Thinking Like a Mountain

[This is the first part of an Introduction to Ecology 101]


In his essay ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’ in his seminal A Sand County Almanac (1949), ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote:

‘Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.’

This is so because, in contrast to the narrow perspective of human herder and deer, the mountain is, and thinks like, the whole system. It knows how the wolf fits in and helps sustainably maintain the system as a whole. It thinks ecologically.

When US states started eliminating wolves, Leopold soon started seeing the differences:

‘I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddle-horn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or moulder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realise that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.’

Sixty years on, apparently we also have not yet learned to ‘think like a mountain’, to think not merely environmentally, in terms of saving single species, but ecologically, in terms of saving and working with whole ecosystems.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on July 31, 2012.

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