I’d never read the work of Aldo Leopold, but always had a vibe that philosophically we might have something in common. He’s one of the most prominent voices from the early North American conservation movement and I’d read of him regularly and particularly of the “Land Ethic” he articulated. I finally tracked down a copy of one of his influential works A Sand County Almanac, bundled with some essays from Round River, and published posthumously in 1949. I have a friend who once became enraged by how Thoreau’s work seemed to primarily be read in pull-quote form on social media or on email footers, and Leopold too is eminently quotable. In that spirit, this article will really be a collection of salient quotes tenuously connected with our own experience.
About three fifths of my volume of A Sand County Almanac is dedicated to Leopold’s observations of his Wisconsin home, together with sections reflecting on other landscapes of North America. While his meditations on geese landing on ponds and the accumulated wisdom of pine trees are a beautiful thing, I admit I skipped over some of this section to get to his more directly philosophical work. One of his central arguments is about the need to separate economic perceptions of value from our appreciation of the landscape, with a particular focus on acknowledging the social and cultural importance of a landscape and the intrinsic worth of ecological diversity and resilience. From his essay Country,
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. … 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, nor at all times. … In country, as in people, a plain exterior often conceals hidden riches, to perceive which requires much living in and with.
For me this echoes the tension we’re trying to navigate with Yarnauwi, to transition the landscape away from one that has grown gullies and mortgages for generations to one that again supports a diversity and complexity of lives, and that acknowledges and inhabits the many cultural stories that have shaped it. If we think about the permaculture principle of “obtaining a yield”, Leopold suggests that the yield may not be economic or even tangible, but can still be something of value.
The Round River
In The Round River, Leopold takes an American folktale of a river that ran into itself in a perpetual flowing loop and extends it as a metaphor for energy flows through an ecosystem. “The current is the stream of energy which flows out of the soil into plants, thence into animals, thence back into the soil in a never ending circuit of life.” While at the time of Leopold’s writing ecology was a relatively new discipline, reassuringly, the foundational concepts of interconnection and energy flows are now much more widely understood and even mandated in the Australian primary school curriculum.
In asserting the interconnection of all living things, Leopold writes,
The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and cooperate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the cooperations. You can regulate them – cautiously – but not abolish them. … 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? … For the biotic community to survive, its internal processes must balance, else its member-species will disappear … That all these [pre-colonial flora and fauna of a landscape] should survive an an internally balanced community for so many centuries shows an astonishing stability of the original biota … stability and diversity were apparently interdependent.
Leopold goes on to warn of the unforeseen consequences of “tinkering” with a living system. “Each substitution of a tame plant or animal for a wild one, or an artificial waterway for a natural one, is accompanied by a readjustment in the circulating system of the land. We do not understand or foresee these readjustments; we are unconscious of them unless the end effect is bad. … That so many tinkerings are painless attests the youth and elasticity of the land organism”. While reading these essays, I was reminded of Allan Savory’s holistic management approach. Savory’s assertions about managing the landscape are rooted in an understanding of ecological flows – water, energy, carbon – and the management framework he initiated attempts to provide a guiding criteria for decision making that honours and protects those elements.
When we first came to Yarnauwi, we were guided primarily by intuition, enthusiasm and a bit of experience. Reflecting on our near vertical learning curve, it’s difficult to overstate our ignorance at the beginning of the project, much of which has undoubtedly persisted. Leopold writes that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” It’s a true thing. Much of our learning has been through practice and observation, propagating plants, visiting landscapes that echo what ours may’ve been, but also through trawling through historical records for glimmers of what was here before. While working to restore the ecological function of a patch of land is just about the most practical way to combat it, the sense of loss is real. (If it’s a distinctly Australian sense of loss you’re craving, then Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe, The Biggest Estate on Earth, by Bill Gammage and The Bush, by Don Watson, all offer incredible insights into the continent’s indigenous landscape and the impact of colonial transformation). There’s no escaping that, at best, many of our landscapes have lost Leopold’s “seemingly useless parts”, and often the “seemingly useless parts” are all that’s left. Through our work we try to make peace with the loss. We learn to accept incremental changes, small victories and embrace the reality of our hybrid landscape.
