Conservation: Back to the Future

Posted on December 8, 2016 by Dennis Krumholz

In preparing the curriculum for my first environmental law class this coming semester, I thought it would enrich my students’ experience to read certain of the important antecedents of the modern era of environmental statutory, regulatory and case law.  Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, a classic of conservation literature, came immediately to mind.  As a result, I have returned to a book that kindled my appreciation for ecology and the outdoors and, thereby, reinforced my interest in environmental law.

I began by reading the chapter in which Leopold muses about activities that take place during November at his sand farm on the Wisconsin River.  (Since my blog is due in early December, jumping in here seemed to make sense.)  Leopold recounts a myriad of activities in the mere twelve pages he devotes to describing this month’s developments.  One section is devoted to the unintended beneficial consequences that result from diseases that afflict his trees.  Various animals take advantage of the shelter and, especially, the food that these diseased and rotting trees provide.  Leopold’s insight is to look beyond the misfortune of losing trees; not only is this destruction a natural part of life, but - if only we are able to recognize it – death is offset by the sustenance the dying and dead trees provide to local animals.  While this “circle of life” approach is easily understandable these days, such an idea was radical when Leopold was writing in the 1940s.

The heart of the November chapter finds Leopold considering whether to chop down a white pine or a red birch.  Indeed, he considers conservation to be “a matter of what a man thinks while chopping, or deciding what to chop.  A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”  Leopold thoughtfully explores his motives in selecting to fell one tree or the other –which of the trees he planted, which is more scarce, which is likely to stand longer if untouched, which wood will fetch more money upon sale, the impact the tree would have upon animals and other plants if left standing … even his ancestors’ tree preferences.

Leopold casually reveals the many species that coexist in a deceptively simple sand farm.  He also educates his audience by gently illustrating the interrelatedness of the plants and animals and describing the seasonal impacts of cold and wind on each.  The descriptions of vegetation and, especially, the birds that nest in his trees and bushes, are enchanting.  One wishes to have Leopold take us by the arm and show us all that he observes and understands.

Leopold’s skill as a stylist, especially his use of a languid and folksy style, masks his considerable scientific knowledge.  We know that he was a college professor and that, among other fields, he understood evolutionary theory.  While it is obvious that this training informs his many observations and conclusions, yet, Leopold serves up this technical information so lyrically that readers whose experiences with botany and zoology were less than happy will feel at home.

A word about the philosophical aspect of the Almanac is warranted.  While Leopold’s observations are presented on the “micro” level, he carries a far broader message.  Leopold laments the loss of our natural environment but with an approach that educates more than criticizes.  “What is the value of wilderness?” is one of the many deeper questions lurking just beneath the surface.  Leopold believes that its value lies in and of itself, but also in its contribution to our wellbeing; the natural world is essential to the moral and spiritual welfare of humanity.

Environmental law began to catch up with Leopold’s ecological vision in the early 1970s.  Since then, it would be easy to focus our legal training on the interplay among various elements of so-called “positive” law in the protection of our natural world.  But omitting Leopold and others like him from the education of our future lawyers would be a costly error, as doing so would ignore the conservation and ecological ethic that lies at the very root of environmental protection.  Rereading Leopold reminds us of how and why our field of law first arose and why practicing it continues to hold our interest.  I urge my colleagues in the College to dip (back) into this resonant and loamy book.  I’ll bet dinner in Charleston if you, too, don’t come away with a refreshed appreciation of our natural world and a reminder of the part our professional activities play in preserving it for future generations.



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