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Moving Mountains

Leopold in 1939 planting white pine at the Shack in Wisconsin

His love was for present things,
and these things were present somewhere;
to find them required only the free sky,
and the will to ply his wings.

Aldo Leopold (1949)

By Curt Meine

Literary classics are the mountains of our minds. They shape us, subtly and continually. They cast long shadows. They provide access to higher realms. They make their own intellectual weather. We take them for granted; yet they so define our view of the world, and of ourselves, that we can hardly imagine the world without them.

The history of American conservation contains its own range of classics: Thoreau’s Walden, Marsh’s Man and Nature, Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, Carson’s Silent Spring, Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, Berry’s The Unsettling of America, to name a few high peaks. But conservation’s literary landscape is rich in its variety and abundance, and holds many less prominent but no less durable expressions. We return to their pages again and again, and always find in them something timeless, and something new.

Because mountains seem permanent, we tend to disregard the intense tectonic shifts and internal pressures that gave rise to them. Behind every story is another story. A Sand County Almanac is no exception. The face of this particular mountain is still fresh. The very pebbles seem still to be settling. Sand County emerged from a time of economic instability, international conflict, rapid technological change, scientific revolutions, and widespread environmental deterioration. During these same years Aldo Leopold strove to provide more solid foundations for conservation. His conviction was that conservation had to rest on a base that included not only the integrated natural sciences, but philosophy, ethics, history, and literature. A Sand County Almanac, as it turned out, was the final proof of his conviction.

Leopold with Flick at the Shack, 1947

Future generations would have understood if by 1940 Leopold had begun to rest on his laurels—which were many. He was widely recognized as one of the nation’s foremost conservation leaders. In particular, through the 1930s he had played a central role in establishing wildlife ecology and management as a viable field. “By 1940,” Susan Flader and Baird Callicott write, “Leopold could survey from its pinnacle the profession he had done more than anyone else to create.”1

Leopold served as president of the young Wildlife Society that year, and used the opportunity of his presidential address in March to step back and put the recent advances into perspective. Leopold’s message was at once restrained and challenging, practical and visionary. He began with a disarming admission: “We are attempting to manage wildlife, but it is by no means certain that we shall succeed, or that this will be our most important contribution to the design for living. For example, we may, without knowing it, be helping to write a new definition of what science is for. We are not scientists. We disqualify ourselves at the outset by professing loyalty to and affection for a thing: wildlife. A scientist in the old sense may have no loyalties except to abstractions, no affections except for his own kind.”2

As the events of World War II unfolded, Leopold became increasingly disenchanted with the course of the modern scientific enterprise. Although himself a pioneer in a new scientific field, he saw the drift toward what he considered misapplied science as a grave danger. In his view scientists themselves could not shirk responsibility for the trend. Already, in 1940, he was airing his concerns. In his presidential address he stated: “The definitions of science written by, let us say, the National Academy, deal almost exclusively with the creation and exercise of power. But what about the creation and exercise of wonder, or respect for workmanship in nature?”3 This was not, Leopold insisted, a peripheral matter for the new wave of “wildlifers”; it lay at the very core of their work. Mincing no words, he warned that “unless we can help rewrite the objectives of science, our job is predestined to failure.”4

Rewriting the “objectives of science” plainly took matters of wildlife conservation beyond the domain of science proper and into the realm of the arts and letters, ethics and philosophy. From his earliest days as a young hunter, aspiring ornithologist, and outdoor adventurer, Leopold tended to take this integrated approach to conservation matters.5 The same trait carried over into his professional life and accounted, in part, for his innovations as a young forester. In the heady days of the 1930s, as wildlife conservation was metamorphosing, he kept his intellectual margins broad, regularly drawing connections to other disciplines. Now, as one of the profession’s respected elders, having seen it through its infancy and preparing it for its adolescence, he reasserted the point:

Our profession began with the job or producing something to shoot. However important this may seem to us, it is not important to the emancipated moderns who no longer feel soil between their toes. We find that we cannot produce much to shoot until the landowner changes his way of using land, and he in turn cannot change his ways until his teachers, bankers, customers, editors, governors, and trespassers change their ideas about what land is for. To change ideas about what land is for is to change ideas about what anything is for. Thus we started to move a straw, and end up with the job of moving a mountain.6

 How to move a mountain?  Not quickly, and not easily. To develop new wildlife management techniques—to document food habits, conduct life history studies, improve census methods, understand how land use influences populations, and so forth—was the daily work of the rapidly growing cadre of wildlife students and researchers. To develop new modes of perception and a new philosophy of land use was the work of generations, and had to include other areas of human endeavor. Having defined the technical foundations of the field in his text Game Management, Leopold now challenged his professional progeny not to neglect this more complex task: “I daresay few wildlife managers have any intent or desire to contribute to art and literature, yet the ecological dramas which we must discover if we are to manage wildlife are inferior only to the human drama as the subject matter for the fine arts.”7 Even as wildlife ecology was gaining definition and confidence as a science, its chief scientist was advising its adherents to surmount “the senseless barrier between science and art.”8

