Aldo Leopold: Thinking Like a Mountain


Aldo Leopold

Seemeth it a small thing unto you to have fed upon good pasture, but ye must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture? And to have drunk of the clear waters, but ye must foul the residue with your feet?

— The Book of Ezekiel

Aldo Leopold was trained as a forester and became the founder of the new field of wildlife management. As a young man, Leopold went to work for the Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico. During his career Leopold created  the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon and wrote the Forest Service’s first game and fish handbook.

At one point, Leopold was assigned to hunt and kill bears, wolves, and mountain lions in New Mexico, because these predators were a threat to local livestock. One such incident would come to change his life. He recounts coming upon a mother wolf he had shot:

“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.

“Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. … 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.”

This experience caused Leopold to rethink the importance of predators in the balance of nature. He saw how the removal of a single species can produce in serious negative consequences for an ecosystem. “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf,” wrote Leopold.  What was it then that the mountain knew? Leopold quotes Thoreau’s dictum, “In wildness is the salvation of the world,” and then goes on to write, “Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.” Eventually, Leopold articulated an ecological ethic which he called “thinking like a mountain”. To think like a mountain means to perceive the deep interconnectedness of all the elements in the ecosystems which are not apparent when we think of ourselves as isolated individuals.


“Thinking Like a Mountain” by Robert Bateman

“The land is one organism. … The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio,” wrote Leopold, “but rather the complexity of the land organism.” Following the Russian philosopher Peter D. Ouspensky, Leopold likened the unity of the human body to the unity of the earth “with enormously slow, intricate, and interrelated functions among its parts”. He wrote that it is possible to regard

“the earth’s parts—soil, mountains, rivers, atmosphere, etc.—as organs, or parts of organs, of a coordinated whole, each part with a definite function. And, if we could see this whole, as a whole, through a great period of time, we might perceive not only organs with coordinated functions, but possibly also that process of consumption and replacement which in biology we call the metabolism, or growth. In such a case we would have all the visible attributes of a living thing, which we do not now realize to be such because it is too big, and its life processes too slow.”

Writing 50 years before James Lovelock articulated the Gaia Hypothesis, science had not yet caught up with Leopold’s perception. But “in our intuitive perceptions,” wrote Leopold, “we realize the indivisibility of the earth—its soil, mountains, rivers, forests, climate, plants, and animals, and respect it collectively not only as a useful servant but as a living being, vastly less alive than ourselves in degree, but vastly greater than ourselves in time and space—a being that was old when the morning stars sang together, and, when the last of us has been gathered unto his fathers, will still be young.” This idea of the earth as a living body would later find its way into Neo-Paganism.

The concept of “wilderness” took on new meaning for Leopold through his work as a conservationist. Modern people, he wrote, see wilderness as “the space between cities”, or at best as a place for recreation. “Hence the wilderness that he cannot personally see has no value to him. Hence the universal assumption that an unused hinterland is rendering no service to society. To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste.” But to Leopold, it is the most valuable part. “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” he asked.

Leopold bemoaned the fact that modern human beings are alienated from the land. We have no “vital relation” to it, he wrote. And while he saw it as a good thing that people wanted to get back to nature, he was also concerned about the demands placed on public lands those seeking outdoor recreation. He described outdoor recreation as “a paradoxical mixture of appetite and altruism”. “But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.”

Photo115125Leopold’s most important contribution to the environmental movement was an essay, “The Land Ethic”, in his book, A Sand County Almanac, which was not published until 1949, shortly after his death. The essay argued that that human beings are members of a community which includes soil, water, plants, animals — collectively “the land”. “The land,” wrote Leopold, “is one organism.” He argued for a new attitude, “an intelligent humility toward Man’s place in nature.” Rather than acting like conquerors of the wilderness, human beings should act as citizens of an ecological community. Citizenship implies respect for fellow non-human citizens and for the community as such. “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land.” wrote Leopold, “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.” According to Leopold’s land ethic, a thing is right “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community”, and it is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Leopold’s book has been called the most influential book on conservation, and it is the starting point for understanding the spiritual dimension of environmentalism. It was the the beginning of what came to be called an ecocentric or biocentric ethic, in contrast to an anthropocentric one. Leopold’s ideas would later inspire deep ecologists, neo-animists, and Neo-Pagans alike to find ways to relate to the earth as a community, rather than a resource.

Related Pages:

External Links:

“The Land Ethic” by Aldo Leopold
“Thinking Like a Mountain” by Aldo Leopold
“Some Fundamentals of Conservation in the Southwest: Conservation as a Moral Issue” by Aldo Leopold

Updated 9/5/14

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