Sense and Sound ~ stimuli and reflex


“And our ears tell us that the whisper of every leaf and creature speaks to the natural sources of our lives, which indeed may hold the secrets of love for all things, especially our own humanity.” Bernie Krause

Huka Falls on the Waikato River is a boiling blood-riot of water sound. Pull off Thermal Explorer Highway, just north of the city of Taupo, New Zealand, and the cacophony of this eleven metre high waterfall leaps out, and then sucks you in to its vortices with disdain. It’s an auditory spectacle. If you were curious, and leaned too far over the footbridge, you’d be dragged in and crushed by arms of seething, blue foam (Huka is Maori for ‘foam’). If death did not come quickly by drowning, you’d perish by thunderous noise. It’s earth-deafening. You’d be broken into shrapnel.

At age 46, it’s not an everyday occurrence when a huge chunk of key understanding, largely hidden in life, reverberates through my entire being with a deep, resonant rumble. It’s happened twice this last month (lucky me). I write here about only one revelation and will write again about the other. But this one is important. It is the power of sound.

Whilst sitting peacefully at ancient shallow ponds to the West of Cardiff, Wales, I see their flat, silky surfaces puckered by a few whirly-gig beetles. These little beings spin around and around. If I listen intently, I can just hear the bubbles of a newt surfacing for air. A leaf may fall from the oak that spans high above my log-seat, somersaulting down into the surface tension in apparent silence, though other life-forms may have the sense to hear it. There are the songs of passerines, of course, romanticised by many a poet, and not forgetting the old, grey heron, who flaps his wings to escape my gaze. Sometimes, the leaves rustle like surf. The loudest noises, it must be said, stem from Welsh Black cattle that graze in fields over the fence. These pseudo-aurochs bellow, tongues out, making their presence known. Their sound is somehow timeless.

The Huka Falls and these Cardiff ponds are just two auditory experiences I can share in some detail. We have a lifetime of accumulated memory of sound. But I think we largely take these references for granted. Image dominates our 21st C Western culture. Even pop songs are ‘make or break’ depending on the ‘pop’ of videos. Bernie Krause used to make music, a synthesiser player for top names (The Byrds, The Doors, Stevie Wonder, George Harrison) and many Hollywood films of the 1960s and early 70s. Now he is an ecologist, sound wizard and key advocate of the conservation value of soundscapes, a rich three dimensional analysis of ecosystems that the use of the human eye simply cannot match. With some irony, technology is adopted to record and interpret data, though I imagine the sound of an electric mic is very quiet. I listened to his TED talk this week, and it was a revelation.

Our senses, if working well, are fine biological instruments, connecting mind and exterior world with webs and chains of cellular matter and electricity. ‘Messages’ flow from receptor organs to the brain and, at certain times, right back to our skin and muscles in the form of action and reflex. Aristotle is thought to have classified the five main senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell), but now we understand that there are more senses than the big five which use differing combinations of receptor organs.

Immanuel Kant, German philosopher of the period of ‘Enlightenment,’ proposed that knowledge of the outside world depends on our distinct modes of perception. In order to define what is ‘extrasensory’ we need to define what is ‘sensory.’

What a pity!

In one swipe, with a blunt knife, Kant cut us away from our environment and other living beings, when perhaps indigenous cultures had/have retained that important sixth sense. There is wisdom in intimacy with the rest of the natural world, unbroken song-lines. The fractures remind me of the nature of progress in human evolution. Maybe basic in our modern make-up is the need to disconnect in order to appreciate the very opposite. As Heraclitus in his ‘Unity of Opposites’ implies;

They do not understand how that which differs with itself in is agreement: harmony consists of opposing tension, like that of the bow and the lyre. (Freeman’s translation)

Barry Lopez writes often about the notion of home verses away, in that the patterns he observes whilst travelling away can bring insight to troubling issues at home. What’s more, whilst away, one is given to appreciate a new perspective on ‘home’. Novelty, new perspectives and the plasticity of the mind are important psychological components to wellbeing ( let us not get stuck in deep ruts).

Back to Huka Falls, and the novelty of sound. The water drains from Lake Taupo and swells up with oxygen, swirling into a turquoise ferment. The river powers into a narrow canyon, just fifteen metres across, noise deepening as a ripping 220,000 litres per second flow by (enough to fill one Olympic sized swimming pool in 11 seconds, so say the tourism brochures). You cannot hear birds or bellows. You cannot even hear one’s own thoughts. It really is power-sound that rumbles through your very fabric. This is a prime example of what Bernie Krause describes as a ‘geophony,’ sound emitted by non-organic phenomenon here on planet Earth ~ a rich audioscape, that we may not even be able to sense fully, from the crackles of aurora to the grinds of the seismic.

Human action, human technology, the sounds of modernity? Bernie calls this ‘anthropophony,’ so it is distinguished from the ‘natural.’ Some human sounds are, of course, controlled, like music and speech, others are chaotic and fragmented. Our unique biological, cultural experiences converge to interpret, for example, in Rudolf Steiner’s educational system of Eurythmy ~ gestures and interpretative movement to sound and in the telling of stories. Our bodily sounds need not be excluded from the “biophony”, sounds emitted from living beings, as we are part of nature. To Bernie, however, the tools we use are ‘other,’ so these are where his line is drawn. What is clear, in the Anthropocene, we are seeming to make a lot more noise!