Had Leopold himself neglected the humanistic aspects of wildlife conservation, he would still be remembered as a highly effective thinker, scientist, teacher, and advocate. In his own view, however, his contributions to the profession would have remained incomplete. The necessary (and ongoing) task of integrating wildlife management into a more comprehensive conservation vision would have been further postponed. The arts and humanities had to help “rewrite the objectives of science.” In articulating that need, Leopold established a very high standard for his colleagues. In meeting that standard with A Sand County Almanac, he provided an exemplary model.

· · ·

In 1940 Leopold was fifty-three years old. He had not yet even begun to think about the collection of essays that became the Almanac. But he was on the trail, having published “The Thick-Billed Parrot of the Chihuahua” and “Marshland Elegy.” In his 1938 essay “Conservation Esthetic” Leopold rehearsed the point that he would later make in his presidential address: “Let no man jump to the conclusion that [he] must take his Ph.D. in ecology before he can ‘see’ his country. On the contrary, the Ph.D. may become as callous as an undertaker to the mysteries at which he officiates.”9 Through his literary endeavors, he saw new opportunities to show others the country he saw.

Leopold plainly appreciated the need for antidotes to insensitivity. Advances in ecology were improving the ability of wildlife biologists to analyze and adjust the forces that influenced wildlife populations. Now, Leopold suggested, aesthetic awareness would be needed to enhance their capacity to perceive and respond to the workings of the natural world, and of people within it. It was as if Leopold, having helped shore up wildlife management’s scientific underpinnings, felt freer now to attend to its cultural and ethical bases.

In November 1938 Leopold produced the first of his short articles on farm wildlife for the Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer. Over the next several years, twenty-nine of these seasonal pieces would appear in the widely distributed periodical. (From 1943 to 1945 Leopold published a similar series in the Wisconsin Conservation Bulletin). He would later include several of these, in revised form, in the Almanac. Importantly, in preparing these articles Leopold was obliged to communicate regularly with a broader audience than he had in the past. His growing experience as a college instructor during these years also seems to have increased his dedication to this task of raising the general level of public ecological literacy. “The citizen-conservationist,” Leopold wrote in 1937, “needs an understanding of wildlife ecology not only to enable him to function as a critic of sound policy, but to enable him to derive maximum enjoyment from his contacts with the land.”10

By the summer of 1941, Leopold had begun to think about collecting several of his essays in a volume. In November of that year, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf wrote to Leopold indicating interest in “a good book on wildlife observation... a personal book recounting adventures in the field.” As the editor saw it, this book should appeal to laymen while allowing the author the opportunity to offer “opinions on ecology and conservation.”11 As it happened, Leopold had already been discussing such a project with his graduate student H. Albert Hochbaum, a pioneering waterfowl biologist and skilled illustrator and writer as well. Hochbaum and Leopold were both burdened with their normal heavy workload, but had agreed to work together as time allowed. Their intense, sometimes rocky, but mutually challenging collaboration over the next several years would prove critical to the ultimate tone of the collection as a whole.12

Leopold soon found himself with more time to devote to the project. As the United States entered World War II and students departed from the University of Wisconsin campus, Leopold’s teaching and advising load ebbed. His pen was busy through 1942, but not until he received a follow-up inquiry from Knopf in April 1943 did he focus his attentions again on the proposed collection. Over the next year, Leopold drafted and redrafted some of his most memorable essays. Among these, importantly, were several that drew upon the Leopold family’s activities at the exhausted piece of farm property he had acquired in 1935. These essays (in particular “Great Possessions,” an account of a typical morning afield at Leopold’s shack) gave a much more personal tone to the evolving collection.

Of those few who were reading Leopold’s draft essays, Al Hochbaum most deeply appreciated the task of self-reflection and self-expression Leopold had taken on. He recognized that Leopold had reached a turning point in his literary development. In one of many blunt but respectful exchanges between them during this period, Hochbaum encouraged Leopold in this new direction. “This series of sketches brings the man [Leopold] himself into focus.... As you round out this collection, take a sidewise glance at this fellow and decide just how much of him you want to put on paper.”13 Less than a month later, Leopold responded to Hochbaum’s prodding with “Thinking Like a Mountain,” his famous account of killing a wolf during his youthful days as a forester in the Southwest. Committed to the new direction his collection was taking, Leopold changed its working title from “Marshland Elegy—And Other Essays” to “Thinking Like a Mountain—And Other Essays.”

