Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” turns 70 this year. At a time when writing about ecological emergency is emotionally and politically fraught, the “Almanac” is a balm of wisdom and reverence for nature. And few essays have had more impact on green schools of thought than “Thinking Like a Mountain.”
Leopold was an esteemed professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin, and “A Sand County Almanac” had an unlikely ride into the environmental canon. Published in 1949, a year after Leopold’s death, it enjoyed initial critical applause and modest success among conservationists. That was not surprising; Leopold was respected among his peers and newspaper reviews were positive. But the all-systems-go, post-war boom was not an ideal environment for Leopold’s reflections.
Then in 1966 the book came out in paperback, followed in 1970 by an expanded edition that included essays from “Round River,” another posthumous collection of Leopold’s writings. Environmental sentiments were gaining nationally, and Rachel Carson’s 1962 “Silent Spring” had helped catalyze a green current in the counterculture. Leopold’s thoughtful essays caught the popular imagination, shaping the very ethical and intellectual evolution of the movement.
More than 2 million copies have now been printed, in 14 languages. Professional ecologists and conservationists still regularly turn to Leopold for insight and inspiration. The “Almanac” is a trove of ecological ideas, each essay rooted in a poetically rendered American landscape.
“Thinking Like a Mountain” reflects on the death of a wolf. It’s a simple story, humbly told, yet in fewer than 1,000 words Leopold created two archetypes that now infuse environmental thinking: the potent imagery of wildness as a “fierce green fire” and the ecological idea of “thinking like a mountain.”
Leopold begins with the howl of a wolf reverberating across the landscape. Then he pivots almost casually to the story of a wolf’s death at the hand of Leopold and his companions. Then:
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.
Leopold’s nature writing is lyrical, but not overwrought. As he explores the meaning of this death, the resulting parable has the feel of an elegy. But instead of mourning and melancholy there is revelation, and a gentle ecological lesson. He blames himself, first:
I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Leopold wrote “Thinking Like a Mountain” at a time of personal and professional convergence. World War II had emptied the university campus, leaving him ample time to write and reflect. Ecology was still a young discipline, filtering upwards into the more traditional resource management domains such as agronomy, forestry, and game management.
“A lot of those early essays were written for the farming community,” says conservation historian Curt Meine. “He’s trying to explain ecology to a broader audience. He’s trying to explain why this new scientific world view is important to students, to citizens, to policy makers, to applied resource managers. He sees himself in the mode of an extension agent.”
But he’s also one of only a handful of people in the world at the time thinking globally about conservation and the human prospect. For Leopold, the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl years is still fresh. It’s hard to imagine in today’s atmosphere of accelerating environmental alarm, but that Depression-era lesson had already been eclipsed by the challenges of global war and the almost religious belief that science and industry could overwrite the laws of nature.
Leopold worked for years on the essays that became the “Almanac.” He was always writing something; he kept unfinished work in what he called “the cooler,” and some work remained unfinished for decades.
“Thinking Like a Mountain” was a more urgent composition. Leopold had been corresponding for a few years with a former student, H. Albert Hochbaum. Meine traces the role of this relationship in the evolution of the “Almanac” in his 1988 biography “Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work.” (For writers, it’s a lesson in the value of the critical reader.) At first, Leopold and his student had a collaboration in mind, with Hochbaum to provide illustrations and Leopold the text. But Leopold was not given to first-person reflection, and the two argued about whether these essays could be both scientifically accurate and poetically evocative.
Hochbaum also scolded Leopold for being too righteous: How could he chide ranchers about killing wolves and coyotes when he’d done exactly that as a younger man? In a letter, Hochbaum wrote: “…the lesson you wish to put across is the lesson that must be taught — preservation of the natural. Yet it is not easily taught if you put yourself above other men. That is why I mentioned your earlier attitudes towards the wolf….”
Leopold had other reasons to be thinking about wolves because, in northern Wisconsin, debate was raging over deer populations. In April of 1944 he drafted “Thinking Like a Mountain” and sent it off to Hochbaum. The essay essentially ended their argument, as it embraced both the style and the self-effacement that Hochbaum had lobbied for. All of us are the richer:
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. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.
Predator management remains a hot-button issue even now, but in Leopold’s day it was what we might call toxic. Leopold handled it with aplomb.
“When he finally sits down to write, it all converges at the analytical level,” says Meine. Thirty five years of observations and dialogues and critical thinking about landscape ecology, wildlife ecology, and population ecology — it all coalesced. “It’s surprising just how short it is,” says Meine. “I imagine he wrote it very quickly. It’s a new voice emerging.”
Indeed, through three typed drafts, “Thinking Like a Mountain” changed little.
Leopold continued working on the essays, guided by Hochbaum and others, and on-and-off interest from publishers in New York. In 1948 he died of a heart attack suffered while fighting a fire on a neighboring farm. With editorial guidance from his son, Luna, “A Sand County Almanac” was published the following year.
Leopold may have been a scientist, but he was a kind of journalist, too, carefully recording facts and scenes from the natural world. These sketches transform landscape from mere place setting to living character — a skill essential to communicating global change. His myriad observations, assembled with thoughtful analysis and skillfully told narratives, have profoundly influenced generations of scientists and citizens.
And any story-seeking journalist can adapt Leopold’s take on the hunt. “The sweetest hunts are stolen,” he wrote in the October entry of the “Almanac:”
To steal a hunt, either go far into the wilderness where no one has been, or else find some undiscovered place under everybody’s nose.
Have you found that undiscovered place? Have you seen the green fire? Can you think like a mountain? Environmental journalism takes many forms and faces many challenges, but those questions are always in the mix.