Leopold’s Wilderness

I was as strong advocate of Wilderness areas long before I read Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River, but his short essay reminded me of many reasons why all of us, even if we never visit a wilderness areas, should be wilderness supporters. As a life-long city dweller whose relatives have been farmers, I could identify with Leopold when he pointed out that:

To the laborer in the sweat of his labor, the raw stuff on his anvil is an adversary to be conquered. So was wilderness an adversary to the pioneer.

But to the laborer in repose, able for the moment to cast a philosophical eye on his world, that same raw stuff is something to be loved and cherished, because it gives definition and meaning to his life. This is a plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness, as museum pieces, for the edification of those who may one day wish to see, feel, or study the origins of their cultural inheritance.

Anyone who has ever read Giants in the Earth realizes just how hard it was for pioneer farmers to survive. Small wonder, then, that many of them came to see wilderness as an enemy to be conquered, an oft-repeated theme in American literature. Modern farmers have it much easier, but even under the best of conditions it continues to be a tough job as shown by the number of farm children who end up in large cities rather than taking over the family farm.

For a city-slicker like me, though, the wilderness has been a god-send. My fondest adult memories are inextricably linked to Wilderness Areas in Washington, Oregon, and Montana.

Wilderness areas are first of all a series of sanctuaries for the primitive arts of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing. I suppose some will wish to debate whether it is important to keep these primitive arts alive. I shall not debate it. Either you know it in your bones, or you are very, very old. European hunting and fishing are largely devoid of the thing that wilderness areas might be the means of preserving in this country. Europeans do not camp, cook, or do their own work in the woods if they can avoid doing so. Work chores are delegated to beaters and servants, and a hunt carries the atmosphere of a picnic, rather than of pioneering. The test of skill is confined largely to the actual taking of game or fish. There are those who decry wilderness sports as ‘undemocratic’ because the recreational carrying capacity of a wilderness is small, as compared with a golf links or a tourist camp. The basic error in such argument is that it applies the philosophy of mass-production to what is intended to counteract mass-production. The value of recreation is not a matter of ciphers. Recreation is valuable in proportion to the intensity of its experiences, and to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life. By these criteria, mechanized outings are at best a milk-and-water affair. Mechanized recreation already has seized nine-tenths of the woods and mountains; a decent respect for minorities should dedicate the other tenth to wilderness.

I feel blessed to live in an area that has only recently seen the kind of growth that threatens to destroy what little wilderness is left, especially since those living in the East have realized what they have already lost and have made attempts to preserve more land in the West. Washington State has a large number of National Parks and Wilderness Areas, as well it should have, and there’s no place in the world I’d rather be than high up in the Cascades on a crisp, sunny morning.

I’ve spent considerable time signing petitions and sending comments on recent attempts in America to not only delist wolves from the endangered species list but to totally eradicate them from some states. Sure enough, years ago Leopold saw the dangers of eliminating predators:

One of the most insidious invasions of wilderness is via predator control. It works thus: wolves and lions are cleaned out of a wilderness area in the interest of big-game management. The big-game herds (usually deer or elk) then increase to the point of overbrowsing the range. Hunters must then be encouraged to harvest the surplus, but modern hunters refuse to operate far from a car; hence a road must be built to provide access to the surplus game. Again and again, wilderness areas have been split by this process, but it still continues.

I’ve long felt cheated that I’ve never managed to hear, much less see, wolves in any of my many backpacking trips to wilderness areas. Nor have I managed to see a mountain lion. But even if I never see one I would feel better knowing that they are there.

Permanent grizzly ranges and permanent wilderness areas are of course two names for one problem. Enthusiasm about either requires a long view of conservation, and a historical perspective. Only those able to see the pageant of evolution can be expected to value its theater, the wilderness, or its outstanding achievement, the grizzly. But if education really educates, there will, in time, be more and more citizens who understand that relics of the old West add meaning and value to the new. Youth yet unborn will pole up the Missouri with Lewis and Clark, or climb the Sierras with James Capen Adams, and each generation in turn will ask: Where is the big white bear? It will be a sorry answer to say he went under while conservationists weren’t looking.

Wilderness really doesn’t seem like “wilderness” without all those species that evolved with us and recent studies seem to show that predators play a vital part in maintaining a healthy wilderness ( see this informative video on the role of the wolves in Yellowstone: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ysa5OBhXz-Q&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Dysa5OBhXz-Q .

Leopold also argues that is not only those of us who would experience life at its most primitive level that lose when wildernesses are lost. Scientists can learn much about nature from studying wilderness,

Paleontology offers abundant evidence that wilderness maintained itself for immensely long periods; that its component species were rarely lost, neither did they get out of hand; that weather and water built soil as fast or faster than it was carried away. Wilderness, then, assumes unexpected importance as a laboratory for the study of land-health.

and what they learn can help us learn to farm more productively.

While even the largest wilderness areas become partially deranged, it required only a few wild acres for J. E. Weaver to discover why the prairie flora is more drouth-resistant than the agronomic flora which has supplanted it. Weaver found that the prairie species practice ‘team work’ underground by distributing their root-systems to cover all levels, whereas the species comprising the agronomic rotation overdraw one level and neglect another, thus building up cumulative deficits. An important agronomic principle emerged from Weaver’s researches.

It would be hard to find a better rational for preserving the few wildernesses that are left than this essay, especially when read in the context of Leopold’s whole book.

What do you think?