Nurturing the Land Ethic, Part 1

In the late summer of 2009, I found myself between jobs as the general counsel of two public companies.  It was the perfect opportunity to get away and reconnect with something other than my corporate persona. 

So I flew to Alaska, where my transitional job status enabled a sojourn of almost two months.  Although it was almost two decades since I had first fished the freshwater streams flowing into Bristol Bay, this was the longest consecutive stretch of time that I had ever spent in the last frontier.   

During those intervening years, I had been trying to get out on the land and waters of Alaska wherever and whenever I could.  I had journeyed with family and a growing circle of likeminded friends -- fishing, rafting, sailing and hiking in some of the wildest places on earth.  Over the span of years these travels started to add up, even taking into account the demands of a professional corporate career. 

And then I discovered something else.  As I spent more time in wilderness, I began to notice a change in my relationship with the land and its wild inhabitants.  Alaska stayed the same, of course; the change was within me.  It was an evolutionary process, starting slowly and continuing at a gradual pace. 

The travel stories I occasionally share in this blog describe some of my journeys in Alaska and the parallel development of my relationship with the land.  I hope you are enjoying them.  But there is a more serious theme as well.  The stories explain how a corporate lawyer from the Midwest came to care deeply about wild lands in a far-off place like Alaska.  They reflect my growing sense of kinship with the Alaskan wilderness, its plants and animals, its rivers and mountains, its tundra plains and its taiga forests.

I gradually began to appreciate and then to embrace the broad conception of natural community.  I came to realize that for the caribou, bears, wolves and moose, the ground squirrels, marmots and pikas, the marine mammals and fish, the raptors and the songbirds, and the many other animals who live there, what we label as wilderness is simply home.  Aldo Leopold’s land ethic can be reduced to this:  it is our home too.

A mounting body of evidence suggests that nature has enormous utility and economic value.  For example, Mark Tercek writes about the value of ecosystem services.  In Nature’s Fortune, he explains how the natural world buffers the effects of climate change and enhances the sustainability of our cities and farmlands. 

Discussions of ecosystem services focus on the utilitarian value of nature, which is of course an important consideration.  From my perspective, however, Leopold’s great contribution was to elevate environmental discussions to an ethical plane, not dependent just on the instrumental value of land, plants and animals, but recognizing and embracing a moral component to our relationship with them. 

“That land is a community,” he wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”  And I will add:  the underlying sensibility that sustains the land ethic is an extension of esthetics.