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Aldo Leopold and the Search for a Land Ethic

Chick, chick…chick, chick…chick, chick: the sound carried clearly through the dreary October morning air, closing quickly to within a few yards. With the beat of my heart the only other sound I could hear, the 10-inch aspen in front of me began quivering frantically as a grinding noise echoed through the woods. Focusing on the aspen, I peered into the darkness of the balsam thicket expecting to see a large black object with jaws popping, crawling up my tree to check out the intruder. Then my whitetail wits came to, and I realized I was face to face with an ornery, bruiser of a buck violently marking his territory. I glanced at my watch: 6:30, ten minutes too early! I begged the buck to hang around…please, please. As if he were listening, he eased into a little meadow and began rubbing an alder. In clear view at five yards, he shredded the bush with his thick, wide 11-point rack. Focusing on a hair behind his shoulder, I eased back the string and anchored. “No,” an inner voice told me. “Don’t do it, don’t!” I eased the string forward and looked at my watch: 6:32. At 6:33, he slipped back into the darkness of the balsams and I slipped into the world of ethics Aldo Leopold tried so desperately to instill into us all. I like to think the deer and I were both victorious that October morning.

Who Was Aldo Leopold?

In his famous book A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” That’s vintage Leopold, considered by many the father of wildlife conservation and the most influential naturalist in the history of natural resource management.

Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887. As a young boy living on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, he developed a deep appreciation for the complexity of wild habitat. At an early age he developed a love for ornithology, then botany, and finally forestry. Fulfilling a lifelong dream in 1908, Leopold graduated from Yale University with a forestry degree and will always be known at Yale as the “old naturalist.”

After becoming a forester, Leopold spent 15 years in the Southwest and 24 years in central Wisconsin, where he became extremely influential in the evolving science of conservation and the preservation of the nation’s resources. In the Southwest, he was instrumental in creating the Gila National Forest Wilderness Area. There he began writing the initial chapters of his book, Deer Management in the Southwest, and later published Game Management, introducing wildlife biologists to techniques for managing food, water, and cover to enhance game populations. Today, wildlife professionals implement many of Leopold’s methods to manage populations of deer, bear, elk, moose, antelope and turkey. This publication landed Leopold a teaching job at the University of Wisconsin as the first professor of wildlife management in the United States of America.

In his later years in Wisconsin, Leopold assisted in founding the Wilderness Society, the Wildlife Society, and initiated talks with Arthur Carhart, the Forest Service’s first landscape architect, on a nationwide wilderness system. That proposal exists today as the National Wilderness Preservation System, with roughly 104 million acres protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964. Those of us who have hunted elk, deer and other game in these wilderness lands should be thankful to Leopold for his work.

In 1948 Aldo Leopold died from a heart attack while fighting a brush fire on a neighbor’s farm. However, his legacy lives and is still taught to thousands of young people every year through his greatest and last literary work, A Sand County Almanac. In this book Leopold poetically describes his love for the land and protests mankind’s relentless destruction of the wilderness.

Aside from these accomplishments, what does Leopold have to do with hunting in general and bowhunting in particular? In fact, Leopold was a traditional bowhunter and a bowyer as well. In this day and age, when hunters pay thousands of dollars for ranch hunts offering optimal sex ratios and ultra-management of game to simplify the harvest of “record” animals, I think we should take a moment to learn about Leopold’s land ethic and determine whether we are hunting in a manner consistent with his carefully articulated values.

Problems with Trophy Hunting

As defined by Webster, a trophy is “any memorial or memento.” I think the world of hunting has reinterpreted the definition of trophy to mean a large, mature animal with exceptionally large antlers or skull. Moreover, some hunters have even gone to the extreme of saying an animal with one inch less antler than some arbitrary standard is not even a trophy at all, regardless of the age, size or means of take!

Such trophy standards, coupled with the effects of money, marketing and fame, have distanced many hunters from the real reason we should be hunting, just as they have promoted the erosion of ethics in order to secure a “trophy.” Ecologically, an ethic is, according to Leopold, “…a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.” Further, he states, “An ethic may be regarded as a mode of guidance for meeting ecological situations.” Strategically placing bait piles for whitetails, manipulating herd genetics, and promoting game farm hunting do not reflect these concepts. They are actions designed to simplify the harvest of “trophy” animals…according to someone’s definition.

