The Speech of Hills and Rivers:
Aldo Leopoldís Common Concept of Land

A talk delivered by Dr. Julianne Lutz [Newton] Warren
at the national meeting of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment
-- June 24, 2005, in Eugene, Oregon, U.S.A.
Placed on ExactingEditor.com with permission of the speaker

While Aldo Leopold was a young man, early in the 20th century, he copied into his personal journal, in small, neat letters, a few words penned by the elder naturalist, John Burroughs. Burroughs was writing about his mentor, Walt Whitman. Whitman, Burroughs recorded, and Leopold copied down,

thinks natural history [,] to be true to life, must be inspired, as well as poetry. There ought to be intuitive perceptions of truth, important conclusions ought to be jumped to -- laws, facts, results, arrived at by a kind of insight or inspirational foreknowledge, that never could be obtained by mere observation or actual verification. In science -- some of the most important discoveries seem inspirations, or a kind of winged, ecstatic reasoning, quite above and beyond real facts.

Years later, a more experienced Leopold expressed similar ideas of his own about science, intuition, art, and nature. Leopold had come to criticize the long-standing divide between science and art as ways of knowing and interpreting nature. He was particularly critical of artists who failed to see that their understandings of nature would be both more true, and more socially useful, if they were better grounded in natural science. "Is it not a little pathetic," Leopold wrote

that poets and musicians must paw over shopworn mythologies and folklores as media for art, and ignore the dramas of ecology and evolution? There are many straws which indicate that this senseless barrier between science and art may one day blow away, and that wildlife ecology, if not wildlife management, may help do the blowing.

By his final years, Leopold understood that if a civilization was going to live in its land in ways that were enduring and prosperous -- both science and art were vital. Both played critical roles in the kinds of major cultural change that Leopold deemed essential, if his idea of conservation was going to succeed. Yet, science and art would help bring about that needed change only if they themselves were transformed and were properly joined together. For science to play its role, it had to help produce, for widespread use, a realistic overall picture of how land functioned, how humans fit in the natural order, and what it took for land to remain in good condition. And for art to play its role, it needed to incorporate, fill out, and inspire such an understanding. Good science and good art, then, were complexly linked.

Aldo Leopold described the necessary connection between science and art in 1947, the year before his death. In his writing, Leopold looked back on the recent emergence of game management cum wildlife ecology, a scientific field that he had helped shape. Leopold had authored the seminal text in wildlife management. For over a decade he had taught wildlife ecology to undergraduates. He now was prepared to clarify the objective of his popular university course, and thus of wildlife study generally.

The courseís immediate objective, Leopold said, was to teach students "how to read land," that is to say, how to understand the interactions and functioning of the entire land community, with its "soil, water, plants, and animals." But learning to read land was not only an end in itself. It was a talent that provided the necessary base for a more enlightened way of living, perceiving, and enjoying. "Once you learn to read the land," Leopold wrote,

I have no fear of what you will do to it, or with it. And I know many pleasant things it will do to you... If the individual has a warm, personal understanding of land he will perceive of his own accord that it is something more than a breadbasket. He will see land as a community of which he is only a member, albeit now the dominant one. He will see the beauty, as well as the utility, of the whole, and know the two cannot be separated. We love (and make intelligent use of) what we have learned to understand....

It is hard to know what Leopoldís students thought about this explanation. Indeed, it is a challenge for us even today, reading and re-reading Leopoldís condensed expressions, to grasp fully what he had in mind. An ability to read land -- that is, to understand land in ecological and evolutionary terms -- was essential in many ways, Leopold explained. It was essential if people were to use land well, appreciating its many values. It was essential also for people to judge and appreciate fully the landís beauty. It was essential even for a person really to love the land fully.

I want to offer some brief comments about this subject -- of art and science -- and how it fit into Aldo Leopoldís conservation work. How did empirical facts and aesthetics fit together in Leopoldís mind? And what was the role played by this skill that Leopold deemed so essential -- this ability to read the land and to understand how it functioned ecologically?

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By the end of his life, Leopold could see that true conservation -- harmony between men and land -- was dependent upon fundamental changes in modern culture. Without cultural change, land would continue to go down hill -- dragging people with it. If land and its human inhabitants were to prosper and endure, nothing short of a new kind of civilization was needed. Science and art would help create that new civilization. But only, Leopold decided, if they themselves were unified in pursuit of ecological understanding and expression.

