Aldo Leopold and the Importance of Experience

Early in the semester, Bud shared a quote from Aldo Leopold, a luminary of sustainable agriculture, with our class: “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.” When Bud read that quote, from Leopold’s 1948 book A Sand County Almanac, I noticed several students around me nodding their heads, and one even jotting the quote down. It’s a powerful statement, both beautifully worded, as well as morally and ethically declarative.

In another class this semester, I actually read all of A Sand County Almanac, and I found Leopold’s points extremely relevant to my experience on the farm, and in this class. Above all, Leopold constantly stresses the importance of experience, of getting outside, of getting one’s hands dirty, of owning and working one’s own land. Leopold was a member of the academy himself – a professor at the University of Wisconsin. But the book does not focus on his academic work; instead, it relates what he has learned from the experience of owning his own land.

For example, writing about the forest surrounding his farmland, Leopold declares, “Every farm woodland, in addition to yielding lumber, fuel, and posts, should provide its owner a liberal education. This crop of wisdom never fails, but it is not always harvested.” Leopold reminds the reader over and over again that nothing we can read (not even him, presumably) can educate us about the wilderness, about agriculture, and about conservation as much as the simple act of gaining firsthand experience.

For me, that is what working at Cornercopia and being part of the farm class has been about. I’ve read a lot about sustainable agriculture, and I’ve written a fair amount about it, but getting the chance to actually grow crops myself – and growing them organically, locally, sustainably -- has been a whole different can of worms. I’m looking forward to a summer spent getting actual physical experience out on the farm. But if you can’t get to a farm, or for when that long winter rolls in again, I recommend curling up in a chair with A Sand County Almanac; Leopold will make you feel like you’re right out there with him.

Claire Stanford

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