw himself as part of a community, integrally connected to the plants, animals, water, air, and the soil itself.
It was about a year ago that I biked to the Shack where Leopold wrote about the land ethic and practiced its principles. The building was not open at the time. (See my September 18, 2010 post.) I went back last week for two days of Land Ethic Leadership training, with plentiful role models of the love and respect of which Leopold spoke. We learned in large groups, small groups, and out on the land. We hiked in silence to a prairie remnant at the top of a Baraboo bluff. I lay on a slab of ancient red stone and watched the grass and sky. We also removed invasive plant species around the Leopold Center buildings. Mostly, we talked about how to talk about conservation and the health of the land.
A highlight for many of us was to go inside the famous Shack at the very end of our training. It is hard to believe that Aldo, Estella, and their five children stayed inside the tiny, dim space that was once a chicken coop. Well, they slept on the bunks there, but mostly, I suppose, they were outside–planting the trees and wildflowers I admired from the window of the Shack and generally enjoying their time together in nature.
Leopold knew that our attitudes toward nature are always shifting, as his certainly did. The land ethic is not a static thing that he could capture in words, because it is evolving. Being in the woods and prairies, feeling the presence of Aldo’s daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley who died just a few months ago at the age of 93, and warmed by the light of the people at the Center, I was changed. Somehow my outlook from the window of the Shack took me beyond the pines, beyond the Wisconsin River, and back up to the top of that bluff. I could see for miles.