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The Foreword That Was Not to Be

Cover image of A sand County Almanac, with the 1948 opening lines superimposed.

Sometimes shorter is better. For instance, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—a speech considered one of America’s finest ever—was a mere 270 words, yet it became, and remains for many, the code-cracker of the U.S. Civil War’s meaning to a nation in distress.

Lincoln’s delivery followed a two-hour oration by the popular Edward Everett, but Lincoln’s words are the ones that remain from that somber day. The president’s speech was so brief, photographers poised to capture the event didn’t have time to set up properly, so a formal image was never captured. 

Aldo Leopold produced an analogous, brief string of words as the 1948 foreword to A Sand County Almanac, And Sketches Here and There—620 words that include several phrases many conservationists can recite at the drop of a hat, many concise summations that shine yet as beacons of meaning for a thinking community.

But was it better than the much longer foreword Leopold had drafted a year earlier, in 1947? Apparently, Leopold thought so. Leopold Scholar Dennis Ribbens, in Companion to A Sand County Almanac, says, “The 1948 foreword, which is much shorter than the 1947 one, elegantly summarizes the logic and organization of the book with relatively little comment about Leopold himself. The 1947 foreword explains the organization of the book only briefly, and for the most part develops the logic of the book less through exposition than through personal reflection.”  

Maybe any attempt to compare the quality of the two versions is a fool’s errand. They both swell with the genius of Leopold—in fact, the unused, 1947 version contains one of Leopold’s most compelling, and most quoted, thoughts: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” And it provides many peeks behind the curtain of Leopold himself, peeks he rarely allowed elsewhere in his writings. That alone is compelling enough.

Below are the two versions. Decide for yourself, if you want to.


Revision of 7/31/47 (to be revised as appendix)

These essays deal with the ethics and esthetics of land.

During my lifetime, more land has been destroyed or damaged than ever before in recorded history. As a field-worker in conservation, I have seen, studied, and measured many samples of this process. 

During my lifetime, the stockpile of scientific facts about land has grown from a molehill into a mountain. As a research ecologist, I have contributed to this pile.

During my lifetime, the thing called conservation has grown from a name-less idea into a mighty national movement. As a sportsman and naturalist, I have helped it grow - in size - but so far it has seemed almost to shrink in potency.

This concurrent growth in knowledge of land, good intentions toward land, and abuse of land presents a paradox that baffles me, as it does many another thinking citizen. Science ought to work the other way, but it doesn't. Why?

First typed page of the 1947 foreword draft

We regard land as an economic resource, and science as a tool for extracting bigger and better livings from it. Both are obvious facts, but they are not truths, because they tell only half the story.

There is a basic distinction between the fact that land yields us a living, and the inference that it exists for this purpose. The latter is about as true as to infer that I fathered three sons in order to replenish the woodpile.

Science is, or should be, much more than a lever for easier livings. Scientific discovery is nutriment for our sense of wonder, a much more important matter than thicker steaks or bigger bathtubs.

Art and letters, ethics and religion, law and folklore, still regard the wild things of the land either as enemies, or as food, or as dolls to be kept "for pretty." This view of land is our inheritance from Abraham, whose foothold in the land of milk and honey was still a precarious one, but it is outmoded for us. Our foothold is precarious, not because it may slip, but because we may kill the land before we learn to use it with love and respect. Conservation is a pipe-dream as long as Homo sapiens is cast in the role of conqueror, and his land in the role of slave and servant. Conservation becomes possible only when man assumes the role of citizen in a community of which soils and waters, plants and animals are fellow members, each dependenton the others, and each entitled to his place in the sun.

These essays are one man's striving to live by and with, rather than on, the American land.

I do not imply that this philosophy of land was always clear to me. It is rather the end-result of a life-journey, in the course of which I have felt sorrow, anger, puzzlement, or confusion over the inability of conservation to halt the juggernaut of land-abuse. These essays describe particular episodes en route.


My first doubt about man in the role of conqueror arose while I was still in college. I came home one Christmas to find that land promoters, with the help of the Corps of Engineers, had dyked and drained my boyhood hunting grounds on the Mississippi River bottoms. The job was so complete that I could not even trace the outlines of my beloved lakes and sloughs under their new blanket of cornstalks.

I liked corn, but not that much. Perhaps no one but a hunter can understand how intense an affection a boy can feel for a piece of marsh. My home town thought the community enriched by this change, I thought it impoverished. It did not occur to me to express my sense of loss in writing; my old lake had been under corn for forty years before I wrote "Red Legs Kicking." Nor did I, until years later, formalate the generalization that drainage is bad, not in and of itself; but when it becomes so prevalent that a fauna and flora are extinguished.

My first job was as a forest ranger in the White Mountains of Arizona. There I conceived a large enthusiasm for the free life of the cow country, and I admired the mounted cowmen, many of whom were my friends. Through the usual process of hazing and horseplay, I—the tenderfoot—acquired some rudiments of skill as a horseman, packer, and mountaineer.

