The Capacity for Self-Renewal

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20 minutes of reading

Lighting one candle with another candle spring evening

 —Yosa Buson, translated and presented at the 2013 Geography of Hope Conference by Robert Hass

The exposed western shoulder of Mt. Wittenberg offered an expansive view of both geography and hope. As we exited the forest, naturalist Todd Plummer asked our group to pause and take in the land, the ocean, the sky. The contrasts startled me. In the forest, Todd tuned our senses to the subtleties of flora and fauna emerging from California’s coastal soil. The forest’s beauty appeared beneath and beyond scenery—birdsong from over forty species; native plants I had never heard of; the scat of an elusive Puma concolor, one of maybe four remaining on the entire peninsula; Usnea lichen draping from branches, offering vital indicators of air quality; the deep green understory of early spring, soothing my snow-blind Colorado eyes.

Yet in the clearing, we found ourselves suffused, squinting, in open sunlight. To the west, we scanned the Point Reyes National Seashore, gazing out to the rounding blue horizon beyond Drakes Bay. Distant waves washed over one of the world’s most productive ecosystems, feeding into Drakes Estero, where oyster farmers and wilderness advocates tangle over the human place in nature. To the south, a trail traced the bare ridge. Curving southeast, the path returned to the forest, pointing toward the metropolis of San Francisco, one bay away in geography but a universe away in my mind’s eye. Due east, a hundred feet above us, another trail pointed to the bright light and pine scent of Mt. Wittenberg’s peak. An entire continent stretches past that peak, as if our whole landmass begins and ends on the tiny clearing that forms Wittenberg’s summit. To the north, vast views opened again. Cows shared the hills of organic dairy farms with tule elk. We could trace the San Andreas Fault, marked by a wall of Douglas fir. Over a decade ago, the Mt. Vision fire swept through a tinder box of bishop pine until it slowed in this phalanx of fir. The fir burned at lower temperatures than the pine and thus still rose, resilient, just feet away from the recovering land across the fault. To the northeast, the pastoral town of Point Reyes Station sat on the other side of Mt. Wittenberg.

We were gathered in Point Reyes Station for the Fourth “Geography of Hope” (GOH) Conference —inspired by Wallace Stegner’s famous axiom and co-sponsored by Point Reyes Books, the Center for Humans and Nature, The Aldo Leopold Foundation, and the U.S. Forest Service.[1] This year’s theme was “Finding Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic.” Leopold biographer and conference co-organizer Curt Meine invited me, an environmental ethics professor researching intersections between Leopold’s “land ethic” and contemporary environmental justice movements, to attend the conference and write my thoughts on its larger significance for how we might understand, complicate, and implement Leopold’s ideas in the twenty-first century. New to this landscape and community, I was an outsider, eager to learn from expert panels, speakers, non-profit directors, musicians, farmers, Leopold family members, actors, public land managers, business owners, filmmakers, community members, activists, philosophers, a Poet Laureate, a MacArthur Fellow, teachers, artists, and authors. All offered perspectives on how Leopold, who partly inspired Stegner’s environmental voice, sheds light on the future of Stegner’s vision for a “Geography of Hope.”

I contemplated Stegner’s words as I looked out from Mt. Wittenberg. Geography—views vast and minute, faults, forests, fires, oceans, flowers, cows, sharks, birds, wilderness, urban centers, working landscapes, farmers, tourists, Todd, and us. Hope—food sustaining a home on the extreme edge of a continent, fragile habitat supporting a thirty-year elephant seal recovery, forests both resistant to and recovering from fire, land put aside for our enjoyment and for what Leopold called its own “capacity for self-renewal”.[2] What does it mean to merge these two terms? How does Stegner’s phrase speak to our environmental future?

