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Leopold: Biotic Drama

October 6, 2016
A Biotic Pyramid

A Biotic Pyramid

Among the environmental writers we have read thus far, Aldo Leopold is our first professional environmentalist/ecologist: not just the amateur naturalist/saunterer of Thoreau or Burroughs, but someone who studied (Forestry) and taught subjects relating to the environment.  From that vantage point, it does seem that we have left the poetics of Thoreau behind. Possibly. At least in Leopold’s more professional engagement with science and such things as the ‘land as an energy circuit’ and the biotic pyramid.  This could be discussion from an ecology text; in a sense, it is. I suspect that many of the environmental studies majors will be familiar with his concepts, if not the text itself. And so in this question of what and who comes after Thoreau, Leopold (and to a lesser extent Muir and Burroughs) signals a shift toward the scientific in the writing we are exploring–from natural history and nature writing (informed by Romantic philosophy, transcendentalism) to phenology and environmental writing (informed by ecological thinking).

But notice this idea at the heart of Leopold’s ecological thinking. The idea is that in order to be more ecological in our human perception and appreciation and understanding of the biotic community of which we are a part (and only a part, not the center), we need something that the poets do well. We need representation; relation. We need images and figures that foster love, faith, feeling, understanding. In order to think like a mountain we need, in part, writers like Thoreau (and Leopold himself). We need to imagine the mountain and its metaphorical thinking. Consider how Leopold begins the section on “The Land Pyramid” by calling for a new figure of speech and mental image to understand and love the biotic mechanism. Plato be damned: we need the poets (the image-makers) in order to be more philosophical.

An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to land presupposes the existence of some mental image of land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.

Ecology needs poetry. The biotic community, to be understood, needs to be dramatized. I would suggest that such poetry is evident in Leopold’s writing–though he may not be as interested or as gifted (in other words, as wild) as Thoreau is with his paradoxes. But I hear it in his evocation of elegy; in the alliteration of his ‘listening land’; in his “biotic drama” in which the lifespan of an atom is re-imagined as a Homeric odyssey; in a sense that Leopold performs an ecological consciousness in his descriptions and in his desire to have us think like mountains (a poetic figure, after all, for something radically non-human, and as strange as anything in Thoreau). I understand this poetry of Leopold’s ecology, finally, in his call for an ecological consciousness that is ethically and esthetically right: “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.”

A remarkable and important line, this crossing of ethics and esthetics (also spelled aesthetics). In Leopold’s biotic community, we will achieve the stability the system demands (and will get one way or another, with or without us), when the poets lie down with the scientists and economists, and help them love the land as they would a work of art, as Whitman loves his leaves of grass or Thoreau his sand foliage. This isn’t without paradox: needing the distance of representation (writing, reading, thinking, language) in order to get closer to our nature. Back to Thoreau–and to a good bit of poetic wisdom from various spiritual traditions to boot: we need to lose ourselves (stand beside ourselves in a sane sense) in order to find ourselves.

With that in mind, the image above of the Biotic Pyramid may still be problematic for Leopold. Yes? Here is one that re-imagines (and re-images) around a circuit of energy.

And here is a video that re-imagines human history the way Thoreau does, on a much larger scale. And from The New York Times, a graphic novel version of history as it moves toward, and then beyond, one human: “Me and the Universe.”


And so, perhaps, we are back to the words Muir uses to describe the wind storm: sublime and beautiful. The sublime, as I noted in my last post, is a concept applied both to writing and art–where the focus is on the emotional, rather than logical, power of an idea or site; where the power, sometimes overwhelming power, of beauty acts on the mind through the senses, and creates enthusiasm in the observer. Yes, we are seeing more ecocentric, even scientific, description of the natural world and environmental history (think of Leopold’s description of the “Odyssey” of atom X and Y). But we also note his argument that a land ethic is not just intellectual but also emotional and imaginative; humans need to love the land in order to live with it, need figures of speech as well as facts in order to use it more wisely and ethically. We need aesthetics, too. Leopold is arguing for new ways to imagine and image the biotic community. The version he offers first, it strikes me, is through the figures (odyssey, elegy, metaphor, metonymy) of his writing.


This kind of understanding of sublime is at work in the photography of Chris Jordan: I think we can read back from his images (beautiful and overwhelming) to the ways Leopold is thinking of land ethics/aesthetics and the ways Thoreau crafts in his beautiful style a text that can also disorient us into waking up. We will see it there as well in Annie Dillard, in her interests in seeing the intricacy and beauty of the natural world–but seeing its other half as well, the beauty wrapped up in the mess of fecundity, in the compost pile of life.

Further Reading:

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 9, 2010 2:22 am

    This class is luscious! It is an honor to walk beside such simple men–perfectly imperfect and more wise than wizened toes appearing from utilitarian and well-worn socks.

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