Round River Critique

paul bunyan round river

In compiling this set of his father’s essays, Luna Leopold, a geologist, chose to title the collection after one of the included pieces, “Round River.” In it, his father had used the legend of Paul Bunyan floating logs down the “restless waters” of Wisconsin’s Round River, a river that flowed into itself, to describe the round river of biotic lifecycles. The younger Leopold uses the metaphor to portray the lifecycles of his father’s career as conservationist, ecologist, and writer through essays written and re-worked over the greater part of his career.

Aldo Leopold envisioned the hierarchical food chain as a biotic stream running through a system of leaky pipes. “A rock decays and forms soil. In the soil grows an oak, which bears an acorn, which feeds a squirrel, which feeds an Indian, who ultimately lays him down to his last sleep in the great tomb of man — to grow another oak.” But the squirrel misses some of the acorns, which may either germinate and become another oak or decompose and return directly to the soil. The Indian, too, cannot eat all of the squirrels, allowing some of them to return to dust without their energy flowing through the top of the food chain. There exist an infinite number of these biotic pipes, all interconnected such that “each animal and each plant is the ‘intersection’ of many pipe lines; the whole system is cross-connected.”

Philosophy too is a matrix of ideas and systems of thought that feed one another in the Round River that “grows ever wider, deeper, and longer.” Philosophers continually see farther and farther, standing on the shoulders of their predecessors, but not every philosophic trend is immediately involved in the energy flow of a succeeding trend. Many ideas are set to paper, only to decompose and increase the fertility of the soil from which they came.

And so it is with one’s own personal system of philosophy.

The beauty of Round River lies in the insight we get into Aldo Leopold’s personal growth: from a forester fresh out of college and steeped in the Gifford Pinchot school of conservation “for the purpose of preserving a perpetual supply of timber,” to an environmental philosopher calling for an ethical and aesthetic premise for the condition of land. And we gain these insights only because Leopold constantly wrote and published his ever-growing thoughts.

Round River was published five years after Leopold’s death. It followed A Sand County Almanac but includes material written before those later essays. Each piece had a separate and different genesis. Some, such as “A Man’s Leisure Time” and “Natural History — The Forgotten Science,” were first conceived as university lectures, while others, such as “The Delta Colorado,” were taken from Leopold’s exhaustive hunting journals.

Luna Leopold was criticized by reviewers, non-hunting conservationists — even his mother and Rachel Carson — for emphasizing his father’s passion for hunting. But without this look at Leopold’s earlier writings we would never have gained insight into the metamorphosis that gave us A Sand County Almanac.

In “A Man’s Leisure Time” we get an early example of Leopold waxing philosophical before an audience at the University of New Mexico. He questions and remarks upon the human condition in this lighthearted comment on the meaning of meaning. “What is a hobby anyway?” the young forester asks, noting that hobbyists do not so much choose their hobbies as they are chosen by them. This calling by some unconventional pursuit was most familiar to Leopold, who had been overwhelmingly taken by various interests since he was a young boy. He points out the eccentric pursuits of numerous like-minded acquaintances who turned out to be world renowned for their expertise in fields like paleontology, botany, and falconry. And they did it right in their own backyards with no guidance other than the compass of their own genius.

“A good hobby must also be a gamble”; else how could it stimulate the mind of its disciple? Without the possibility of failure — transplanting a favorite rose that may not survive or losing a hawk long in training — one might as well be working on an assembly line for all the mental stimulation one would receive.

“The Delta Colorado” chronicles an adventure in one of Leopold’s favorite hobbies. It is taken from his hunting journals, and reads like the diaries of Lewis and Clark. The daily log from 21 days in October and November of 1922 reveals as much about the writers (Leopold’s younger brother, Carl, contributed several entries) as it does of the country just south of the Mexican border where the Colorado River empties into the Gulf of California. As the brothers make their way from Yuma, Arizona, they listen to the advice of their elders — men with names like Priest, Freeman, Fly, and Will Lowe — who warn of great waves dashing their little canoe to pieces, but who also gain the pair access to Mexican authorities and assistance. The brothers pass themselves off as “harmless hunters” but soon shed the guise as they embark upon a killing spree of shocking proportions.

