Northern Passages | Coming Home to Wilderness
Welcome to Northern Passages. This website and its Blog explore the ethics and esthetics of conservation and wilderness. They describe the personal growth by which I personally came to embrace, if only imperfectly to practice, a moral philosophy that Aldo Leopold articulated in the mid-20th century in his signature work, A Sand County Almanac.
Leopold referred to this philosophy as the land ethic. Its fundamental characteristic is humility. The land ethic is an ecocentric moral stance that places humanity in the context of a broader natural community. It is a Copernican shift of perspective, expanding the circle of beings that are entitled to moral consideration from humans alone to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” A. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 204 (Oxford University Press 1949).
In a patriotic essay written on the heels of the September 11 attacks, Richard Nelson issued a plea that we honor and cherish our public wilderness with the same reverence that we hold for national icons like the Statue of Liberty, the Alamo, or the Lincoln Memorial. “We all know that America’s public lands ‘belong’ to every citizen,” he wrote. “But does this actually register in our minds at a deep, intuitive level? … If people thought of themselves as the real owners of these American places, they’d probably care more about them, do more to support them, and take more action to defend them.” Richard Nelson, Patriots for the American Land, in R. Nelson, B. Lopez and T. T. Williams, Patriotism and the American Land, 16-17 (The Orion Society 2002).
I believe that the emotional sense of ownership and stewardship that Nels describes is closely related to the philosophical stance of the land ethic. The best way I know to cultivate these sentiments is to spend time in the wild lands that we are all privileged to own. That has certainly been my experience. Mardy Murie, who is known as the Grandmother of the Conservation Movement, was of a like mind. She expressed these ideas elegantly: "I don’t think once having had a great experience in wilderness you could ever abandon wilderness in your thoughts. And at every opportunity that came your way to preserve wilderness you would be there fighting for it, no matter what your other occupations might be. And in that way you’d be achieving real citizenship in this country. That’s what my hope for tomorrow is." Margaret Murie, quoted in J. Kauffmann, Alaska’s Brooks Range, 83 (The Mountaineers 1992).
These sentiments, the desire to fight for what is ours and what we cherish, are deeply personal and subjective. They are also powerful, like the instinctive urge that propels a grizzly sow to protect her cubs. What is the wellspring of this deep emotional attachment? Mardy answered this when she wrote about the experience of wilderness. How could you ever abandon it after that, any more than a parent would abandon a child? The more time I spent in Alaska’s wilderness, the more profoundly I cared about it.
This moral evolution did not happen overnight. It took place over the course of two decades, during which I gradually began to appreciate 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. The land ethic can be reduced to this: it is our home too.
There is considerable evidence that the natural world has enormous utility and economic value: for example by buffering the effects of climate change and enhancing the sustainability of our cities and farmlands. M. Tercek and J. Adams, Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature (Basic Books 2013). From my perspective, however, Aldo 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, “is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” Sand County, viii-ix. And I will add: the moral sensibility that sustains the land ethic is an extension of esthetics.
Having had the good fortune to spend some time in Alaska’s wilderness, I have come to feel a deep personal affinity with it. And with that sentiment I have joyfully accepted a moral obligation to celebrate the wild places, the blank spots on the map, and to help conserve the same opportunity for my children, and theirs.