HOME RANGE: Notes on Literature, Nature, Working Dogs, History, Other Obsessions and Sundry Annoyances by Henry Chappell

Words I Wish I'd Written: From "The Land Ethic" by Aldo Leopold

July 2, 2017

Tags: WIWIW, The Land Ethic, Aldo Leopold



Back in the 1980s, when I joined the Isaac Walton League, I received as a new member gift a paperback copy of A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. The volume also contains several additional essays, most notably "Wilderness," and "The Land Eithic." Leopold is often called "the father of modern wildlife management." Like most hunters and anglers, I had heard of him, but, in by my late twenties, hadn't gotten around to reading him. I read the book in two or three sittings, and have read it through at least half a dozen times since. My old copy is marked up and falling apart, but I still reach for it, even after the good folks at The Sand County Foundation sent me a beautiful new hardcover edition a few years back.

Though written prior to 1948, this passage addresses our primary environmental issue. I cannot see how any current environmental concern can be uncoupled from the issue of human population. We lack a politics to deal with the issue. During the decades following publication of Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, the pro business and pro-natal Right scoffed at the issue of over population. Mathus's predictions hadn't come to pass and Ehrlich hadn't accounted for agricultural advances, therefore, human population was a non-issue. Republican leaders, many of them philistine by nature and forever concerned about economic growth, still don't care about the issue. What has changed is that the environmentalist Left, blinded, cowed, and silenced by ideological commitments, can no longer be counted on to sound the alarm. Population growth in the United States is almost completely driven by immigration, therefore it must be a net good, and, in any case, so the reasoning goes, we can no longer afford to be so provincial as to worry about our own country, let alone our own back yards. But buy locally while supporting global initiatives.

But here's the great Aldo Leopold:

"The combined evidence of history and ecology seems to support one general deduction: the less violent the man-made changes, the greater the probablility of successful readjustment in the pyramid. Violence in turn, varies with human population density; a dense population requires a more violent conversion. In this respect, North America has a better chance for permanence than Europe, if she can contrive to limit her density.

"This deduction runs counter to our current philosophy, which assumes that because a small increase in density enriched human life, that an indefinite increase will enrich it indefinitely. Ecology knows of no density relationship that holds for indefinitely wide limits. All gains from density are subject to a law of diminishing returns."


Not surprisingly, as early as the 1980s, Leopold was accused of "Enrivonmental Fascism," because the ideas expressed in "The Land Ethic" might lead to the submergance of the individual by collective glorification of nation or region.


I'm not optimistic, even though Aldo Leopold would be amazed by the enviromental progress made since he wrote "The Land Ethic." Certainly, we hunters enjoy more game than I could've imagined as a teenager. Likewise adaptive species sometimes reach nuisance levels in suburbs across the country. Yet, when J. and I moved to Plano, in 1983, quail, meadowlarks, roadrunners, and harriers were common. One of my most treasured memories is of Dad sitting on our little back porch, whistling to a bobwhite cock perched on our backyard fence. In the late 1980s, I trained a bird dog pup on wild bobwhites that eked out a living in the strips of cover in a neighborhood park and the surrounding pastures. You rarely see meadowlarks or roadrunners or harriers nowadays. I haven't heard a bobwhite call in Collin County in nearly 20 years. They don't exactly thrive in subdivisions. Oh, we have raccoons and coyotes and bobcats aplenty, but they don't quite make up for the loss of those grassland birds.

How many times can the process be replicated? Perhaps I'm a hypocrite for asking; after all, J. And I moved from Kentucky to North Texas. But I'll ask anyway.


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