As of June 1944, Leopold’s manuscript included thirteen essays.14 He sent these off to Knopf and to an editor at the Macmillan Company who had also expressed interest in Leopold’s writing. Both publishers turned the manuscript down. Macmillan, citing wartime paper shortages, rejected it outright. Knopf’s editor felt the essays were simply too varied in tone, length, and subject to hang together. The Knopf review, however, gave Leopold hope that, with extensive revision and additional essays, the stylistic and structural problems could be overcome. By the end of 1944, Leopold indicated to Hochbaum that he was playing with “the almanac a means of giving ‘unity’ to my scattered essays.”15 The earlier series of farm wildlife essays, which appeared monthly, seem to have prompted Leopold to consider the almanac format. In any case, this was the first mention of it in the context of the evolving collection.

Other professional obligations absorbed Leopold’s time over the following year. Not until the war was over, another rejection letter received (from the University of Minnesota Press), and the connection with Knopf reestablished did Leopold return to his disparate batch of essays. In corresponding with Knopf in the spring of 1946, Leopold suggested that he might add several of the more “philosophical” essays he had published in professional journals—thus making the unity of style within the collection even more problematic. Knopf’s skeptical but supportive editor pointed out the difficulty in “fitting together the pieces in a way that will not seem haphazard or annoying to the reader.”16

At the family home in Madison, Leopold practices the art of bow-making, 1947

This remained a quandary for Leopold through the remainder of 1946 and into early 1947. Once again other responsibilities (including a substantial influx of students home from the war) prevented him from focusing on his extracurricular writing. What little time he had to spare for the essays usually found him, before dawn, at his desk in his university office, wielding the pencils and yellow legal pads that he typically used in his later years. Leopold rarely wrote at the family’s “shack” or elsewhere in the field, and his meticulous journals were filled, not with literary expression, but detailed phenological records, field observations, and other scientific data. Although Leopold was unable to work on his manuscript with any regularity during this time, he intermittently drafted new essays and revised older ones. He continued too to wrestle with the essential dilemma of the collection: how to meld his descriptive field sketches, his ecological cautionary tales, and his statements of conservation philosophy into a coherent whole.

In the spring of 1947 the manuscript hung in limbo. Because of other commitments, Al Hochbaum had to withdraw as illustrator. Leopold, as the chair and sole faculty member of his academic department, was preoccupied with accommodating the booming student enrollments. And increasingly he was distracted by the painful facial spasms associated with trigeminal neuralgia (or tic douloureux), with which he had been afflicted since late 1945.

Finally, in the summer of 1947, Leopold found time to devote himself exclusively to the essays. In this crucial period the essay collection (which Leopold was now calling “Great Possessions”) assumed the form that its eventual readers would recognize. He divided the manuscript into three parts. In the first, he used the almanac format to bring order to the Wisconsin “shack” essays. In the second, he gathered his essays recollecting and interpreting other landscapes in his experience. In the third section he included four of his more abstract discussions on conservation themes, including his newly synthesized summary essay, “The Land Ethic.”17 Leopold drafted a lengthy foreword that provided autobiographical context for the essays.18 With renewed hope, Leopold sent the overhauled manuscript to Knopf on September 11. Scheduled to undergo brain surgery just one week later, at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Leopold had made his summer one of determined and uninterrupted concentration.

Knopf’s rejection letter arrived in early November. The editors again found the collection “far from being satisfactorily organized” and its ecological argument “unconvincing.” The book, they stated directly, was “unlikely to win approval from readers or to be a successful publication as it now stands.”19 Giving up on Knopf, Leopold allowed his son Luna to assume the role of literary agent. While Luna approached Oxford University Press, Leopold’s colleague William Vogt brought the manuscript to the attention of William Sloane Associates (who would soon publish Vogt’s Road to Survival).20

Although disappointed and frustrated by Knopf’s rejection, Leopold responded quickly. Following Luna’s recommendation, he secured a new illustrator, Charles Schwartz, then working with the Missouri Conservation Commission. He rewrote the long foreword (“the better to orient the reader on how and why the essays add up to a single idea”) and in December 1947 sent the manuscript to the two new prospective publishers.21 The earlier rejections hobbled Leopold’s expectations, but over the winter he continued to draft new essays (including “Good Oak”). Leopold also reached out to several of his closest friends and colleagues for help. In his memo he wrote, “What I need…is the most critical attitude you can muster. Which [essays] are the weak ones? What is ambiguous, obscure, repetitious, inaccurate, fatuous, highbrow?… Is there sufficient unity?… Have I omitted some idea you think I could do, or included something I should better let alone?”22

As Leopold recuperated fitfully from his surgery, he awaited word from the publishers. Both, as it happened, were reading the manuscript with approval. Oxford responded first. On April 14, 1948, Oxford’s editor Philip Vaudrin called Leopold in Madison to inform him that they were indeed interested in publishing his manuscript. They discussed plans for final revisions, with the goal of having the book available in the fall of 1949. One week later, on April 21, Leopold suffered a fatal heart attack while fighting a neighbor’s grass fire near the shack. He was sixty-one years old.