A basic conversation linked the weekend, cutting through the soaring theme and distinguished profiles. It was a conversation about change, in some ways about letting go, but certainly about evolution. It was a discussion about how our iconic ideals (Leopold’s land ethic) and our hopeful geographies (Mt. Wittenberg? Drakes Estero?) might co-evolve. What follows is not a play-by-play review of the event, but an exploration of conference perspectives on this evolution in thinking about nature and place, wilderness and culture, geography and hope. I will explore how the conference raised tough questions about diverse geographies of hope, about (still) missed opportunities to challenge and reinforce movements for wilderness with movements for working landscapes and struggles for environmental justice.

 A Standard of Change

In an excerpt from his one-act play performed on the second night, John Pfitzer (playing Aldo Leopold) said, “I am more of a standard than a person . . . if I were [a standard], it would have to be a standard of change.” This is an apt way to describe Leopold’s diversely influential career. His life, 1887–1948, spanned the formative years of American conservation. Trained in Gifford Pinchot’s Yale Forest School, Leopold in 1909 headed to the American Southwest to work as a forester, game manager, watershed specialist, and recreational planner for the U.S. Forest Service until 1924. During those years, Leopold evolved from timber-driven valuations of forests to asking land managers to consider “the whole loaf” of “The Forest” as a holistic end in itself.[3] Leopold expanded his view of the forest to include “trans-economic value”—the value of ecological services and spiritual fulfillment that soil, water, grasses, wildlife, and recreation provide. Even further, at the GOH conference, philosopher J. Baird Callicott pointed out that Leopold “foreshadowed the Gaia hypothesis” by wondering if the earth itself, not just “The Forest,” was “a living thing” worthy of moral respect.

Leopold evolved. Most famously, he faced the “green fire dying” in a mother wolf’s eyes. He killed this wolf hoping to build deer populations for hunting, but he eventually learned to see both predators and fire from a holistic point of view. He extended his holistic concept of “The Forest” to become “The Land,” calling it a “fountain of energy” and the “soil-plant-animal-man food chain” (SCA,216, 178). He began “thinking like a mountain,” asking himself which choices would produce health for all aspects of the land, rather than merely asking which choices would economically benefit humans (SCA,129).

Leopold also evolved as the loci of environmental change shifted around him. In the Southwest, he oversaw a virtual public lands fiefdom. Healthy land required effective management within a federal bureaucracy. Visionary and skillful management in this context, in fact, led him to establish the first wilderness area—the Gila. But when he moved to Wisconsin in 1924, and especially when he assumed his role as Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin in 1933, he had to work with individual land owners in order to enact change.

In his GOH conference presentation, author, ethnobotanist, and food justice activist Gary Paul Nabhan noted that Leopold had to relinquish the “command and control” culture of public lands he learned in the Southwest. Once established in Wisconsin, Leopold spent mornings in coffee shops with farmers. Estella Leopold, Aldo’s youngest daughter, also spoke of this practice in her Point Reyes comments. Estella’s father chatted with farmers about the weather and their needs on their farm, and then he would calmly ask “Have you seen any pheasants today?” to open conversations about larger values that he wanted written onto the land.

In the Midwest, an intricate weave of hundreds of small farms now shaped the land he hoped to manage. During the New Deal response to the Great Depression, Leopold learned that federal conservation dollars given to each landowner to plant trees or stabilize soil would not lead to long-term conservation. He thought conservation would stop once the flow of subsidies ceased. In his view, only the combination of economics, aesthetics, and ethics would motivate multigenerational conservation. Once again, Leopold adapted. His 1948 essay, “The Land Ethic,” exemplifies this adaptation: “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” (SCA,224-225).

Given the evolution of Leopold’s thought toward a land ethic, many at the conference wondered how the land ethic itself should evolve generations beyond his death. Aldo Leopold Foundation president Buddy Huffaker said that “we are still drawing pictures of what the land ethic should look like.” Susan Flader, perhaps the first Leopold historian, suggested that “Leopold keeps extending, the relevance of his ideas keeps growing over time.” Ecologist Jed Meunier, a descendent of Aldo Leopold, summarized this sentiment: “[Leopold] lent himself to his own evolution. He evolved over time, and he was very clear about that.”

