Sutter, Paul S.
Review of Leopold: For the Health of the Land & The Essential Aldo Leopold
Environmental History, Vol. 5, #4, Oct. 2000, pp. 573-4
American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society
Durham, NC
Original Date
  • Bookwood Historical Collection, Star Lake
  • UW Madison/Wis Hist Soc

Aldo Leopold's legacy has been shifting in recent years, as scholars, environmentalists, and aficionados have reassessed his life and thought a half century after his death in 1948. Most readers familiar with Leopold know him through his posthumously published A Sand County Almanac (1949), a book with spare, sparkling prose and a density of insight unparalleled in American environmental writing. But for those interested in the evolution of Leopold's thought, A Sand County Almanac can be deceptive, as Leopold took some license with the facts of his intellectual maturation. A decade ago, Baird Callicot and Susan Flader did Leopold scholars a great service by collecting his most important essays in The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold (1991), which revealed a more complicated man whose epiphanies were less stark than those described in A Sand County Almanac. The River of the Mother of God remains the best primary-source introduction to Leopold's thought. The two books under review here--The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries, edited by Curt Meine and Richard L. Knight, and Aldo Leopold's For the Health of the Land: Previously Unpublished Essays and Other Writings, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle--are yet further evidence of our evolving appreciation of Leopold's importance.

For the Health of the Land focuses on perhaps the most important new theme in Leopold scholarship: his interest in private land--and particularly farmland--conservation. Leopold spent most of his later career working on and thinking about these issues, though, for various reasons, they have not been given the scholarly attention they deserve. For the Health of the Land should help to change that. The meat of the volume is what the editors have called "A Landowner's Conservation Almanac," a series of forty brief and previously uncollected essays that Leopold originally wrote for the Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer between 1938 and 1942. Mostly, the missives, a few of which were later published as sketches in A Sand County Almanac, offer advice to farmers on making their lands produce wildlife as well as conventional crops. This almanac, which Leopold had at one point hoped to publish as a book, is sandwiched between two other sections of essays on rural game management and land health respectively. Many of the pieces in these two sections have appeared elsewhere, but in unison that make resounding what has been an understated theme in Leopold's writing: that the nation's great conservation task was (and perhaps still is) to get farmers to propagate wildness and otherwise care for the public values that inhere in their vast private domain. Essential to this argument was a recognition on Leopold's part that public lands conservation could never be anything more than a partial solution to the nation's environmental problems, and that too heavy a reliance on government ownership would promote an ethical surrogacy destructive of the very sorts of personal relationships with the land that Leopold saw a crucial to successful conservation. This was, and remains, a strong challenge to the overwhelming public lands orientation of American conservation politics. Because its lends such a strong voice to this particular line of reasoning, For the Health of the Land is an important new collection of Leopold's writings.

The Essential Aldo Leopold, a compendium of Leopold quotations arranged into thematic sections, is much more than the reference book it appears to be. The editors have done a terrific job choosing and organizing Leopold quotations on a wide variety of subjects. As importantly, they have assembled a list of distinguished commentators from varied backgrounds who introduce each section of quotes with brief essays that alone make this collection a must for those interested in Leopold's life and thought. In contrast to For the Health of the Land, The essential Aldo Leopold features Leopold the polymath, a founding figure in disciplines as diverse as forestry, wildlife management, range management, recreational planning, wilderness preservation, ecological restoration, soil and water conservation, conservation biology, environmental ethics, environmental education, and environmental history, to name a few. In the guise of providing a useful reference work, Meine, Knight, and the volume's other contributors have effectively argued that Leopold's brilliance lay in his ability to build, cross, and even defy disciplinary boundaries. Aldo Leopold has long been many things to many people, and this volume will reinforce those multiple claims on his importance. But The Essential Aldo Leopold, in rehearsing Leopold's many achievements, also suggests the need to find, as the title suggests, Leopold's essence.

Aldo Leopold challenged his readers not only to love nature, but also to know nature so intimately and so well that loving it became a more complex act. For the Health of the Land and The Essential Aldo Leopold challenge us to value Leopold's life and legacy in a similar way.