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Aldo Leopold's Philosophy and Stance of the Land Ethic

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The existence of the American world as it stands today has been greatly influenced and reformed throughout history by many leading individuals. These influential leaders varied in topic, movement, reform, and vision; however, most, if not all of these individuals, have impacted much of the social and cultural structure of the United States, then and now. Of the considerable mass of influencers, lies a collection of environmentalists that have contributed their lives and efforts to the protection and study of nature. One of these individuals, by the name of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), was an American Midwesterner who pushed his efforts in preserving, protecting, and studying the natural world during the mid-20th century (Turgeon, 2017). Thus, his investment in the study of nature spanned throughout his teachings, writings, and even influencing future environmentalists.

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Aldo Leopold’s social and cultural contributions to the mid-20th century can be further enhanced with an understanding of who he was and his early experiences. Leopold was born on January 11, 1887, in Burlington, Iowa, as the eldest son of four children to Carl and Clara Leopold (The Aldo Leopold Foundation). Leopold’s father was a successful businessman while his mother was highly cultured, attempting to introduce opera and dance to him and helped cultivate his love for reading (Heitman, 2013). However, Leopold preferred the interest of his father, who enjoyed hunting, and later learned how to hunt too while frequently traveling into the woods together (Turgeon, 2017). These frequent voyages and his annual family trips to Les Cheneaux Island in Lake Huron, sparked an interest in nature within Leopold (Turgeon, 2017).

Aldo Leopold grew up to be an intrinsic environmentalist in an era of increasing environmental consciousness in the U.S., seeing the world as inherently good believing in the natural rights of all living things (Turgeon, 2017). As a result, he later went on to study forestry and graduate at the Yale Pinchot Forestry School in 1909, where he then joined the newly established U.S. Forester Service, founded by pioneering forester Gifford Pinchot, in Arizona and New Mexico (Heitman, 2013; The Aldo Leopold Foundation). There, at the age of twenty-four, he promoted the position of Supervisor for the Carson National Forest in New Mexico and in 1922 proposed to manage the Gila Forest as a wilderness area (The Aldo Leopold Foundation). He spent the next twenty years working there before becoming the nation’s first professor of game management at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin’s campus (Bramwell, 2017; Heitman, 2013).

As a professor, he worked hard to communicate the knowledge he had learned throughout his experience with nature to his students and those around him. However, throughout his years he concluded that in order to change people’s behavior on the environmental damage, education alone was not enough (Tenenbaum, 2019). Thus, in 1935 after raising a family of naturalists he retired to Central Wisconsin with his wife and five children and purchased an old farm near Baraboo (Bramwell, 2017; Heitman, 2013). There, the property became a test site for Leopold’s studies of land restoration, where he and his family planted thousands of pine trees that transformed unfertile lands into a lush haven for wildlife (Heitman, 2013). Leopold’s efforts in restoration and preservation did not become popular until after his death and later publication of his writings that today influence many environmentalists.

Throughout Leopold’s life, he had published over 500 works, those consisting of reports, speeches, textbooks, poems, and even newsletters (Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, n.d.). But, of the several published works, Leopold’s most famous and sold piece today is the Sand County Almanac, which is a collection of 41 nature essays available in twelve different languages about his Wisconsin farm (Heitman, 2013; Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, n.d.). Unfortunately, the sixty-one-year-old Leopold never got to see the publication of his book since he died of a heart attack on April 21 while fighting a grass fire on his neighbor’s farm (Heitman, 2013).

Today, much of Leopold’s essays helped outline the development of conservational principles, while also laying the groundworks of environmental ethics, a philosophy that encompasses the idea that humans must pay respect and are a member of the large ecological community (Turgeon, 2017). Leopold’s writings were also compared to the works of several other famous environmentalists of his time, like Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and John Muir for their impactful efforts in creating awareness of environmental issues (Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, n.d.). After the publication of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s ideas helped encourage future environmental movement and environmentalist of the 1960s-70s like Lynn White and Paul Ehrlich (Turgeon, 2017). These individuals, used much of Leopold’s methods and studies to guide their understanding of natural issues and helped emphasize the importance of environmental awareness while highlighting the consequence of ecological disasters.

Leopold’s lifetime writing and efforts to help educate Americans about ecological issues continue to shape much of contemporary environmentalists, such as Kathleen Dean Moore, Scott Russell Sanders, and Wendell Berry (Heitman, 2013). His work will continue to impact and shape future environmentalist since much of his work and other famous American environmentalist set the ground works of social and cultural ideas and ethics of the natural world. 

Not to mention that much of Leopold’s discovers helped emerge fields of wilderness studies, forestry, ecological ethics, soil conservation, environmental science, wilderness protection, and land restoration (Heitman, 2013). He also demonstrates to many of his followers that studying and influencing the natural world is achievable anywhere, even in a small shack surrounded by barren land in Wisconsin, has the potential to flourish and change the world. 

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