Known as one of the first American conservationists, Aldo Leopold strove to uphold the wild beauty of nature against the strengthening tide of development. His reflections on these efforts, along with his deep appreciation of every aspect of the outdoors, laid the foundation for modern-day environmentalism and ecological education.
Aldo Leopold began his adulthood shooting wolves who irked farmers in New Mexico. “I was young then,” he later wrote, “and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” This realization, recorded in “Thinking Like a Mountain” from Leopold’s book of month-themed journal entries and other essays, A Sand County Almanac, reflects both his appreciation of nature itself — and how delicate its balance could be.
“Whoever invented the word ‘grace’ must have seen the wing-folding of the plover.” - May: Back from the Argentine
“I know of no solitude so secure as one guarded by a spring flood; nor do the geese, who have seen more kinds and degrees of aloneness than I have.” - April: Come High Water
“It is on some, but not all, of these misty autumn day-breaks that one may hear the chorus of the quail. The silence is suddenly broken by a dozen contralto voices, no longer able to restrain their praise of the day to come.” - September: The Choral Copse
“When we hear [the crane’s] call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” - Wisconsin: Marshland Elegy
“Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed by successive generations, in each of which are likely to be found a few appreciative eyes. I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work, erases it forever.” - August: The Green Pasture
Because conservation was not on the forefront of America’s mind at the turn of the 20th century, Leopold’s imploring voice was an outlier in the writing world. However, conservationists today often refer to his impassioned quotes, increasing his ecological influence through each generation.
“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” - The Land Ethic
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” - A Sand County Almanac foreword
“Individual thinkers since the days of Ezekiel and Isaiah have asserted that the despoliation of land is not only inexpedient but wrong. Society, however, has not yet affirmed their belief. I regard the present conservation movement as the embryo of such an affirmation.” - The Land Ethic
“Many of the attributes most distinctive of America and Americans are the impress of the wilderness . ... Shall we now exterminate this thing that made us Americans?” - “Wilderness as a Form of Land Use" from The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold
“Do we realize that industry, which has been our good servant, might make a poor master?” - “A Plea for Wilderness Hunting Grounds" from Aldo Leopold's Southwest
“We stand guard over works of art, but species representing the work of aeons are stolen from under our noses.” - A Sand County Almanac foreword
Aldo Leopold coined the phrase “land ethic” to describe the relationship humans should have with the environment. As he described in the finale to A Sand County Almanac, conservation can only be successful if people truly regard the land they lived on as sacred and worth keeping safe.
“That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” - A Sand County Almanac foreword
“When some remote ancestor of ours invented the shovel, he became a giver – He could plant a tree. When the axe was invented, he became a taker – He could chop it down. Whoever owns land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying plants." - November: Axe-in-Hand
“The oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” - "Engineering and Conservation" from The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold
“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree and there will be one.” - December: Pines above the Snow
"For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun." - Wisconsin: On a Monument to the Pigeon
By spending so much time in the natural world, Leopold was able to discern elements of the wilderness that informed how humans function as well. His quotes on the human experience as reflected in nature are an excellent way to tie the two worlds together.
“My dog does not care where heat comes from, but he cares ardently that it come, and soon. Indeed he considers my ability to make it come as something magical … such faith, I suppose, is the kind that moves mountains.” - February: Good Oak
“To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear. ... To a rough-legged hawk, a thaw means freedom from want and fear.” - January: January Thaw
“Nonconformity is the highest evolutionary attainment of social animals.” - "A Man's Leisure Time” from Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold
“How like fish we are: ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time! ... Even so, I think there is some virtue in eagerness, whether its object prove true or false.” - June: The Alder Fork
“The landscape of any farm is the owner's portrait of himself.” - "The Farmer as a Conservationist" from The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold
“Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” - The Upshot: Conservation Esthetic
Leopold saw the ills of 19th and 20th-century society encroach upon his beloved mountains — which led him back to the wilderness. He used the contrast to reflect upon human values as a whole.
“But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal-clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.” - A Sand County Almanac foreword
“Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.” - The Upshot: Wilderness
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” - A Sand County Almanac foreword
“All history consists of successive excursions from a single starting-point, to which man returns again and again to organize yet another search for a durable scale of values.” - The Upshot: Wilderness
“For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.” - A Sand County Almanac foreword
“We face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free." - A Sand County Almanac foreword
To Leopold, the most precious lesson one could learn (at any age) was not found in a schoolhouse, but rather in the land around it. Understanding the value of the natural world required introspection and observation skills, both of which could be found in the wilderness.
“Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.” - March: The Geese Return
“Ideas, like men, can become dictators. We Americans have so far escaped regimentation by our rulers, but have we escaped regimentation by our own ideas? I doubt if there exists today a more complete regimentation of the human mind than that accomplished by our self-imposed doctrine of ruthless utilitarianism.” - “The Farmer as a Conservationist" from The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold
“Science contributes moral as well as material blessings to the world. Its great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view. This means doubting everything except facts; it means hewing to the facts, let the chips fall where they may.” - Chihuahua and Sonora: The Green Lagoons
“The ordinary citizen today assumes that science knows what makes the community clock tick; the scientist is equally sure that he does not.” - The Land Ethic
"Perhaps the most important of these purposes is to teach the student how to put the sciences together in order to use them. All the sciences and arts are taught as if they were separate. They are separate only in the classroom. Step out on the campus and they are immediately fused. Land ecology is putting arts and sciences together for the purpose of understanding our environment.” - The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education
“To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part."- The Upshot: Conservation Esthetic
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” - Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold’s views on conservation were not popular during his lifetime, but he was not alone in his beliefs. For more quotes on the sanctity of nature, check out: