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A Sand County Almanac | Context

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Nature Writing

Nonfiction nature writing, as distinct from scientific works, is a relatively new genre. Perhaps the most well-known work of nature writing is American writer Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854). Thoreau's perspective on nature stressed its mystery and interdependence, though he was not writing as a conservationist. John Burroughs, an American naturalist and conservationist, published his first collection of essays, Wake-Robin, in 1871 and went on to publish 23 such collections. Like Leopold, his reflections on nature and life were born from long hours spent in attentive observation of the natural world. Both Thoreau's memoir and Burroughs's essays influenced Leopold. But perhaps the strongest influence was American Scottish nature writer John Muir. Muir, who also spent years in Wisconsin's wilderness, criticized the tendency to judge nature by what it provides for humans rather than because it exists or has inherent goodness.

Aldo Leopold's writings drew on these influences, but he also incorporated ideas from other sources. These included ideas of Russian philosopher-mystic Piotr Ouspensky. Ouspensky believed all matter had some kind of consciousness, which humans often fail to recognize because they do not perceive it. A similar idea is evidenced in Leopold's work. For example, he asserts that nature has a song and a language that we simply do not understand. The idea that consciousness is not limited to human beings also aligns well with Leopold's desire to enlarge our sense of community to the natural world, an idea important to his "land ethic." This ethical orientation to nature, and Leopold's idea of morally motivated conservation, paved the way for the famous later work of Rachel Carson, American activist and author of Silent Spring.

Dust Bowl Lessons

In the 1930s much of the United States experienced repeated drought and destructive dust storms. They swept over the plains and carried soil from the central states as far as New York City. This ecological disaster, which came to be known as the Dust Bowl, was caused in large part by new farming practices. These relied on mechanical farming equipment to clear millions of acres of prairie and grassland for new crop fields. At first these methods led to increased production of crops, especially wheat. But over time more and more prairie was turned to farmland. When drought struck, crops failed, and strong winds blowing over the land picked up soil from the barren, dry fields. Leopold was well aware of the devastation of the Dust Bowl—he mentions the "dust-bowl droughts of 1936, 1934, 1933, and 1930" in "Good Oak" and how prairie flowers might be used "to reflocculate the wasting soils of the dust bowl" in "The Land Ethic." He often traces the causes of extreme erosion to the loss of the natural flora of an area as a result of plowing fields for crops as well as allowing cattle to overgraze. Leopold's time on the farm overlaps with some of the worst years of the Dust Bowl, giving him ample opportunity—and reason—to consider its causes and effects.

Important agricultural lessons were learned from this terrible disaster, and over several years many of the most egregious farming practices were curbed. Government intervention helped reverse the worst damage. But other lessons also came out of the experience. Conservation, which had been championed by President Theodore Roosevelt, became a more serious matter. It was no longer simply a way to preserve the beauty of nature and its availability for outdoor recreational activities. Conservation was seen as a matter of life and death. It was imperative that efforts be made to prevent the human causes of environmental harm that brought about the Dust Bowl. The national experience of the Dust Bowl added a sense of urgency to conservation efforts, and so Leopold's writings entered the conversation at a time when there was a great deal of general interest in the topic.

1800s Wisconsin

Wisconsin's rich history of conservation grew out of the work of early conservationists and naturalists, such as Milwaukee founder Increase Lapham and author John Muir. But it was the rise of the Progressive movement in Wisconsin that brought conservation into the political realm and ultimately resulted in Leopold's role at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The Wisconsin Progressive Movement began as a small group led by politician Robert La Follette within Wisconsin's Republican Party. It grew out of concerns that urbanization and rising corporate influence on government policy were having a detrimental effect on citizens. Among Progressivism's issues was conservation.

In 1901 La Follette became Wisconsin's governor. He built on the already admirable conservation movement in Wisconsin by championing such policies in the state legislature. La Follette worked closely with Charles Van Hise of the University of Wisconsin, a geologist and noted conservationist. He also created several new state parks, saving much of Wisconsin's forest from exploitation by the lumber industry. This focus on conservation at the state level influenced the priorities of the state's university, the University of Wisconsin, which was the first in the nation to have a department of game management. It was to chair this department that Leopold moved to the university in Madison.

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