Leopold biographer Curt Meine emphasized that when Leopold wrote the land ethic, he ironically added that a land ethic could not be written: “nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’ . . . it evolve[s] in the mind of a thinking community” (SCA,225). In the sixty-five years since 1948, the “mind” of our “thinking community” has grown more diverse, more global, more urban, more politicized. So, to extend Leopold’s own challenge: how must the land ethic “evolve”? At the GOH conference, many discussions of this evolving ethic dealt with the idea of wilderness, a revolution in land use for which Leopold deserves great credit. He designed the first Wilderness Area in the Gila National Forest in 1924 and continued to advance the wilderness idea toward a philosophy and national policy until his death.

Wilderness, Geography, Hope

One cannot talk about Stegner’s “Geography of Hope” without talking about wilderness. The Stegner line that inspired the first Point Reyes conference four years ago comes from a 1960 letter Stegner wrote to a young forester in support of the Wilderness Act (signed in 1964). Stegner said, “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”  Stegner meant that the land should reflect our capacity for self-restraint.

At the Point Reyes conference, environmental writer Kenneth Brower (David Brower’s son) highlighted this view of self-restraint, reminding the audience that “these wild places are valuable to us even if we never go there.” Vermont author and Mad River Valley farmer Peter Forbes extended self-restraint to embrace an attitude of “forbearance . . . that I don’t need to go there, that I do not have to have that.” Forbes, like Stegner, is not just crediting wilderness in itself as that which makes us whole, but is saying that our capacity to choose wilderness reflects an exercise of care beyond self-interest. Forbes’ forbearance awakens something in us. The alternative, as philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore emphasized in her comments, is “moral monstrosity on a cosmic scale.” Moore continued, asserting that “it’s wrong to wreck the world,” it is troubling to relinquish “the millions of years it takes to evolve the song in a crane’s throat.” Such a relinquishing is “not just immoral, [it’s] unjust and unspeakable.” Environmental pioneer Huey Johnson (along with Brower) connected Stegner’s sentiment to the opening of Sand County Almanac: “there are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” Leopold declared himself “one who cannot,” and Johnson concluded by echoing Dave Foreman’s call for a movement of “Cannots.”

Like these views of wilderness, geographies of hope define us. The act of recognizing the world as possessing more value than a stockroom of resources simultaneously recognizes us as more than bodies consuming bodies. Leopold thought about this throughout his career. In 1923, he stated:

And if there be, indeed, a special nobility inherent in the human race—a special cosmic value, distinctive from and superior to all other life—by what token shall it be manifest? By a society decently respectful of its own and all other life, capable of inhabiting the earth without defiling it? Or by a society, like that of John Burroughs’ potato bug, which exterminated the potato, and thereby exterminated itself? As one or the other shall we be judged in ‘the derisive silence of eternity.’[4]

In Sand County Almanac, Leopold called our level of environmental alienation a “spiritual danger,” above and beyond any ecological or social danger—his was, often, a particularly existential ecology. The husbandry Leopold promoted was not just of land—he promoted “cosmic” husbandry, a stewardship of the human spirit through a new ethics tied to the land.

Several speakers in Point Reyes advocated that more diverse geographies should drive our hope, at times naming wilderness as part of what makes geographies devoid of hope. Geologist and professor Lauret Savoy said that “the idea of wilderness is a human idea that was placed on the land”; environmental studies professor Michelle Stevens challenged the idea of “having a wilderness without a people . . . instead of an economic model of land and people together”; author, educator, and musician John Francis spoke of native communities in the Yukon who told him “this is not wilderness, this is our home”; Callicott explained that when seen from indigenous perspectives, “wilderness is a tool of colonialism.”

