An early environmental activist

fox2Aldo Leopold was a visionary ecologist of the first half of the twentieth century. I’m reading his classic A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949), a then-radical view of the imbalance between human activity and the needs of the environment, as considered by a scientist, hunter, and deeply thoughtful observer of his surroundings.

It’s a book of love and grief.

It was written in the 1940s, when Leopold could already see the wilderness he adored being hacked away at by civilization, and he knew it could not be stopped.

“Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.”

He describes lovingly, and in poetic terms almost devoid of cliche, the quirks of pines and chickadees, rabbits and marshes. He examines the benefits of tree diseases that open up trunks to all manner of inhabitants. He questions his sentimental attachments and self-serving aversions. He traces history through the rings of a stump. He is an overflowing fund of information.

He was acutely aware of the interdependence of every element of nature. He describes in great detail the cascade of effects when a species is eliminated from a habitat, as for instance, the explosion of vegetation-ravaging deer that followed upon the extirpation of wolves:

“I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”

Further, he has the audacity–not common in these days, when safety has become a moral issue, spawning laws on issues from seat belts to vaccines–to comment that “too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world.”

The one hopeful thought I’m having is that Leopold was one of the few who recognized, in those days, the devastation that was being wrought. Today there are millions, and the urgency of the situation is bringing us together. May we accomplish something great!

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