Abbey, Carson, and Leopold: An Introduction

I HAVE READ MANY DEFINITIONS OF WHAT IS A CONSERVATIONIST, AND WRITTEN NOT A FEW MYSELF, BUT I SUSPECT THAT THE BEST ONE IS WRITTEN NOT WITH A PEN, BUT WITH AN AXE. IT IS A MATTER OF WHAT A MAN THINKS ABOUT WHILE CHOPPING, OR WHILE DECIDING WHAT TO CHOP. A CONSERVATIONIST IS ONE WHO IS HUMBLY AWARE THAT WITH EACH STROKE HE IS WRITING HIS SIGNATURE ON THE FACE OF HIS LAND. — ALDO LEOPOLD

Environmental law and policy of the 20th century grew out of the environmental literature that preceded it. Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and John Muir prepared the soil with works that transcended common nature writing to study mankind within the environment. They provoked serious consideration of the environment per se, and John Muir’s efforts resulted in policy visible on the ground: Yosemite National Park is but one example. Environmental law and policy in the 20th century came to reflect ideas found in the best of environmental literature, which took on mythic importance to our culture.

Myths are stories we tell ourselves over and over to explain origins, destinies, and our present situation; therefore, myths are critical to the development of a civilization. As James P. Carse notes, “A culture can be no stronger than its strongest myths.” Modern myths must satisfy an increasingly well educated society, and we now demand that myths be based on accurate scientific and historical evidence. The current environmental movement is based on just such myths — fundamental, if relative, truths, really — and its most prominent mythmakers are Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold.

These three authors generated a paradigm shift in environmental awareness. A paradigm is more than just a shared set of theories or model; a paradigm is the shared commitment to a model. To sway the belief system of scholars from one model to another requires profoundly convincing arguments made at the fundamental level of discussion. Abbey, Carson, and Leopold waged such arguments. They altered our understanding of the environment from one that was anthropocentric, detached, and irresponsible to one biocentric, inclusive, and increasingly reactive to our own actions.

Though they were most active on the environmental stage during the middle half of the 20th century, roughly 1925 to 1975, these three authors did not work in concert with one another. Abbey, the youngest of the three, was highly influenced by Leopold’s land ethic and was undoubtedly aware of Carson’s Silent Spring. Carson was not favorably disposed to Leopold’s conservationist perspective, and died several years before Abbey published Desert Solitaire. Leopold, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, may have been aware of Carson’s “Undersea” works, but could not possibly have known when he died that Abbey was then attending a land grant university many miles to the south.

Their differences are numerous, though their similarities may be more telling. Of their differences, most obviously, two were men and one was a woman. Abbey and Leopold both married and fathered five children each, though Abbey had five wives to Leopold’s one. Carson never married but did raise two nieces after the death of her sister.

Of their similarities, several are remarkable: All three were born in that region of America now known as the Old West, those northern states between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River Valley. All three died at a relatively young age. All three completed Master’s degrees at a time when graduate work was rare for anybody, but especially rare for a woman. All three worked for federal government agencies for a good portion of their lives, and all three taught at the university level at some point. Most importantly, all three were disturbed by the environmental trends they perceived and felt compelled to compose their thoughts and seek publication. All three wrote prodigiously.

The tremendous volume of published works that Abbey, Carson, and Leopold left behind makes it at once difficult and enjoyable to study their thoughts. This blog will guide you through some of their most important contributions to environmental literature, while providing enough contextual material to place them within modern American culture. The stage is set with a chapter on “Manifest Destiny”; then each author is introduced with a biographical sketch. Each of the books from which readings were synopsized is critiqued, and the legacy of each author established. Lastly, the total impact of Abbey, Carson, and Leopold on the environment, the environmental movement, and environmental philosophy and literature is presented, including a matrix of events that occurred during their lifetimes.