Aldo Leopold as Hunter and Bowyer

As Leopold contends in A Sand County Almanac, one of the most glamorous pastimes is “to make and shoot the longbow.” He felt this way because the longbow connects the hunter to the land and therefore to the game. Leopold’s love for the bow and arrow is clearly defined in these words: “Does a yew tree glory in fashioning from mere soil and sunlight a wood whose shavings curl in ecstasy at the prospect of becoming a bow? Does a cedar’s pride lie in his towering height, or in the fact—unknown to all save archers—that under his shaggy bark lies a snow white wood that planes with the joyful sound of tearing silk—the sound that bluebills make when they hurtle out of the sky at the invitation of placid waters? These are questions meant for an archer to ask, but for no man to answer.”

Leopold was an avid hunter. In A Sand County Almanac he describes hunts for woodcock, grouse, waterfowl and deer. He teaches us not where to find a trophy buck, but rather how we can find nature and peace while hunting, two values often obscured by the modern hunter’s drive to kill a trophy. To Leopold, the kill was not the focus of hunting. That honor belonged to love and respect for the land. In the essay “Red Legs Kicking,” he writes about an experience from his childhood: “At the end of my second season of featherless partridge hunting I was walking, one day, through an aspen thicket when a big partridge rose with a roar at my left, and, towering over the aspens, crossed behind me, hell-bent for the nearest cedar swamp. It was a swinging shot of the sort the partridge-hunter dreams about, and the bird tumbled dead in a shower of feathers and golden leaves. I could draw a map today of each clump of red bunchberry and each blue aster that adorned the mossy spot where he lay, my first partridge on the wing. I suspect my present affection for bunchberries and asters dates from that moment.”

I wonder how many of us can describe the vegetation our last deer lay dead upon, let alone our first. Is it not the vegetation and the land that supports it that provides the opportunity to harvest the animal? Without food, water and cover, the animal would be non-existent.

In a letter to Herbert Stoddard, Leopold writes about a longbow he built and gave to Stoddard: “On many a thirsty noon I hope you lean it against a mossy bank by cool springs. In fall I hope its shafts will sing in sunny glades where turkeys dwell, and that one day some wily buck will live just long enough to startle at the twang of its speeding string.” These words reflect the taste of a man who loved to be in the woods with bow at hand. Furthermore, as I spoke with two of his children, Nina and Luna, it became clear that the land rather than the game is the focal point of Leopold’s bowhunting legacy. His children cannot find a picture of their father with a deer, or even remember stories when he killed one. They have only pictures of Aldo with the land.

Bowhunting and Ethics

In the face of pressure from anti-hunting and animal rights groups, I feel respect for the land should be a priority for all hunters. To counter such negative pressures on hunting, we need to be willing to restrict our actions voluntarily, sometimes above and beyond what is required by law.

The state of Wisconsin has allowed legal methods of hunting that are not consistent with the environmental philosophy of Aldo Leopold. How ironic that the use of bait in the form of corn, apples, potatoes, sugar beets, pumpkins and even Halloween candy-corn was a widely practiced technique to kill “trophy” whitetails in the state Aldo Leopold made home. Training deer to come to a bait pile and then killing them disassociates the hunter from the land. Further, paying money to kill “trophy” animals in fenced game farms or on land specifically managed to increase the size of antlers is not part of an admirable or sustainable land ethic. I admit my own deep passion for mature whitetail bucks, but that passion cannot minimize the importance of the word hunt. We owe our children better.

Some 85 years ago, Leopold expressed his concern for hunter ethics in his essay, “Wildlife in American Culture”:

“A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.”

We need to respect all of nature’s attributes while hunting, and not let the drive to kill a trophy blind us to the importance of our wild surroundings. Leopold reminds us:

“Conservation is the state of harmony between man and land.” Are our actions consistent with this definition of conservation? Are we living in harmony with the land? Leopold states, “There are four categories of outdoorsmen: deer hunters, duck hunters, bird hunters, and non-hunters. The deer hunter habitually watches the next bend; the duck hunter watches the skyline; the bird hunter watches the dog; the non-hunter does not watch.”

But what does the preoccupied trophy hunter do? Have some of us grown so addicted to harvesting trophy animals that we are not “watching” the land? Perhaps each of us needs to ask as much of ourselves and perhaps we should all re-read A Sand County Almanac before we do.

Kirby Kohler teaches science at Bluff View Middle School in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.  There, he runs the archery, trap shooting, and fly tying programs where he shares his passion for the land with kids.

Photo courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the University of Wisconsin –Madison Archives.

The post Aldo Leopold and the Search for a Land Ethic appeared first on Traditional Bowhunter Magazine.

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