Leopold speaks on soil

Men looking at streambank erosion

Leopold and others inspect an eroded streambank near Coon Valley, Wisconsin. Evidence like this affirmed Leopold's thinking about the importance of soil health.

[Photo courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, www.aldoleopold.org]


Aldo Leopold has given the world great concepts linking the arts and sciences to the natural world. These thoughts developed over his lifetime, culminating in “The Land Ethic,” the final chapter in his epic book, A Sand County Almanac.  There is no doubt that soil was central to his thinking on the harmony of people and the land.

To fully understand the "Land Ethic," I turned to Leopold’s thinking on the “common concept of land.” Many of my thoughts are from Leopold’s writings and from a 2005 speech by Julianne Lutz Warren, “The Speech of Hills and Rivers: Aldo Leopold’s Common Concept of Land”.  This rather obscure paper might be one of the great insights linking Leopold’s progression in his critical thinking.

Leopold’s evolving concept of land was inclusive: soil, water, plants, animals and people. He wrote, “Health is the capacity for of the land for self renewal, and conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” I think it is important that Leopold defined conservation as more than what we now tend to regard as control of soil erosion. He wrote, “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. … When a change occurs in one part of the circuit, many other parts must adjust themselves to it. …Evolutionary changes, however, are usually slow and local. Man’s invention of tools has enabled him to make changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity and scope.”

Leopold goes on to write about these violent (the use of this word has been debated, but I think it is appropriate) changes. These changes interrupt the flow of energy through the circuit.

In short, Leopold proposed that:

  1. Land is not merely soil;
  2. Native plants and animals keep the energy circuit open and,
  3. Manmade changes are of a different order than evolutionary changes. These include changes in composition of floras and faunas and loss of wild species.

He clearly was predicting the impact of pesticides, tillage and other drastic (violent) manipulations of soil. He wisely said, “Agricultural science is largely a race between the emergence of new pests and the emergence of new techniques for their control. Fertility is the ability of soil to receive, store, and release energy. … Soils depleted of their storage, or of the organic matter which anchors it, wash away faster than they form. This is erosion.”

Leopold adopted the concept of the Land Pyramid, the flow of energy and materials through the biota, the art of eating and being eaten. Where the pyramid is disrupted, the system crumbles. The rising tide of materialism, the concept of land as a piece of property to be used and abused for strictly economic gains, has fractured the pyramid and only a revisited Land Ethic can point the way back. Leopold spoke of the love of land, and that we only can be ethical in relation to “something we can see, feel, understand, love or otherwise have faith in.” Land must have beauty to be loved. Beauty meant healthy, the farm that is painted by the farmer’s brush. Indeed land needs the artist to express the land aesthetic, to learn to “read the land.”

It is hard for me to love a vast monoculture of corn or beans stretching to the horizon, even though the banker may regard this as a most magnificent view. It is land that only is viewed on computer screens as the heavy equipment moves over it, land that has no beauty or meaning other than the costs of preparing it for planting, which breaks the Land Pyramid at its base, the soil. Having soil erode during fall and spring downpours, taking with it precious nitrogen obtained from some fertilizer manufacturing plant and flowing into tile drains and on to the ocean where it wreaks havoc with other ecological systems, clearly is unethical. Yet we are told that only this type of “farming” will feed the world.

I want a new and bold approach to our concept of soils and land health. We need to critically question the industrialism that invades the land and, as Leopold asked us decades ago, to “feel the soil between our toes.” We need a new understanding of how land actually works and a new appreciation for the "Land Ethic" with soil at its base that is essential for the survival of our country and the human race. Our health depends on foods that are healthy, grown on soils that are healthy and capable of filtering the water we drink and cleansing the air we breathe.

There is hope and joy in the soil and the land. Celebrate it with the Leopold Center.

Dennis Keeney

DENNIS KEENEY was the first director of the Leopold Center, serving from 1988-2000. He is emeritus professor of Agronomy and Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering at ISU. His memoir, The Keeney Place: A Place in the Heartland, is available at www.TheKeeneyPlace.com.

See a related essay in the Ames Tribune [April 9, 2014]

More about Aldo Leopold