Readings from two books by each author are summarized: a book of early writings and a later book that represents the summit of that author’s philosophy. This is to demonstrate the evolution and maturation of each author’s writing. Several of the books are collections of essays, from which it is relatively easy to select representative samples. Others are longer works that were more difficult to cull: one is a novel, the other an exceptionally tight book-length argument. The purpose of these synopses is to inspire the reader to pursue further the works of these authors. If these summaries feel less than satisfactory to you, by all means read the books, which are available for purchase through their respective links. Other sources used in compiling this guide are also available for purchase by clicking on their respective titles at the end of each section in which they were used.

From Edward Abbey’s extensive bibliography were selected essays from Desert Solitaire, the 1968 book that slowly gained a tremendous following, and his 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which propelled Abbey into the literary mainstream. Included also are two essays first published in Abbey’s 1988 collection, One Life at a Time, Please. “Eco-Defense” and “A Writer’s Credo” are essential to a collection that emphasizes the importance of writing to changes in environmental law and policy.

Rachel Carson may have been somewhat less prolific than Abbey, but that does not make the editor’s job any easier. Synopses of chapters from Under the Sea Wind show clearly the unique workings of her incredibly literary scientific mind, even if the book was not her best selling. Obviously, no collection of Carson’s work would be complete without selections from Silent Spring, but here the task was even more daunting: how to pick a few selections without losing the thread of her argument. Again, the purpose is only to inspire a more thorough reading.

Finally, Aldo Leopold’s essays were difficult only in deciding what to chop. He actually published only one book during his lifetime (Game Management, a college textbook), but had published numerous magazine and journal articles on wildlife conservation and ecology. Many of these articles were published again posthumously, largely due to the efforts of his son, Luna Leopold. Essays from Round River, published in 1953 but made up of early articles and entries from Leopold’s hunting journal were selected as well as essays from A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s most famous work, published the year after his death in 1948.

You may have noticed by now that the authors are not presented in chronological order. There are several reasons for this: First, as it happens, their alphabetical order is reverse chronological order. By arranging the authors in reverse chronological order the reader can proceed from destinies to origins, immediately grasping the results of earlier thinking. Within each author, however, the selections will be arranged in chronological order to show that author’s growth over his or her lifetime. This structuring is not without precedent: Aldo Leopold relies on a similar construct in “Good Oak,” one of his most important pieces. If these three authors represent the trunk of the tree of environmental philosophy then Abbey is the bark, the visible skin of the tree, where matter meets mind and meaning. Carson is the sapwood, where information flows between science and philosophy. Leopold is the heartwood, the older, colorful core of 20th century environmental philosophy and literature.

Second, Edward Abbey’s self-awareness as a writer makes for an excellent starting point in a book about environmental writing. Think of the writer as one who realizes the impact of writing about the environment on the environment itself. Abbey is a writer’s writer who happens to occasionally write about the environment in which he lives.

Finally, Leopold’s greatest statement, contained in “The Land Ethic,” was saved for last. All of the other works philosophically lead up to this statement, even if most of them were written subsequently.

Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, and Aldo Leopold are the most influential environmental writers of the 20th century. Their books have been read by millions, but more importantly those millions were stirred to action by what they read. Actions became policies that changed the environment — literally. These authors did not work in a vacuum, however. They were greatly influenced by earlier writers such as Thoreau, Whitman, and Muir, yet they were also products of their own time and place — 20th century America.

Aldo Leopold was born in 1887, atop the Flint Hills of Burlington, Iowa, overlooking the Mississippi River. Rachel Carson was born twenty years later in Springdale, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Edward Abbey was born yet another twenty years later in Home, Pennsylvania. Though their births covered forty years, each grew up with frontier stories of the Old West, so recently settled. They were profoundly impressed with the closing of the frontier in America, and would seek out their own frontiers where they could: Abbey and Leopold in the wilderness of the southwestern desert; Carson in the sea. Each was markedly influenced by the times in which they lived. They read the land, they sensed the timbre of their times, and each foresaw the potential for environmental disaster. Abbey, Carson, and Leopold collectively rose to inform contemporary environmental philosophy, while they left their personal signatures indelibly etched upon this land.

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