The land ethic of Aldo Leopold

Jan. 11 marked the birthday of one of my environmental heroes, Aldo Leopold. I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that one reason I’m obsessed with him is because he was born in Iowa and I’m from Iowa, but there’s also much more to him. Beyond being from a great state, he is known best for a book called “A Sand County Almanac,” a culmination of insightful observations during his time at his shack in Wisconsin. One of the most impactful ideas from the book is “The Land Ethic.” This idea takes the concept of an ethic, or the way we think about treating and interacting with other humans, and expands it to “the land,” or other nonhuman things. A “Land Ethic,” then, requires actively working to treat all living beings with respect and recognizing their importance. This idea includes the ethical treatment of people, other animals and plants.

The coolest part about Aldo Leopold is that he practiced what he preached. He saw the complexity and beauty of other living animals and humbly admitted that there was no way he could ever fully understand any one species. Last February, I was with the High Impact Leadership Trips that went to the Aldo Leopold Center in Baraboo, Wis. This organization aspires to live out Aldo Leopold’s message and is located on the land that Aldo Leopold owned and restored. At one point while we were walking around the land, our tour guide pulled out a photo of where we stood and showed it to us. It didn’t even look like the same place. It was the middle of February, but where we stood now was surrounded by many beautiful coniferous and deciduous trees and there were traces of prairie grasses beneath the snow. The photo, on the other hand, was completely barren: there were no trees, no prairie grasses, just dried up soil. The farmer that had owned the farm before Aldo Leopold had used up the land solely for profit, so Aldo decided to do the exact opposite. He observed, learned from and nurtured the land and planted different kinds of trees and grasses to replenish it.

The most inspiring part is that he made mistakes along the way. Even though he went to Yale Forestry School and knew a lot about science and land restoration, even though he carefully thought about how he might best care for the land, he still planted some trees too close together and some of his plants did not survive very long. Along the way, he also talked to his neighbors about what he was doing on his farm, he took advice from other people about best practices, he learned by observing the land and he brought his college classes to his farm on the weekends to learn and help with the process as well. What a BREWer!

He could have easily not bought such horrible land, built a giant house there instead or just given up because he didn’t feel like he knew enough to do anything. Instead, he followed his instincts about the right thing to do and went for it. Today, both his books and the land he rebuilt stand as a testament to the power of actively pursuing what you know is right even if you’re not totally sure you know everything. Not only that, but he stood up for the underdog and gave it a chance. (In this situation, the underdog is the land.) Often times the want to act only stems from our love for other people, but there’s also power in extending that love beyond humanity. There is beauty all around us that has just as much potential and meaning in the world. Remember where you are, remember there is beauty there and remember that you’re never alone in anything you do. Be like Aldo. If you have a seed, plant it, watch it, nurture it, learn from it and let it grow.


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