Passion for the Land

Paul S. Sutter in American Scientist:

Screenhunter_16_sep_20_0027In “Odyssey,” an essay from his posthumously published masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold traced the fictive histories of two atoms, pulled from parent rock and sent into ecological circulation at two different moments in North American history. Atom X, coaxed from limestone into the world of nutrient flow by a burr oak root when Native Americans ruled the prairies, meandered along a complex path through a fine-functioning ecosystem before haltingly descending the watershed to the sea; by contrast, atom Y, born from bedrock into a settler land of wheat and cattle and corn, moved downstream much more rapidly before being lost to the muck of the ocean floor. These two journeys seem intended to illustrate a basic ecological lesson about interconnection and complexity. But in the hands of Julianne Lutz Newton, they become parables of Leopold’s own intellectual journey and his contributions to ecological science.

As Newton notes in her superb new book, Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, Leopold began his career as a forester, studying the world of atom Y and its ilk and striving to make short-circuited systems of resource production more efficient. But over the course of four decades, as he came to see the land as a complex biotic community, he argued that land managers needed to respect the goodness of atom X’s inefficient, diverse journey. Indeed, he came to realize that the integrity, stability and beauty of natural systems should be measured not by how efficiently they produced wood fiber, game animals or crops, but by how diverse and attenuated were the paths of the atoms flowing through them. That journey from atom Y to atom X, according to Newton, was the essence of Aldo Leopold’s odyssey.

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