One way that art and science were linked for Leopold was set forth in the Burroughs quote with which I began. Leopold knew the limits of empirical science. Intuition, he understood, was another important way of knowing about the world. Thus, Leopold agreed with Burroughs and Whitman: "Laws, facts, results," could be "arrived at by a kind of insight or inspirational foreknowledge." In the pursuit of ecological truth, which was far vaster than any human mind could conceive, inspired intuition had an important role.

To dig further, we need to turn to Leopoldís mature thought regarding the ecological workings of land -- to what Leopold termed his "common concept of land." This concept of land was at the heart of Leopoldís work. Such a concept, he believed, was essential in helping people think about land, in how they used it, and in how they assessed its condition and perceived its beauty.

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The science of ecology, in Leopoldís view, was the science of communities. By community, Leopold meant the soils, waters, plants, and animals, including humans, living together in a place. A key task for Leopold was to understand how this land community functioned. Leopold first confronted this task as a young forest manager, thinking already not merely as a technician, but as an ecologist. Before long Leopold was put on the game-management beat for a Southwestern district of the U.S. Forest Service. In the late 1920s, he undertook a path-breaking survey of game and game habitat throughout the Midwest. All of this work enhanced his understanding of land as a functioning community.†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

Leopoldís fine work on the particularly knotty questions of fluctuating game-bird populations earned him an invitation to the important Matamek conference on biological cycles, held in Labrador, Canada in 1931. While at this historic conference, Leopold met the celebrated young British ecologist, Charles Elton, whose work Leopold would find especially useful in his continuing effort to make sense of land.

By 1939, Leopold had advanced enough in his understanding to deliver a major paper about land to a joint meeting of the Society of American Foresters and the Ecological Society of America. In the talk, entitled "A Biotic View of Land," Leopold set forth the ecological and evolutionary basics of land, as he understood them. A revised version of the paper appeared a decade later in Leopoldís Sand County Almanac, where it supplied the scientific guts for Leopoldís now-famous essay, "The Land Ethic."

The most realistic way to think of land, Leopold decided, was as a pyramid made up of layers of various types of plant and animal species. At the apex of the pyramid were the largest carnivorous predators. Near the bottom were multitudes of plants and insects. Humans were in the midst of the pyramid, sharing a layer with the semi-carnivorous raccoon. Smaller organisms could reproduce faster than larger ones, and thus were more numerous; they were at the bottom. These smaller organisms, in turn, were typically eaten by the fewer larger organisms.

What connected these layers were acts of eating and being eaten, which allowed nutrient energy to cycle through the system. Energy moved upwards to the apex as smaller organisms became prey to larger ones, and then down to the soil through excretion, death, and decay. In this manner, nutrients cycled through the living system, again and again. Because of these nutrient linkages, though there were many other linking dependencies involved as well, land became a well-organized, integrated, dynamically-functioning web of life -- the biotic community.

This basic pyramid concept came straight out of Eltonís work. Leopold borrowed the concept and worked to refine it. By the late 1930s Leopold had added soil to provide a new, lower base -- thus portraying the pyramid inclusive of the recycling of nutrients through the soil. Leopold also expanded the pyramid by giving it a dynamic, temporal dimension, uniquely emphasizing what he considered perhaps the "one certainty of science: that the trend of evolution was to elaborate the biota." Over geologic time, Leopold believed, communities became more biologically diverse and more complexly organized.†

Land as thus understood had two chief traits. The evolutionary trait was for the land community to become more complex and varied over time. The ecological trait was that land typically appeared over time to use nutrients more efficiently as it became more complex. Land tended, over time, that is, to keep nutrients cycling more and more often, through longer and longer chains, before the nutrients eventually were lost to the system.

For Leopold, the idea of continuity in the landís functioning was a key point. Also key was this relationship between nutrient cycling and biotic diversity. The more diverse and intact a native biota, Leopold presumed, then the longer the system could retain its nutrients -- or as Leopold phrased it, the more stable it was. The longer a land community could hold on to its nutrients, keeping them available for reuse, the more fertile it was and the more productive of life. Thus, the interlinked ideas of the landís stability -- or continuity in function Ė and its biotic diversity and organization -- that is, its integrity -- played the central roles in Leopoldís mental image of land -- good groundwork for a much-needed common concept of land.

