Wilderness for Science

by Aldo Leopold

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

The most important characteristic of an organism is that capacity for internal self-renewal known as health.

There are two organisms whose processes of self-renewal have been subjected to human interference and control. One of these is man himself (medicine and public health). The other is land (agriculture and conservation).

The effort to control the health of land has not been very successful. It is now generally understood that when soil loses fertility, or washes away faster than it forms, and when water systems exhibit abnormal floods and shortages, the land is sick.

Other derangements are known as facts, but are not yet thought of as symptoms of land sickness. The disappearance of plants and animal species without visible cause, despite efforts to protect them, and the irruption of others as pests despite efforts to control them, must, in the absence of simpler explanations, be regarded as symptoms of sickness in the land organism. Both are occurring too frequently to be dismissed as normal evolutionary events….

In general, the trend of the evidence indicates that in land, just as in the human body, the symptoms may lie in one organ and the cause in another. The practices we now call conservation are, to a large extent, local alleviations of biotic pain. They are necessary, but they must not be confused with cures. The art of land-doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the science of land health is yet to be born.

A science of land health needs, first of all a base datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism….

The most perfect norm is wilderness…. Paleontology offers abundant evidence that wilderness maintained itself for immensely long periods; that its component species were rarely lost, neither did they get out of hand; that weather and water built soil as fast or faster than it was carried away. Wilderness, then, assumes unexpected importance as a laboratory for the study of land-health.”

Excerpted from A Sand County Almanac.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was a naturalist, scientist, author, and professor whose ideas about environmental ethics and wildlife preservation significantly shaped the environmental and bioregional movements. After studying at the recently formed Yale School of Forestry, he worked for the Forest Service, where he was instrumental in developing a scientific approach to wildlife management. He was a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin, and co-founded the Wilderness Society in 1935. His book A Sand county Almanac, published posthumously in 1949, is a classic of the environmental movement.

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