Of course, this is not a new perspective. Over the past three decades, the “wilderness debate” has become a nexus of conflict among environmental philosophers, activists, scientists, and historians. The debate is too complex to represent fairly in this conference review. But its essence lies in questioning the uses and abuses of promoting landscapes in which “man is himself a visitor who does not remain” (Wilderness Act). Has wilderness given us that promised arena for our forbearance, that site of sanity in a world seeking to commodify all life? Or, as Savoy suggested, are too many not included in this “us”—have these geographies perversely extended our commodification of the world by viewing homelands of indigenous peoples as “pristine”? In protecting vital habitat for endangered wildlife worldwide, have these landscapes “reassured” us “of our sanity”? Or have they inadvertently perpetuated the dynamics of global colonialism that have helped to put our sanity at risk? Has the language of wilderness protection kept struggling environmental justice movements from speaking to where people live, especially excluding those living with disproportionately high levels of pollution and without the privilege of enjoying “wild” places? Or does the reach of wilderness protection stretch the moral imagination to embrace the intrinsic value of all places (and implicitly all homelands, neighborhoods, and peoples) by extending its sphere of care to include places that people will never personally call home? This is a rich and important debate; it will not be resolved here. But the concept of “geography of hope,” as explored in this conference, suggests one possible way forward—a “third way” beyond these dualistic kinds of questions; a third way of the sort Leopold himself liked to form out of the debates of his time.

Chicago environmental justice leader Michael Howard blazed a path for this third way at the GOH conference. Howard shared his successes and struggles in transforming Chicago’s most lead-contaminated acreage into Eden Place, a site of butterfly gardens, environmental education, food production, wildness, and health care workshops—truly a geography of hope. He offered a personal and historical perspective on wilderness. He recalled 1964, the year in which boththe Civil Rights Act and the Wilderness Act were signed. Remembering that year, he said, “I just wanted to be recognized as a human being for education, for access to stores. . . . In ’64, for me, it was a different world.” He told the mostly white, middle-class Point Reyes crowd: “You were celebrating the Wilderness Act, while we were celebrating basic rights.”

Howard does not deny the power of wilderness. He takes people from his Fuller Park neighborhood to the wilderness. “There is something spiritual that happens when you reconnect with the ground, and lay down on the leaves, and stare up at the stars.” In addition to wilderness, his connection with the land stretches back to childhood visits to his land-based family in the south. Both the post-slave southern landscape and the classic wilderness landscape, it seems, played a part in inspiring his call for justice and wildness on Chicago’s most contaminated acreage. But, as Howard said (referring to Robert Hass’ poem on opening night), “here’s the problem . . . I need your help to light the candle in places like Fuller Park . . . I built the candle but I’m going to need your help to light it, so people in Fuller Park can relight it.”

Michael Howard’s hope merges three geographies—working landscapes infused with historical trauma and ancestral ties, wilderness landscapes that inspire “something spiritual,” and our communities, all communities, especially those once deemed uninhabitable. All three must co-evolve for Fuller Park’s sake and for the sake of a vibrant land ethic in our time.

Leopold’s Evolving Wilderness

Leopold’s idea of wilderness expanded between his 1924 Gila Wilderness Area and his final work, Sand County Almanac, published one year after his death in 1948. His original Gila Wilderness was to be big enough to allow a “two weeks’ pack trip,” reflecting his view of hunting as a spiritual connection with the holistic value of The Forest.[5] Leopold’s view of wilderness as consisting of untrammeled “virgin” lands persisted throughout his career, even though his central purpose for wilderness evolved from the hunter’s experience to the ecologist’s understanding of “land health” in places as far as Mexico’s Sierra Madre in 1937. That said, once the Gila was established, Leopold began to broaden his interpretation of wilderness landscapes. In a 1925 essay entitled “Wilderness as a Form of Land Use” he asserted that “wilderness exists in all degrees, from the little accidental wild spot at the head of a ravine in a Corn Belt woodlot to vast expanses of virgin country. . . . Wilderness is a relative condition.”[6]

“All degrees”; “relative condition.” These are fighting words in our twenty-first century wilderness debates. Leopold continues, “As a form of land use it cannot be a rigid entity of unchanging content, exclusive of all other forms.” Leopold would not go so far as to say wilderness is a human construct in the way that many have suggested. Leopold thinks that the “head of a ravine” has something in it that cannot come from us—a wildness that can only develop from “the remote fastness of space and time” (SCA,148). However, by the time he published Sand County Almanac, he focused on the capacity of the wilderness experience to awaken new levels of ecological “perception,” which he deemed a “change in the mental eye” for humanity (SCA,173-174).

