In A Sand County Almanac, published 70 years ago, Aldo Leopold called for development of a “Land Ethic”, an understanding that the community to which humans belong must be perceived holistically, that is, it must include the soils, waters, plants and (non-human) animals. In North America, Leopold’s writing, followed by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, marked a new awareness of the interdependency of humans and the biosphere, and a fading twilight for the ineffectual notions of conservation that had emerged to disguise the economic manifest destiny of the last two centuries. We now know the futility of attempting to return to a nostalgic past, or to preserve the static manifestations of creatures we have co-evolved with. At last, we understand that “conservation” means to protect and enhance the opportunities for living beings to continue to adapt to a changing environment.
By enshrouding environmentalism in the language of philosophers, Leopold’s Land Ethic empowered future generations to think beyond the constraints of traditional “conquer the land” approaches to agriculture and land use. Humans would assume the role of plain members and citizens of the land-community, with obligations of respect toward other members, and the community itself.
One result of this was the emergence of organizations that would harness the energy and creativity of successive generations of farmers to make agriculture a genuinely renewable enterprise. One such organization, the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), has already demonstrated that cover crops can be used to reduce soil loss, thereby reducing sediment loads in runoff from the fragile soils of karst country. The mission statement of the LSP is precisely what Leopold and other environmental visionaries had called for half a century ago: “The Land Stewardship Project is a private, nonprofit organization founded in 1982 to foster an ethic of stewardship for farmland, to promote sustainable agriculture and to develop healthy communities.”
Now is the time to see for yourself an example of what has been done in the Root River watershed to advance sustainable agriculture. Next week, a special event at Harmony, Minnesota, will highlight soil-building farming practices, water movement, and karst geology.
This “hands on” communication between farmers and other users of the land is just what is needed to advance our understanding of how to live sustainably in karst country. Your only obligation to this quest is to exercise your own judgement as to the intrinsic morality of the agricultural methods being applied.
I subscribe to Leopold’s advice on the matter: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”