The Concept Of Land Health Of Aldo Leopold

Land health is an expression that Aldo Leopold developed over the course of his lifetime. Aldo Leopold chose his words carefully, crafting metaphors that reached out to many different kinds of people. In his writing for a general audience, namely farmers, he described wildlife as a crop and related wildlife management to farming. Writing at a time when the nation was being shaped quickly by technological advances, he often wrote about land as a machine; one of his most evocative, widely quoted, and almost proverbial phrases is, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Ultimately, however, Leopold felt that the sum of an ecosystem’s living and nonliving components — including soils, waters, plants, animals, and people — was more complex than a crop or a machine. Leopold came to see land as a community, a system of interdependent parts that was not unlike an organism; Leopold saw a healthy land community as a model of vigorous self-renewal. Health became the key metaphor in Leopold’s writing.

In a 1944 report for a University of Wisconsin committee on postwar agricultural policies titled “Conservation: In Whole or In Part?” Leopold stated: Conservation is a state of health in the land. The land consists of soil, water, plants, and animals, but health is more than a sufficiency of these components. It is a state of vigorous self-renewal in each of them, and in all collectively. Such collective functioning of interdependent parts for the maintenance of the whole is characteristic of an organism. In this sense land is an organism, and conservation deals with its functional integrity, or health.

Deeper understanding and appreciation of land is the result of integrating more of the land’s complexity into our thought, language and planning — not reducing the environment to pieces and parts. Long term visions and plans for land need to take a holistic approach and reflect the whole system. With land health representing the “state of the system,” any number of components can be incorporated into a definition of land health; moreover, these components are not only environmental and ecological but also social and economic. Literally thousands of components can contribute to defining land health, or, for practicality, a few indicators that represent the critical parts of the system. Importantly, these specific elements, and their relations to one another, can help us conceptualize, communicate, and illustrate the idea of land health.

This holistic approach to defining land health compels us to consider both the big picture and the relationships among its parts. For example, an increase in exotic species generally creates a decrease in the number of native species that make up an ecological community. One might be busily planting native seed in order to keep natives in the ecosystem, while failing to recognize that a critical negative force reducing their diversity is exotic species. Disappearing natives are a symptom of invasive species; the cure is not planting more natives but reducing the exotics. Going further, if we recognize that controlling exotic species is expensive, prevention programs that detect the first arrivals of new exotic species could be identified as critically important when considering long-term land health. It is not just about the most important and valued components, such as native species diversity, but how the components relate to other parts of the system. Systems thinkers use the metaphor “seeing the forest and the trees”; defining and pursuing land health is about relating parts to each other while never losing sight of the big picture.

Aldo Leopold’s The Round River primarily uses metaphors to touch upon the comparisons of an industrialized society and the natural world, a stark difference, yet very relatable seeing as both contain a highly intertwined system of small parts that make up the whole entity. Leopold’s metaphor of the “small cogs and wheels” can be compared to the natural biota of the world. Cogs are typically seen as an unimportant part of a larger picture, yet they make up the foundational supports of a machine. Without that foundation, the machine cannot function properly. Leopold relates this to the smaller biota of the natural world; bacteria, plants, minerals, and even the land itself can often be overlooked and simply combined into a larger whole. The biosphere of the natural world could not function without the roles of the smaller parts. The natural world, like an industrialized culture, is built from the bottom up. The environment is a complex system of interacting organisms and processes that affect all entities, even the industrialized society in all of its exploitative glory.

A few statements stood out to me when I was reading The Round River. The first: “American conservation is, I fear, still concerned for the most part with showpieces. We have not yet learned to think in terms of small cogs and wheels”. The second: Much of the damage inflicted on the land is quite invisible to laymen”. It seems to me that these two statements say a lot about American society as a whole, in addition to our shortcomings as conservationists. Humanity in general makes a habit of only concerning itself with the big picture. We as a people have indeed not yet learned to “think in terms of small cogs and wheels.” People have a habit of doing this when talking about global warming. It seems to me that every winter we determined whether or not the state of our environment has worsened by checking the temperature every day. If it is a warm winter, that means global warming is a dire problem: however, if it is a cold winter the skeptics of global warming begins to sound their voices. This has to be the least effective form of analysis ever to exist, and there is such a drastic overlooking of all the other more prominent signs that point to the increasing speed of global warming. People are unable to look at the small cogs and wheels and only see what is in front of. This goes along with the second statement that the damage done to our land is “invisible to laymen.”

The section about shooting into a pack of wolves from Aldo Leopold’s essay really stuck with me after reading it, especially the words “in those days we had never heard of passing up the chance to kill a wolf”. I’ve known, before now, that we as the collective human race have committed awful, stupid, and reckless acts. This mentality that we had in Leopold’s day is one of those. He stresses that this vein of belief was not just his, but the standard of everyone at the time, since naturally fewer wolves would mean more deer, right? There are a few aspects of this which shock me.

First, it’s astounding that we as a people didn’t think the natural chain of logic through. Killing wolves leads to more deer, leading to less food and therefore fewer deer, and eventually fewer everything. Did nobody realize this? Or were we too preoccupied with sporadically killing wolves to look that far into the future (not as far as one might think). It’s irresponsible to take such action against the predators without clearly thinking through what repercussions it might have on the grand scheme of everything.

Second, the wolves in the anecdote were not hurting anyone, the people weren’t in danger and the wolves showed no signs of aggression. As we discussed in class, this ire we show towards wolves is so deeply ingrained in humans that killing a pack of them, cubs and all, would have been thought of as nothing. But this just feels so wrong to me that I was shocked when I read it. Wolf cubs, though not totally safe, couldn’t do much harm to a group of people with guns IF they were attacked. But they weren’t – they merely saw the opportunity to excitedly practice their aim on some “predators”.

Sadly, we are now in a time where the wolf population has greatly diminished. This horrible mentality is to blame, as is our previous unwillingness to just think through the course our actions might take. I can only hope we are more responsible in the future if we want to preserve the remnants of these wonders we once had.

Killing one part of the environment not only wipes out that area but also brings forth far-reaching consequences to the rest of the land. I think that we need to keep in mind the idea that all things in nature really do depend on one another.

A land ethic is a concept of empowerment and optimism. With a solid land ethic, environmental protection can be achieved by self-motivated individuals, rather than enforced by society. A land ethic was first proposed by Aldo Leopold, perhaps the earliest resource professional to present a broad notion of conservation. As a Leopold loyalist, I expand upon the ideas he crafted five decades ago.

I argue for two components of a land ethic which can be incorporated into any resource profession. First is a standard of ecological function. The objective of the ethic should be to sustain the processes associated with native biodiversity, rather than to "improve nature" by directing or even preserving selected elements or services of nature.

Second is action - the wheel of the land ethic must hit the road. Resource professionals should be inspired devotees of biodiversity, able to educate and integrate the public in its conservation. These people have an essential role in representing the land whenever another manager or landowner (including the person's employer), betrays the land ethic.

The results of a land ethic are best measured on the ground, not in the human psyche.

13 January 2020
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