Study Guide

Aldo Leopold Quotes

No important change in human conduct is ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphases, our loyalties, our affections, and our convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy, ethics, and religion have not yet heard of it. [From "The Ecological Conscience"]

My ecocritic friends would also add literary analysis to the mix of intellectual disciplines that have been slow to address the issues of the natural world. I mean, English professors are already nerds, and they usually hang out indoors, right?

When you read about nature in literature, it means you have to get even nerdier: you have to study science. To be a good ecocritic, you have to expand your intellectual emphasis and consider not just the mechanics of language but also the physical properties of the objects described by language. How much, for example, did Darwin's theory of sexual selection influence the way George Eliot created male characters? A lot, actually.

So, brush up on your biology and ecology and hydrology, and write your lit crit under a tree or beside or creek for a change.

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. [From A Sand County Almanac]

As an ecocritic, you're going to find that quite a few authors aren't even aware of how they represent nature. Why not? It's usually because they either ignore it or think of it as something symbolic that can enhance the appeal of their main characters or serve as a backdrop to whatever action is happening on the frontlines of the plot.

If an author has respect for a nature, it'll mean that something like a tree will have a meaningful presence in that author's work. Either the author will describe the tree as something important and meaningful in itself, or the author may portray a person or a community of people caring for that three. Think of all those sacred groves in mythology, for example. How many times to trees play a big role in myths? Pretty often. Mythology just wouldn't be the same without 'em.

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. 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…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. [From "Thinking Like a Mountain"]

I'm not a druid or a shaman living in a cave, but I do think there are animal and nonhuman points of view that are important for us to understand. In this famous anecdote, I describe how a green fire goes out in the eyes of a dying wolf. Many people have their own interpretation of what I meant here, but I see that fire as the single life force that runs through all of us. And yes, it is green: it's a metaphor that connects all living things.

To think like a mountain when you read literature is to see how the author connects living things and how and why he or she tears them apart. In this case, that means seeing a wolf's death from the point of view of the wolf. Kind of changes how you feel about it, huh?

Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. [From A Sand County Almanac]

I'm going to bag on religion a bit here. I don't think humans have dominion over anything, really. Having an "Abrahamic concept of land" means thinking that everything in the world is made for humans, either as a reward or as a punishment. The Bible wants us to believe that God made flies and frogs just to make Pharaoh mad, whereas God made honey and manna to reward human. I just don't buy it.

When human communities prosper and focus on buying and selling things, the land suffers as a result of exploitation by humans. I think that trees and people and flies and honey are all equals. When you think this way, you get a very different view of the world. If you're an author, then your literary depictions of nature also become less Abrahamic, less about for humans only and more about let's give trees and flies and honey voices and see what they have to say.

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. [From A Sand County Almanac]

Don't get me wrong: I like the pretty. But the pretty is only part of the story. Some people focus on how nature inspires with its majesty, while other focus on how nature destroys things with floods and earthquakes and violent storms. Why are there only two choices?

Deep inside literature, I believe there are values yet uncaptured by language that we need to find words for. A metaphor for nature's unifying force, like the "green fire," is just one of the many ways literature can explore these values without lumping them into one of two categories.

Flies are ugly and maggoty and nasty: that's what we've been telling ourselves. But flies also act as agents of decomposition without which we'd be nose deep in a lot of doo-doo. The complete value of a fly is as yet uncaptured by language. That value is still lurking in some forgotten text waiting to be discovered, or maybe it's in a text that has yet to be written.

Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf. [From A Sand County Almanac]

Here I go with the mountain thing again. So, think about this: maybe we never know how to express with language what wolves or other nonhumans are saying or thinking. Well, that's okay: ecocriticism is also about learning to find comfort in the wonder of not knowing. Being okay with the mystery of a wolf howl has its own literary merit—it gives me chills just thinking about it.

Trying to think like a mountain tells us that we will never quite be able to think like a mountain. We don't need to try to make the natural world totally understandable with our scientific writing and our literary analysis; we should the wild and undecipherable aspects of nature to exist in literature, and we should appreciate those aspects as such. Even the nerdiest of the nerdy will tell you that any scientific discovery is temporary and will be revised or replaced at some point. An ecocritical analysis of literature can act in much the same way.