After the shock of Leopold’s death had eased, Luna assumed responsibility for seeing the manuscript through to publication. Working with Leopold’s students Joe Hickey, Bob McCabe, Frederick and Frances Hamerstrom, and other close colleagues of Leopold, Luna negotiated the final terms of publication with Oxford Press. This team collaborated in making final editorial decisions. Several essays were added, shifted, or renamed, but most of the alterations to Leopold’s manuscript were minor. The team felt that it was better to leave Leopold’s work intact than to risk making inappropriate changes.

Luna Leopold did agree, reluctantly, to one significant change. Oxford considered Leopold’s manuscript title “Great Possessions” too obscure and too Dickensian. Consultations among Oxford’s editors, Luna, and the editorial panel yielded several alternative titles, none of which seemed to capture the book’s characteristic tone of concern tempered by understated irony, humor, and wonder. In the end, they chose for the title the heading of the manuscript’s first section, “A Sand County Almanac.” Oxford Press published the book in the fall of 1949 under the full title A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.23

· · ·

This condensed narrative cannot convey fully the impact of contemporary events, professional experiences, and private interactions on Leopold’s evolving vision for his book. It does, however, indicate how deeply devoted Leopold was to the project’s overarching goal—so much so that he persisted through multiple rejections, continual questioning of its content and style, and a series of difficult personal challenges. That goal was nothing less than to breach “the senseless barrier between science and art”; to unite informed observation of the living world, through the lens of ecology and evolutionary biology, with an enriched appreciation of nature’s beauty and drama.

Leopold understood his literary effort as something more than an exercise in ecological aesthetics. Throughout the 1940s the trends in world events, human relations, and human interactions with the natural world weighed heavily on Leopold, as they did on many of his colleagues in the conservation movement. Careful reading of the Almanac provides ample clues that this was deeply a book of its times. From “Pines Above the Snow”: “...the 1941 growth was long in all pines; perhaps they saw the shadow of things to come, and made a special effort to show the world that pines still know where they are going, even though men do not.”24 From “Wilderness”: “Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility. The shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage in the land assumes that he has already discovered what is important; it is such who prate of empires, political or economic, that will last a thousand years.”25 From “The Land Ethic”: “In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating.”26 The value of the ecological perspective lay not only in its potential to enhance human awareness and appreciation of the natural world, but to improve our chances of achieving “harmony with land”—Leopold’s definition of conservation. And it might even have something to offer in our efforts to achieve more decent human relations.

Leopold (third from left) with the Wilderness Society members, 1946

Those chances seemed to be diminishing at the time. Already the postwar era was bringing forth unprecedented economic and technological changes. Science too was changing. The field-oriented biology at which Leopold excelled would soon be overwhelmed by reductionism. Leopold spared no words in his critique of the forces driving the scientific agenda. In a 1946 address to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology he stated, “Science, as now decanted for public consumption, is mainly a race for power. Science has no respect for the land as a community of organisms, no concept of man as a fellow passenger in the odyssey of evolution.”27

Leopold was equally forthright in criticizing his fellow professionals in conservation. He shared with his students his concern that conservation, too, suffered from the fallacy, “clearly borrowed from modern science, that the human relation to land is only economic. It is, or should be, esthetic as well. In this respect our current culture, and especially our science, is false, ignoble, and self-destructive.”28 Harsh words to cast upon the ears of listening undergraduates. Characteristically, Leopold lightened his message by pointing out the fringe benefits of ecological literacy: “I am trying to teach you that this alphabet of ‘natural objects’ spells out a story, which he who runs may read—if he knows how. Once you learn to read the land, 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.”29

Through A Sand County Almanac, Leopold sought to teach others to see the land, to recognize the wounds, and to savor the pleasures. By his very tone he conveyed his trust in their ability to do so, and to act upon what they saw, learned, and enjoyed. This human response was for Leopold the foundation upon which conservation finally rested. In his unassuming and idiosyncratic book of essays, Leopold showed that we may move mountains by allowing the mountains—and the skies, the oceans, the freshwaters, the marshes, the forests, the prairies, the tundras, the deserts, and all the lives, human and otherwise, they contain—to move us.


The essay was first published in 2002 by Oxford University Press in the volume Aldo Leopold and the Ecological Conscience. Posted with permission.

To see completed annotations, refer to the original, available here.