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Aldo Leopold.

The first of these books leads to the second, and both make considerable, as well as enjoyable, complementary reading.

Curt Meine's biography brings into clear focus the life of Aldo Leopold, ecologist and philosopher, whose thought evolved to produce the famed 'Land Ethic' which included the human being as a member of the community of land, neither apart, nor above it. The River of the Mother of God traces the evolutionary development of the thinking behind the Land Ethic from when it was first mentioned in 1935 to the time of its appearance in The Sand County Almanac in 1949. Similarly with the equally much quoted essay, 'Thinking Like a Mountain'. The acceptance by Oxford University Press of The Sand County Almanac, in which both appear in final polished form, came just before the end of his abbreviated life in 1948, caught as he was by a heart attack while fighting a neighbour's spreading fire. He was 61.

Meine's evocation of the breathtaking beauty of the wild, untamed land, without saying so, brought the tragedy of the fate of the Apache and other original Redskin inhabitants to mind with an overwhelming sadness. Leopold noted that the Red Indians had not disturbed the land, or the diversity of species. Meine shows clearly what Leopold found with descriptions of the prevailing destruction of the land by a population explosion of deer, and the indiscriminate grazing by cattle and sheep, which John Muir before Leopold had described as 'horned locusts'. Leopold actually implored the forest to speak out against the deer; and in a sense it did by its silence, and disappearance, as the young forest shoots were consumed by the ravaging deer, which were there only for man to take his pleasure with by killing them for sport. But not as skilfully as the wolf. Meine's superb descriptions are supported by detailed coverage of Leopold's life with copious excerpts from letters and family papers, as well as by continuous reference to his published and unpublished writings, almost all of which appear, if not in The River of the Mother of God, in The Sand County Almanac.

In 1920, Leopold read Ouspensky's Tertium Organum and was deeply influenced by it, as is evidenced throughout his writing. An important essay, 'Some Fundamentals of Conservation', written in 1923 was not published in his lifetime, but appears in The River of the Mother of God, and discloses the platform on which was based his later 'Land Ethic' and 'Ecological Conscience'. There he says, 'Possibly, in our intuitive perceptions, which may be truer than our science and less impeded by words than our philosophies, we realise 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'. Ouspensky talks of the mind of the mountain, which Leopold transposed into his essay, 'Thinking Like a Mountain'.

Ouspensky was concerned with mankind's possible evolution, and Leopold's changing attitudes in his writing confirm an evolutionary advance in his thinking, but in one respect was not supported by his actions, unfortunately. Leopold himself having been brought up to hunt, his attitude towards hunting may have changed far more radically than it did, as he was brought straight back by the eagerness of his two growing sons. But he changed to bow and arrow. With no sons he might have stopped altogether, and become a lasting influence on behalf of the health of the land.

Susan Flader (one of the editors of the essays) suggests in her own fine book, Thinking Like a Mountain (University of Missouri Press, 1974) that in 1935 Leopold's thinking 'had turned 180 |degrees~' in relation to the wolf, which Leopold called 'the only precision instrument known to deer management'. This new view, Meine tells us, came to arouse great anger from the Wisconsin hunting fraternity. One Roy Jorgensen edited a news-sheet which represented the views of the rabid hunters, and made Leopold personally the butt of his vicious abuse from 1944 until Leopold's death in 1948. Meine does not suggest the degree of venom in the air, but examples are given in Susan Flader's book. Two sentences will suffice to suggest why Leopold was badly affected. One, in a letter to the Wisconsin Conservation Commission of which Leopold was a member, ended, 'Perhaps the big mistake that has been made is the fact that we do not have an open season on experts'. And in 1945 the Trego Rod and Gun Club asked darkly, 'Do you like the wolf better than the man?' They were out for the kill, and a fire was to do it for them.

Leopold was growing more unpopular, and was suffering severely -- physically as well as mentally. But for news that OUP had accepted his book, The Sand County Almanac, which filled him with joy, he might have died a deeply disappointed man. Meine's description suggests Leopold's ease of mind as he settled himself to lie down, knowing he was about to die, as flames swept over him.

The River of the Mother of God provides a step by step explanation of the process by which man's livestock and management of deer were ruining the land by stripping the soil of every vestige of natural covering, which was to cause fearful erosion, and desertification. Page after page of Leopold's essays is a damning of the effect of livestock on the health of the land, and he explains clearly 'the penalties of over-utilization'.

Finally, the 1924 essay which gives its name to the title of the book of essays, makes a plea for the saving of wilderness areas, which he called, 'the wealth to the human spirit'. He foresees the arrival of widespread use of technology,' and suggests the effects that the motor car will have, with its voracious greed for roads. The note of despair and abnegation of the future way of American life is possibly why The Yale Review declined to publish the essay, and it has remained unpublished until now. Leopold declared bravely then, 'There is No God but Gasoline and Motor is his Prophet!' In the final sentence, he warns that by failing to 'stand still' and recognise the danger looming ahead, 'it seems to me we fail in the ultimate test of our vaunted superiority -- the self-control of environment. We fall back into the biological category of the potato bug which exterminated the potato, and thereby exterminated itself'.
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Author:Aitchtey, Rodney
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Previous Article:By Heart: Elizabeth Smart, a Life.
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