This new “mental eye,” for Leopold, could develop in any sort of place: “the weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientist adventuring in the South Seas” (SCA,174). When studying weeds teaches as much and harms less than traveling to the great redwoods, Leopold has truly imagined an adaptive geography of hope within his idea of wilderness. But it is not a hope found in certain kinds of geographies. It is a hope found in a certain way ofgeographic perception, possible in “wild” forests, around cornfields, and in city lots—a potent precursor of the three geographies that shaped Michael Howard’s hope. In the film Green Fire, Dave Foreman challenges us to learn about the “whole Leopold,” and part of that whole Leopold is a view of wildness that includes and complicates the vast, untrammeled landscapes we like to call wilderness today. Leopold could hold it all in his head, in his moral compass, in a way in which we still struggle to capture in the form of a movement.

At the conference, Iowa farmer and former Chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Paul Johnson shared Leopold’s views that the “individual farmer . . . must weave the greater part of the rug on which America stands,” that “conservation means harmony between men and land,” and that “land . . . is not merely soil.”[7] He calls this level of ownership on a working landscape “the real geography of hope that includes the individual and the relationship to the land.”

Forbes added to this perspective of the particular. He introduced himself through the places that had formed him. He talked of the importance of querencia, “the place where the animal lives . . . the tendency to return to where one was born . . . responsibility . . . the place of one’s memory . . . to love and be loved.” Praising Leopold for his declaration that the relation of people to the land and the relation of people to each other are his two concerns in life, Forbes said that “we cannot protect land from people, we can only protect land with people.” Environmental destruction comes from “failed human relationships” for Forbes, and thus the most effective way to save a place is to live there. Johnson discussed the relevance of Leopold for how we think about working landscapes as another “part of” (to continue Stegner’s thought) the geography of hope. Forbes advances Johnson’s point, opening space for wilderness, working landscape, and perhaps even sites of environmental justice movements to find common ground—rooted in Leopold. Just as Forbes “would not be whole without wilderness,” so he recognized that “failed” human relationships are what threaten the hopes of both wilderness and working geographies of all kinds.

Playing with Leopold’s concept of land health, Gary Paul Nabhan argued, “We need to ask how land healing can translate to human health and community health.” He asked: “Can ecological restoration translate to community restoration and a restorative economy?” The days of separating and segregating these forms of restoration have ended. Individuals, communities, and the land must be integrated. For example, Nabhan spoke of a hummingbird dying in his hand on the day he moved to his Arizona home because of a lack of health in the land to sustain its migration; he pointed to the 60 percent of Mexicans on the U.S. side of the border suffering from a lack of food security, while 30 percent of their children suffer from hunger; he referred to the violence of the immigration system and debate. Issues like climate change and food insecurity mean that we (all of us) ignore their interconnections at our own peril. He concluded that “justice for those people and justice for the hummingbird is the goal that drives me.”

Hope springs from the complicated the geographic negotiation of wilderness, working landscapes, and environmental justice— as in Michael Howard’s diverse experiences fueling urban revitalization, as in Peter Forbes’ blend of farming and wild forbearance in building “whole communities,” as in Paul Johnson’s and Gary Paul Nabhan’s understanding of how land health fuels community health and justice, and as in Aldo Leopold’s vision for “virgin” forests, cornfields, and city lots as sharing something wild.


Wilderness might have evolved at least once more had Leopold lived on, more toward wildness. In “The Land Ethic,” Leopold argues that “the capacity for self-renewal” (for a whole biotic community, including humans) defines “land health.” In turn, any “thing” that leads to self-renewal defines health and violence, and right and wrong,in a revolutionary way. His land ethic is rooted in and measured by “self-renewal.” Perhaps wildness itself lies in self-renewal.

