Study Guide

Aldo Leopold Files

In an old barn on a deserted Wisconsin farm, a young farmer found a lost notepad belonging to Aldo Leopold. The title of the notes and doodles was "A Writer's Guide to Thinking Like a Mountain." Very useful when writing about nature and trying to figure out what a mountain knows.

The following are three helpful suggestions for aspiring literary critics in developing the ability to get inside the head and thoughts of mountains.

Tip #1

Lite your hair on fire.

We can only assume this was meant as a thought experiment, since forest fires must be quite uncomfortable for a mountain, what with the heat and all. But hey, fire does get rid of any old, thick, and unwanted stands of white pine.

But seriously: fire is a metaphor for transformation, hardship, and discomfort. So from a mountain's point of view, though the fire is hot and surely smells bad (think of the singed arm hairs on Dad at the BBQ), once an old scraggly stand of pine trees has been burned away, the mountain is blessed with the new growth of aspen trees.

This tip would have the literary critic examine fire as a good thing in fictional narratives. Fire may seem destructive to human vacation homes in the Rocky Mountains, but if you think like a mountain while reading, the fire metaphor will take on a new quality. For a mountain, a fire is like a Sunday afternoon trip to the barber.

Tip #2

Stand under a tree during a thunderstorm.

There's a lot of lightning in literature: it's a favorite way for writers to scare characters, cause forest fires, blow things up, or bring science experiments to life. Just think of Frankenstein: Mary Shelley's use of lightning to construct dramatic, Gothic scenes may the coolest use of lightning in literature yet.

But does Leopold actually want us to get struck by lightning, or is this tip an allegory for being open to strokes of literary genius? Mountains need lightning for all kinds of reasons. Lightning helps create nitrates in the atmosphere that fall to the ground and enrich soils. Plants need nitrates, and animals need plants. Humans need both plants and animals to live, so if you think about it, lightning is actually the source of much of our food.

Now think about Frankenstein again. How does it change your interpretation of lightning in that novel if you think of the science of lightning? If you think about it, the monster is created from the source of our food. Weird, huh?

Tip #3

Ride a waterfall.

Imagine plunging over a waterfall: you'd probably start feeling something like a single cell in the vast and tangled ecosystem of that river rushing over a mountain cliff as a waterfall. You'd probably start to forget your human-ness and feel more like part of a system that's bigger than you are.

Leopold is suggesting that humans are small compared to the workings of a mountain and its powerful waterworks. It's easy to hold nature in high esteem because it's pretty to look at. How many times are we asked to stand behind the fence, please? We like to enjoy nature safely.

Analyzing the descriptions of rivers or explosive waterworks in great works of fiction and imagining how that water moves and what it is that that water might be "thinking" puts literary analysis and hydrology into a pretty cool partnership. Mountains throwing up is a pretty cool subject for both science and creative expression, don't you think? Why not mix them together?