The journal entries are generally quite precise in the number and types of game killed and captured by the brothers. They occasionally lapse into vague pluralities such as a “mess” when their hunting skills surpass their desire to keep score, but for the most part we are left with an amazingly detailed set of statistics. The body count goes like this (animals wounded by traps or poor shots are counted among the dead):

Species Number killed or caught
Mallards 4
Widgeons 5
Quail 66 + a mess
Sheepshead 1 + several
Mullet 3 + many
Buzzards 2
Avocets 3
Willets 1
Coyotes 2
Geese 10
Green-wing ducks 3
Doves 7
Catfish Many
Bobcats 2
Cormorant 1
Coots 2
Duckhawks 1
Mexican black hawk 1
Raccoons 3
Pelicans 1

In just three weeks, the pair trapped, shot, or caught seven carnivorous mammals, 25 waterfowl, nearly 100 birds, and numerous fish — edible and inedible alike. Like Lewis and Clark they identified their quarry and often examined crops, entrails, and scat to determine the animal’s diet. They wrote up their findings with the zeal and precision of the best of scientists, and, like good conservationists of their day, they worked hard to improve the game stock by removing as many predators as humanly possible. But the most important aspect is the attention to detail in their journal entries. Without them, we would understand neither hunter nor Leopold as well as we do. Without “The Delta Colorado,” we could not fully appreciate Leopold when he wrote, ten years later, “Hunting and nature study are merely the beginning and the end of a cycle normal to advancing age in each individual.” Without “The Delta Colorado,” we could not fully understand our selves.

In “Natural History — The Forgotten Science,” Leopold revisits his theme from “A Man’s Leisure Time.” He tells of common folk who undertake natural history as a combination of sport and science, and are themselves better people for it. As he always did so well, Leopold writes specifically to the audience at hand, a group at the University of Missouri. He dismisses the Biology curriculum of the day by asking if a typical Phi Beta Kappa student could describe the natural history and environmental factors on a local Missouri farm. He emphasizes the importance of taking action in environmental matters, hailing the efforts of two unknown Wisconsin farmers who spend a day planting tamarack when those trees will never amount to one red cent for either of them. Finally, Leopold introduces his audience to the inner workings, the cogs and wheels of the ecological mechanism, the very stuff of which natural history is made.

In “Conservation,” Leopold relates the now-maturing field to “a state of harmony between men and land.” He also gives us his definition of land: all of the things on, over, or in the earth. This would include predators. It includes humans, even conservationists. It definitely includes Leopold himself. He finds he “cannot love game and hate predators.” He marvels at the complexity of the land organism. He answers his own question when he says, “who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” As the world’s foremost environmental doctor, Leopold has undertaken the medical practitioner’s oath: first do no harm. The conservationist has by now witnessed the devastation of predator control policies, not only on the predators themselves, but on the forest and the very game the policies were meant to protect.

He broaches the problem of speciesism when he says, “American conservation is, I fear, still concerned for the most part with show pieces. We have not yet learned to think in terms of small cogs and wheels.” He foresees the Endangered Species Act and the rescue of species such as the California condor, but laments our ability to provide suitable habitat that will sustain viable populations outside of museums, zoos, and a few refuges. More than this, though, Leopold has begun to formulate an ethic, at this point calling it “a refined taste in natural objects.”

This refined taste can only be had through education, especially of those “who must extract a living from the land.” Leopold here predicts the field of environmental economics, and even raises the question of green marketing at a time when nothing of the sort existed.

Finally, Leopold relates “harmony with land” to the highest ethical concepts of justice and liberty, saying, “the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.” This is ever Leopold’s greatest piece of advice for all men and women, be they conservationists or otherwise. In his own striving he continues to call for conservation education that builds a foundation for the ethical treatment of land in our children, “our signature to the roster of history.”

Round River should not be dismissed because of its posthumous publication, as some would claim. Many works of our greatest thinkers and writers have only been published after their own deaths. In fact, it sometimes seems the publishing industry waits until the writer is dead so they can pay less in royalties. Good writing will be just as good in a hundred years, so why rush it?

Though Round River is good writing, what makes it important to the student of environmental issues is the window it gives us into the mind of one of our greatest environmentalists. It clearly portrays the growth of Aldo Leopold as a conservationist and as a writer.

Leopold defined an ecologist as one “skillful in seeing facts, ingenious in forming hypotheses, and ruthless in discarding them when they don’t fit.” Through the essays of Round River we see the maturing of Leopold’s own philosophy, and his ability to live up to his own high ideals, standards, and definitions.


Fritzell, P. A. 1996. Aldo Leopold (1887-1948). Elder, J., ed. 1996. American Nature Writers. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Meine, C. 1988. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work

Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold

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