Can the land ethic inspire future changes in how we define the geography of hope? Leopold was conscious about including humans, and human communities, in his conception of the biotic community. So, what does it mean for a human being to have “the capacity for self-renewal”? What does it mean for a human community (including Coon Valley in Wisconsin, Vermont’s Mad River Valley, the Arizona-Mexico border, and the South Side of Chicago) to have “the capacity for self-renewal”? What does it mean for a wilderness—including a “rewilding” approach that supports wide migrations of keystone predators—to have “the capacity for self-renewal”? What does it mean to achieve a collective self-renewal that encompasses individual agency, community autonomy, and ecological health?

The word “wilderness,” scholars like Roderick Nash and activists like Dave Foreman have told us, derives from the old English root word meaning “self-willed land.”[8] That phrasing is packed with potential in thinking about how an evolving land ethic might merge multiple geographies of hope. How can self-willed individuals who were once viewed as less than human, and self-willed communities fighting against their place becoming everyone else’s away, find common cause with those movements for self-willed land? Leopold historian Julianne Lutz Warren (formerly Newton) offered a definition of hope at the conference that makes more sense now. She called hope a “gift that’s given when interagency and interdependency shimmer in disequilibrium.” Perhaps that is how Leopold’s idea of “self-renewal” should evolve in our thinking community: toward the realization that geographies only have hope when the “interdependency” of land, humans, and communities express “interagency” and possess “self-will.

Divided Geographies, Exploited Hopes

The conference ended with a challenge for next year. Ken Brower and Huey Johnson lamented the conference’s lack of focus on the future of wilderness as a cause that “confronts forces that have been devastating to nature.” Johnson concluded: “I don’t want to lose it; I don’t want my kids to lose it; nor my grandkids. So, I hope next year you call [the conference] ‘The Cannots.’” If so, I will certainly be there, as Mt. Wittenberg reminded me that I, like Leopold, “cannot . . . live without wild things.” But how do we merge those who “cannot live without wild things” with those who simply cannot live? How can the candles of wilderness, working landscapes, and environmental justice more effectively light each other?

This is, of course, easier said than done. In fact, the communities around Point Reyes are mired in a divisive conflict over a new wilderness area that would displace the Drakes Bay Oyster Company. It at first seemed odd that a conference focusing on the legacy of two formative wilderness philosophers (Leopold and Stegner), a conference taking place in Point Reyes, would not organize a panel focused on this issue. But the GOH conference provided a break from local positions to explore larger values and frameworks for blending geography and hope—for all places. This decision to avoid an explicit focus on a relevant Point Reyes dispute might have, ironically and implicitly, shed more light on this growing issue than an explicit debate about it would have.

In late 2012, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, popular among San Francisco-area sustainable food leaders, sued Ken Salazar’s U.S. Department of the Interior for enforcing the termination of a forty-year lease in order to designate a new wilderness area—the first marine wilderness area in the country. Along with progressive leaders like Senator Diane Feinstein, the family-owned company continues to seek a ten-year extension of their lease in federal courts, arguing for the ecological sustainability of their practices. Wilderness advocates express localized concerns about Drakes Estero’s fragile habitat and nationalized concerns about the precedent of allowing mechanized, private production in a designated wilderness area.  They fear a cross-country wave of industrial claims to wilderness areas and challenges to the 1964 Wilderness Act.[9] This conflict between local food and wilderness has split the environmental community in the region, raising complicated questions about the future role of wilderness in our environmental imagination.


