Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey

IN 1946, TWO YEARS before his unexpected death, Aldo Leopold wrote to his close friend William Vogt about the overriding conflict between ecological conservation and industrialism, with its emphases on efficiency, profit, and technology. Leopold suggested that industrialism might be reconcilable with conservation, but only if it could refrain from impairing the land’s overall health. Though he doubted there was any such ethic in industrialism, or that one would ever emerge, he nevertheless urged the effort on: “That the situation is hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best.”

As ecologist Julianne Newton reveals in Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, Leopold’s conservation thought focused on two primary areas: on land health as an ecological and normative principle and on the search for new cultural ways for people to live rightly in relation to the land. With respect to Leopold the scientist, Newton gives us our best look yet at his evolving ecological ideas. By carefully tracing his intellectual journey, she is able to “translate” more clearly than ever Leopold’s familiar phrases and word choices. His important concept of land health was based on his notion of a dynamic land pyramid, which called for treating land as a whole and for fostering diverse food chains. The Leopold who emerges in Newton’s work is a first-rate ecologist, more advanced in his scientific thought than many have concluded.

Even more valuable is Newton’s ample evidence of Leopold’s role as cultural reformer. Leopold was not out merely to manage land; he was out to change the world around him by challenging his fellow citizens and their profit-driven, shortsighted industrial culture. As Newton succinctly summarizes, to Leopold, “conservation . . . entailed a struggle . . . over what people thought right and most wanted in life.”

Newton’s fine work should be the beginning point for anyone interested in Leopold’s scientific and conservation thought. Although it does not displace Curt Meine’s more complete biography, it certainly frames Leopold’s challenges succinctly: Have we begun to see the land as a whole instead of its parts? Have we examined broader measures to determine land health? Have we adequately confronted our profit-driven culture? Have we taught landowners how to use their lands better? This insightful book illustrates that Leopold still has much to teach us.