When the advent of motor transport began to shrink the boundaries of the horse-culture, I realized that something valuable was being lost, but I bowed my head to the inevitability of "progress". Years later, I tried to recapture the fanvor of the cow-country in "The White Mountain.”


It was in the White Mountain country that I had my first experience with government predator-control. My friends the cowmen shot bears, wolves, mountain lions and coyotes on sight; in their eyes, the only good predator was a dead one. When some particularly irksome depredation occurred, they organized a punitive expedition, or even hired a professional trapper for a month or two. But the overall outcome was a draw; the predators were kept down, but they were not extinguished. It occurred to no one that the country might eventually become bearless and wolfless. Everyone assumed that the fewer varmints the better, and within limits this was (and is) true.

Then came paid government hunters who worked on salary, took pride in their skill, and (in the case of wolves and grizzlies) were often able to trap a given unit of range to the point of eradication. The sum of a dozen local eradications was extinguishment in the state, and the sum of a dozen "clean" states was national extermination. To be sure, there was a face-saving policy about leaving some predators in the National Parks, but the actual fact is that there are no wolves, and only a precarious remnant of grizzlies, in the Parks today.

In "Escudilla", I relate my own participation in the extinguishment of the grizzly bear from the White Mountain region. At the time I sensed only a vague uneasiness about the ethics of this action. It required the unfolding of official "predator control" through two decades finally to convince me that I had helped to extirpate the grizzly from the Southwest, and thus played the role of accessory in an ecological murder.


Later, when I had become Chief of Operations for the Southwestern National Forests, I was accessory to the extermination of the lobo wolf from Arizona and New Mexico. As a boy, I had read, with intense sympathy, Seton's masterly biography of a lobo wolf, but I nevertheless was able to rationalize the extermination of the wolf by calling it deer management. I had to learn the hard way that excessive multiplication is a far deadlier enemy to deer than any wolf. "Thinking Like a Mountain" tells what I now know (but what most conservationists have still to learn) about deer herds deprived of their natural enemies.


In 1909, when I first moved to the southwest, there had been six blocks of roadless mountain country, each embracing half a million acres or more, in the National Forests of Arizona and New Mexico. By the 1920's new roads had invaded five of them and there was only one left: the headwaters of the Gila River. I helped to organize a national Wilderness Society, and contrived to get the Gila headwaters withdrawn as a wilderness area, to be kept as pack country, free from additional roads, "forever.” But the Gila deer herd, by then wolfless and all but lionless, soon multiplied beyond all reason, and by 1924 the deer had so eaten out the range that reduction of the herd was imperative. Here my sin against the wolves caught up with me. The Forest Service, in the name of range conservation, ordered the construction of a new road splitting my wilderness area in two, so that hunters might have access to the top-heavy deer herd. I was helpless, and so was the Wilderness Society. I was hoist of my own petard. 

It was at this time that I wrote several papers, now combined in the essay "Wilderness.” 

Ironically enough, this same sequence of proclaiming a wilderness, erasing the predators to increase the game, and then erasing the wilderness to harvest the game, is still being repeated in state after hapless state. The latest instance is the Salmon River, in Idaho.

I have always felt a deep love for canoe trips on wild rivers. In 1922 my brother Carl and I essayed the then wildest stretch of river in the Southwest: the Delta of the Rio Colorado. We were the third party to navigate the Delta, and the first to do it by canoe. Of my many ventures into wild country, this was the richest and most satisfying. I have tried to recapture its flavor, in retrospect, in "The Green Lagoons".

Twenty five years later, while serving on the Wisconsin Conservation Commission, I was impressed by the fact that Wisconsin youth were about to lose one of their last wild rivers: the Flambeau. Most other canoeing rivers in the state had already been harnessed for power. I joined with Conservation Commissioner W.J.P. Aberg and Deputy Director of Conservation Ernest F. Swift in an effort to rebuild a small stretch of cottageless riveron the Flambena State Forest. The defeat of this venture, after it was half completed, by the Wisconsin Legislature, is described in "Flambeau". What is a wild river more or less among farmers thirsty for cheap power?

Leopold at UW-Madison in 1942


I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1924, to become Associate Director of the Forest Products Laboratory. I found the industrial motif of this otherwise admirable institution so little to my liking that I was moved to set down my naturalistic philosophy in a series of essays: "The Land Ethic,” "Conservation Esthetic," and others.

It was at this period that I made a series of vacation trips to the Sierra Madre in Chihuahua, Mexico, in company with my brother Carl, my friend Raymond J. Roark, and my son Starker, by then grown. The Sierra Madre was an almost exact counterpart of my beloved mountains of Arizona and New Mexico, but fear of Indians had kept the Sierra free from ranches and livestock. It was here that I first clearly realized that land is an organism, that all my life I had seen only sick land, whereas here was a biota still in perfect aboriginal health. The term "unspoiled wilderness" took on a new meaning. I recorded these impressions in "Song of the Gavilan" and "Guacamaja.”

