What Thinking Like a Mountain Has To Teach Us About Thinking Like a City

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One of my favorite things to do is introduce people to books from outside the usual urbanist reading lists that have important things to contribute to building stronger towns. Today, I’m introducing Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. I hope that you get something from it and feel inspired to read Leopold, yourself.

Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) was an early pioneer of the American land conservation movement and the science of ecology. A Sand County Almanac is a beautifully crafted collection of his nature writing, essays, and journals, including many critiques of the misguided management strategies he developed in his youth working with the Forest Service. I first encountered Leopold and the Almanac as a graduate student at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Science in 2009, as part of a celebration of the centennial of Leopold’s graduation.

Two essays from the Alamac stood out to me and I refer back to them often. The first is from his reflections on his time in Arizona and New Mexico and is titled “Thinking Like a Mountain.” His earliest job in the forest service was hunting wolves, coyotes, and bears, under the logic that “because fewer wolves would mean more deer, that no wolves would be a hunters paradise.” But without predators, the deer populations exploded, denuding the mountains of vegetation, and in the end, fewer deer than before. Leopold writes,

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 realize 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… 

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness … but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.

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