Point Reyes National Seashore headlands from Chimney Rock


Since my March afternoon on Mt. Wittenberg, though, the question of whether Drakes Estero should be a wilderness area has become even more complicated. The Drakes Bay Oyster Company continues to appeal the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that Drakes Bay must close their oyster operation for the sake of the new wilderness area.[10] Republican congressional leaders like Natural Resource Committee Chairman Doc Hastings have joined the fight on the side of the oyster company. In the spring of 2013, Republican Senator David Vitter went so far as to propose a bill to approve the controversial Keystone Pipeline, permit production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, expand offshore drilling, and extend the Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s lease another ten years. Cause of Action, a conservative group whose leader has ties to the industrialist, libertarian Koch brothers, provided the lead attorney for the oyster company—though the oyster farm broke ties with Cause for Action after a PBS story in May 2013.[11] These unlikely partners thus range from environmentalists concerned with a model of wilderness that displaces local food, to Tea Party activists exploiting this issue as another battle in their war against government “overreach,” to industry groups hoping to dilute the Wilderness Act nationally.[12] Environmental movements continue to make themselves vulnerable to such divide-and-conquer strategies by (sometimes contentiously) separating wilderness, working landscapes, and urban environments. The “either-or” tone of the Drakes Bay debate has fueled the forces driving larger problems like climate change and environmental de-regulation.

Lauret Savoy spoke of the Point Reyes conference as “a place of transformation—geologically, personally, spiritually, and ethically.” Savoy’s father, Willard Savoy, once wrote a novel called Alien Land that struggled with his “racing from being black” and exposed the “separate trap” of race in America. For Savoy, Aldo Leopold’s questions are not dramatically different from the questions her father asked. She summarized both by asking the audience: “Is it possible to reject, deny, what alienates and separates us?” She hoped the land ethic could evolve, so that “the land ethic and Alien Land” can “meet.” Wallace Stegner gifted us with a phrase, “geography of hope,” that frees us to let go of another “separate trap”—certain landscape categories as the primary ends of environmental care. Stegner’s phrase and the conference both remind us not to confuse means and ends, tactics and strategies. Rather than displacing a local farm for our love of nature or rather than diluting the Wilderness Act in order to have local food (which seem to be the two options presented), how might the Department of Interior, how might the wilderness and food movements of the Bay Area—this cradle for so many environmental revolutions—imagine a third way for Point Reyes like Michael Howard has in Chicago, like Gary Paul Nabhan has in the borderlands, like Peter Forbes has in Vermont? Could Point Reyes produce our next geography of hope? Vitter’s bill should sound an alarm. It should warn us against continuing with the “separate trap” of divided environmentalisms that has held the land ethic back. The kind of evolution that this conference, and Leopold himself, called for suggests a way forward. 

[1]. Special recognition goes to Point Reyes Bookstore owners Steve Costa and Kate Levinson, who have reinvented the community role of bookstores in the age of Amazon and make for exceptional hosts and conference organizers. Special thanks also go to the over twenty-five volunteers and homeowners who made the event so fluid and welcoming. I would also like to thank Curt Meine, Steve Dunsky, and Steve Costa for inviting me to review the conference, and for comments on early drafts. Brooke Hecht’s encouragement was also vital to this review, as were comments from Bruce Jennings, Sean Prentiss, Jeff Sellen, and Jerry Frank.

[2]. A. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 221; hereafter cited in the text as SCA.

[3]. A. Leopold, The River of the Mother of God, and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold, ed. Susan L. Flader and J. Baird Callicott (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 43; 87.

[4]. Ibid., 97.

[5]. C. Meine, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 196.

[6]. Leopold, The River of the Mother of God, 135.

[7]. Ibid., 260, 255; see also SCA,216.

[8]. D. Foreman, “Wilderness Areas for Real,” in The Great New Wilderness Debate, ed. J. Baird Callicott (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 404-5.

[10]. B. Egelko, “Appeals Court Deals Blow to Drakes Bay Oyster Company,” San Francisco Gate, September 3, 2013, at

[11]. M. Prado, “Drakes Bay Oyster Company Cuts Ties with Washington D.C. Group Helping in Legal Battle,”, May 29, 2013.

[12]. S. Michels, “Strange Bedfellows Join Fight to Keep California Oyster Farm in Operation,” PBSo Newshour, May 1, 2013, at

  • John Hausdoerffer

    John Hausdoerffer is Professor of Environment, Sustainability, and Philosophy at Western State Colorado University, where he also serves as Executive Director of the Center for Environment & Sustainability and as the Director of the Master in Environmental Management program.

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