Leopold goes on to suggest two criteria for assessing the value of “tinkering” with the landscape, “(1) Does it maintain fertility? (2) Does it maintain diverse flora and fauna?” Whether change has been effective however can often only be known after the fact, “the answer,” writes Leopold, “is written in gullies on a thousand fields.”
Although written overlooking his Wisconsin pond, Leopold was writing in an era when Australian and no doubt many other governments were providing incentives to deforest the landscape. He continues, “as for diversity, what remains of our native fauna and flora remains only because agriculture has not got around to destroying it. The present ideal of agriculture is … a food chain aimed solely at economic profit and purged of all non-conforming links … Diversity, on the other hand, means a food chain aimed to harmonise the wild and the tame in the joint interest of stability, productivity and beauty.” The decades since publication have seen significant growth in sustainable approaches to farming, yet when he writes that there’s “as yet no social stigma in the possession of a gullied farm, a wrecked forest or a polluted stream, provided the dividends suffice to send the youngsters to college,” there is still a ring of truth when considering the persistence of many degraded agricultural landscapes. Here Leopold flags one of his central preoccupations: “an ethical underpinning for land economics and a universal curiosity to understand the land mechanism.”
The Land Ethic
In his essay The Land Ethic, Leopold explores one of the central themes of his work, the need to develop an human relationship with the landscape beyond the merely economic.
All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts… The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land … a land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, managements 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,” Leopold continues, “the land ethic changes the role of Homo 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.”
Later in the essay, Leopold describes extends his definition of land to include all of the interactions and cycles that occur within it, “Land then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life.” For Leopold, and his vision of a land ethic, “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.”
So what does all this mean for us? One of our central preoccupations has been to somehow bring together the wild and the domesticated to cultivate a resilient, diverse landscape. We have a much loved quote from Conor Stedman, published in his Essay on Soil in the Greenhorns’ New Farmers’ Almanac 2015. Stedman writes,
Farms, forests and grasslands can store and regenerate natural capital again, rebuilding the natural fabric that is the ultimate source of our survival. But to know how to undertake that stewardship, it’s not enough to know the land as it is now. We need to dig below the recent surface and go deeper – find the older ecological and and cultural stories of a place. It’s the wildlands that hold these stories, and it’s these lands that will return them to us if we know where to look and how to listen. An agrarian economy needs to tend, restore, and engage in a deep relationship with the wild as well as the planted field.
When we trawl Trove for colonial descriptions of the landscape, when we walk in woodlands and imagine our own landscape through time, when we crouch to examine sundew or try to learn the names of fungi emerging after the first tentative rains, when we build rock dams in creek beds, we’re seeking these stories and what they might teach us about the land’s past and potential.
I think there’s much in common between Leopold’s land ethic and the current ascendancy of “regenerative” approaches to agriculture. As Doniga Markegard writes in her fascinating memoir Dawn Again, “There are different ways to gain sustenance from the land. One way is regenerative and comes with an understanding that each time we eat, a life is taken, whether plant or animal, and we can give more life than we take. Soil and biodiversity thrive as a result. This life is treated with reverence, and the fertility is returned after the take.” Like Markegard, our search for an agriculture nested within ecological function drew us to permaculture, and more recently to begin investigating Holistic Management, described by Markegard as a “system specific to grasslands based on the interplay of predator, prey and plants.” As alluded to Charles Massy’s Call of the Reed Warbler, regenerative agriculture include both holistic management and permaculture, but also other approaches such as Landcare, Natural Sequence Farming and Slow Food, as well as carbon farming approaches documented by writers like Courtney White. White’s imagined “Carbon Ranch” from his book Soil, Carbon, Hope offers some visual inspiration for how the wild and the cultivated landscapes can co-exist and interrelate.
I think there’s common ground here with Leopold’s assertion that a land ethic “reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” Much has changed in the seventy years since Aldo Leopold described the need for a land ethic, however his work still remains a relevant guide for cultivating a relationship with the landscape.