In 1928 I undertook a game survey for the sporting arms industry, and in 1931 I became Professor of Wildlife Management at the University of Wisconsin. Daring the ensuing decade several ventures were undertaken which bear upon this autobiography. 

Daring the thirties, in company with my friends Franklin Schmidt, Wallace Grange, Frederick Hamerstrom, and Frances Hamerstrom I did much field work in central Wisconsin. "Marshland Elegy,” "The Sand Counties," "Red Lanterns,” and "Smoky Gold" express my abiding affection for this region, called poor by those who know no better.

 In 1938, with the help of my friend Hans Albert Hochbaum, I helped to organize a waterfowl research station at Delta, Manitoba. I became acquainted with the great marshes of the Canadian wheat belt, and I was shocked to learn how rapidly they were drying up. It was evident that the whole continent was losing its principal nursery for wild fowl. “Clandeboye” still has water, but it has now aquired roads, empty bottles, and limited-shooting gunners from the States.

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well, and does not want to be told otherwise. One sometimes envies the ignorance of those who rhapsodize about a lovely countryside in process of losing its topsoil, or afflicted with some degenerative disease of its water system, fauna, or flora. 

A group of sketches written during the period 1935-1945 deal with this theme of lethal illness, visible only to the ecologist, in the still-lovely landscapes of various states. “Illinois Bus Ride,” “Odyssey,” Cheat Takes Over,” and perhaps “On a Monument to the Pigeon” belong in this group. I have been told that “Odyssey” is a complete summary of the fundamentals of ecological conservation.


In 1935 my education in land ecology was deflected by a peculiar and fortunate accident. My family and I had become enthusiastic hunters with bow and arrow, and we needed a shack as a base-camp from which to hunt deer. To this end I purchased, for a song, an abandoned farm on the Wisconsin River in northern Sauk County, only fifty miles from Madison.

Deer hunting soon proved to be only a minor circumstance among the delights of a landed estate in a semi-wild region, accessible on weekends. I now realize that I had always wanted to own land, and to study and enrich its fauna and flora by my own effort. My wife, my three sons, and my two daughters, each in his own individual manner, have discovered deep satisfactions of one sort or another in the husbandry of wild things on our own land. In the winter we band and feed birds and cut firewood, in spring we plant pines and watch the geese go by, in summer we plant and tend wildflowers, in fall we hunt pheasants and (in some years) ducks, and at all seasons we record phenology. All of these ventures are family affairs; to us a landless family, relying on other people's wildlife, has become an anachronism. My experiences at the shack are recorded in "Great Possessions", and a dozen other essays arranged calendar-wise as "A Sand-Country Almanac.”

 Whatever the philosophical import, or lack of it, in these sketches, it remains a fact that few writers have dealt with the drama of wild things since our principal instruments for understanding them have come into being. Thoreau, Nair, Burroughs, Hudson, and Seton wrote before ecology had a name, before the science of animal behavior had been born, and before the survival of faunas and floras had become a desperate problem. Fraser Darling and R. M. Lockley have expressed, for the British Isles, some fragments of the wildlife drama as illumined by these new viewpoints, but in America, parallel attempts have been few. I salute Sally Carrighar's Beetle Rock, Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher's "Driftwood Valley," and Louis Halle's "Spring in Washington" as among the best of these. My hope is that "Great Possessions" may add something to what they have ably begun. 

These essays were written for myself and my close friends, but I suspect that we are not alone in our discontent with the ecological status quo. If the reader finds here some echo of his own affections and of his own anxieties, they will have accomplished more than was originally intended.

I take the reader first on a round of the seasons at my shack in Sauk county, Wisconsin, and next on a hop-skip-and-jump tour of the North American continent. In both journeys I sketch the observations and experiences which have impressed me most deeply. 

At the end of the volume I try to sum up, in more coherent form, the basic logic of the ecological concept of land.

Aldo Leopold

Madison Wisconsin
July 31, 1947


Foreword [1948]

THERE are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.

Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.

These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.

*           *           *

One must make shift with things as they are. These essays are my shifts. They are grouped in three parts.

Part I tells what my family sees and does at its week-end refuge from too much modernity: ‘the shack.’ On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere. It is here that we seek-and still find-our meat from God.

These shack sketches are arranged seasonally as a “Sand County Almanac.'

Part II, ‘Sketches Here and There,' recounts some of the episodes in my life that taught me, gradually and sometimes painfully, that the company is out of step. These episodes, scattered over the continent and through forty years of time, present a fair sample of the issues that bear the collective label: conservation.

Part III, ‘The Upshot’ sets forth, in more logical terms, some of the ideas whereby we dissenters rationalize our dissent. Only the very sympathetic reader will wish to wrestle with the philosophical questions of Part m. I suppose it may be said that these essays tell the company how it may get back in step.

*           *           *

Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.

These essays attempt to weld these three concepts.

Such a view of land and people is, of course, subject to the blurs and distortions of personal experience and personal bias. But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to tum off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings.

Perhaps such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free.

Aldo Leopold

Madison, Wisconsin
4 March 1948