A clear concept of functioning land was critical, not just to guide the further work of scientists, but also for much else. If Americans were going to learn conservation, they needed to know the land. And at the moment they clearly did not. Too much conservation was based on an attempt to make conservation pay, merely in an economic sense, and it simply was not working. Leopold thought he understood the root of the problem. "It seems possible," he wrote,

that [the?] prevailing failure of economic self-interest as a motive for better private land use has some connection with the failure of the social and natural sciences to agree with each other, and with the landholder, on a common concept of land. This may not be it, but ecology, as the fusion point of sciences and all the land uses, seems to me the place to look.

A sound concept of land was critical to the practical work of conservation; it also was critical in orienting an attitude toward land -- what Leopold called a land ethic. A land ethic could be sound only if it was informed by an accurate vision of land. As Leopold put it, in The Land Pyramid section of his essay "The Land Ethic,"

An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to land presupposes the existence of some mental image of land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.

A common concept of land, in sum, helped put a face on the land, making it possible to recognize and understand the land as a living, interrelated community of life. With such a mental image in place, it became possible to talk coherently about what ought to be done with and to the land as a whole. It would be possible, even, to feel something for it, to want to know it better, to begin loving it, and, in loving it, to discover a moral relation to it.

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By way of closing, let me draw some of these points together, and try to answer the questions that Iíve posed.

Leopold spent a good part of his professional career synthesizing a generalized model of land and how it functioned. His concept of land, in turn, provided the base for producing an overall goal for conservation -- the goal that Leopold termed land health. Land health was the benchmark to use in distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable land use.

In gauging the health of land, two indicators were of highest importance. First was the ability of land to retain soil and slowly add to it, which in turn had to do with the self-capacity of the land to store and recycle nutrient energy over long periods of time. Second, there was the landís biological composition, and whether it did or did not retain in place its native kinds and numbers of component species. Land was most healthy when it continued on geological trajectories of increasing biological diversity and increasing continuity in nutrient cycling -- the mechanisms of fertility-building.

Land health became Leopoldís goal for conservation. It entailed a vastly different way of seeing and valuing land than the one that prevailed in his day. For society to embrace this goal and live conservatively -- founding a new, greater civilization with the potential to endure -- fundamental cultural change was needed. New senses of moral value were needed, which Leopold summed up in his now-famous land ethic. A thing was morally, aesthetically and economically right, Leopold announced, "when it tend[ed] to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It [was] wrong when it tend[ed] otherwise." A thing was morally, aesthetically and economically right, that is, when it tended to preserve geologic trends toward greater native diversity and composition, attendant complexity of structure, and continuity of nutrient cycling and soil fertility.

Leopoldís hope was that his land ethic, or something like it, could help stimulate the kind of cultural change that a civilization of conservation required. A central element of that cultural change had to do with new senses of beauty. Just as land health provided the measure of moral and long-term economic value in our dealings with land as a whole, so too it provided the measure for the landís beauty. Land that held onto all or most of its biological parts, and that functioned in ways that retained fertility, was by definition beautiful. Healthy land was beautiful, whether it was a mountain vista, a backyard marsh, a sand dune, or a city block. This was an ecologically-informed aesthetic -- a land aesthetic.

Beauty for Leopold was an attribute of healthy lands. To identify and celebrate land beauty, one needed to have a sense of what it took for land to be healthy, in Leopoldís ecological sense.

And thus the artist comes into Leopoldís thinking -- the painter, the musician, the poet, the teller of stories.

Artists were needed to express this new land aesthetic; an aesthetic that honored healthy lands. In this way, and perhaps only in this way, could artists be a part of the kind of cultural change that was so essential for true conservation to take hold. Nothing short of a new kind of people was needed, more ecologically informed, guided by a land ethic, and enriched in all they did by a natural aesthetic that equated the beautiful with the ecologically healthy. Learning and promoting such an aesthetic was a vital role for artists of all types. And to perform the role well, they first would need to do what Leopold did: Learn to read the land.


As for electronic links that may be related to land health, here are a few:

The Quivira Coalition (in the American West): www.quiviracoalition.org

The Center for Whole Communities (in the American Northeast): www.wholecommunities.org

The Land Institute (in the American Midwest): www.landinstitute.org

The Aldo Leopold Foundation: www.aldoleopold.org