There are physical, mental and spiritual aspects to our existence. Do our senses overlap, deeply resemble or integrate with all three of these aspects? Each of the five senses consist of organs with specialized cellular structures that have receptors for specific stimuli. These cells have links to the nervous system and thus to the brain. We know that sensing is active at primitive levels in the cells and integrated into sensations in the nervous system, not least by the central nervous system (the spinal chord and brain). Yet we do not fully understand consciousness. God speed, we are all conscious and able to be conscious of one another and other living beings. One ought to be conscious of a snake bite, a storm coming or a broken heart as we are the touch of a healing hand or a loving hug. Is consciousness another fully connected system, into which we are all able to join? Perhaps, we have no choice.

Sight is probably the most developed sense in humans, followed by hearing ~ a generalisation. There will be exceptions to the rule, not least from those who experience the neurological phenomenon of synesthesia, where the senses cross-wires.

Consciousness and mind may create their own forms of reality (although they may not be truths), based on the memories of sensory data fused with our responses. Words, forms, shapes, patterns, colours; they become entwined in a rich complexity (life is complexity). But our senses may well extend out into the environment, the inherent interconnectedness with all that is our one biosphere. Were it not for Kant, Western approaches may still have been in tune with the extended self. In nature, there is a compelling argument, that we humans are deeply entwined with the combined ‘other,’ Dylan Thomas’ quietus of the ‘Green Fuse’, or more distinctly, Glenn Albrecht’s ‘Ghedeist’ (a word full of hope), the positive interconnectedness between all beings via the spirit-force, for a collective good, which all life may play a part. The nature of its inherent ‘doing’ makes this a powerful word indeed.

I am returning to the overall ‘ecophony’ of the Cardiff ponds, where the combined sound of the ecosystem has its own rhythm, its own dance. Though quiet, save for the dawn chorus, it is a wall of sound. I do not sit there in silence. I am sure that, in the detail, data would dance for any soundscaper with the technology to listen and record, beyond human biological ability. And we ourselves could engage in a eurythmy in recognition of both the losses and the gains of our own impacts here upon the Earth. The senses combine and so do our reflexes. I feel a great love for the individual biophony there, a love for the wilder beings residing there. What I love, I wish to protect. Apart from aesthetic qualities, and human musical harmonies, I am now more aware that my love for nature and sound is united in entwined threads extending way beyond my body, and I have Bernie to thank for this.

Finally, Kinesthesia is the awareness of muscle and movement of the joints, enabling coordination to walk, talk, and use our hands with strength, rhythm, and delicate precision. It is what allows us to touch our ear lobes whilst our eyes are shut, or to know where to scratch if we have an itch. I think there may be a kind of kinesthesia in our collective consciousness too, we just need to be reminded (and coached), that it is there and it is powerful. Put it to good use, and we may ‘hear’ good things come from it.

For now, I’ll leave you with more on Bernie’s ‘ophonies’… tap into the Ghedeist, and enjoy.

Intrinsics: Do species have a good of their own, and do they have moral standing as such? 




This essay is an exploration of the idea of worth and value, referring to ‘species,’ as it has been asked. I will compare ideas across a spectrum of ethical approaches, as the question comes to the heart of environmental ethics. I will begin with some definitions, inferences of key elements, not least what ‘species’ may or may not be, and will look at range of ethical/axiological approaches by way of a few key environmental philosophers, and then observe more closely the subject of ‘will’ in relation to all of life’s ‘green fuse.’ (1)

This I perceive as a ‘will to flourish’ and, therefore, inherently valuable in every individual being, necessitating a respect for life, save for the need to flourish (but not in excess). I’ll thread a few biological examples through the text, in relation to having their own moral standing, though I’ll not set any strict hierarchical or egalitarian ordering.


A species is frequently characterised as a group of individual living beings that actually (or potentially), interbreed. In a biological, materialist sense, a species is the largest genetic pool of DNA possible in nature. Things are not straightforward, however. Many bacteria reproduce asexually, for example. Plants and some animals are able to produce hybrids. The word ‘species’ is an anthropocentric construct, created for our own purposes in trying to identify different living beings on Earth. We taxonomize, we quantify.

As we push against contextual boundaries in science, we also need to be open to shifts in meaning. That’s not to say that reductionism rules, but that a bridge between philosophical inquiry and scientific empiricism should remain in tact. A clear example of this ‘blurry line’ is in water bears. These micro-animals, incredibly hardy tardigrades, are able to accumulate extra DNA from their environment during their periods of desiccation. Once rehydrated, the material becomes existential to them in their continuing to flourish. A remarkable process, perhaps, but an example of where the idea of singular ‘species’ begins to fracture. As science reveals more about genetic ‘swaps’, we may think alternatively about evolutionary relationships. Evolution itself is, amongst other things, a process of genetic swapping.

“Instead of a tree of life where organisms split and never really reconnect, it’s a web of life with frequent exchange of genetic information.” (2)

When we refer to species, it must therefore be a loose term. Key, none-the-less, is that each living being has a will to flourish, regardless of genetic make-up, though this may or not manifest as consciousness.


Good of their own, moral standing

“An independent object or subject has moral status if and only if it or its interests morally matter to some degree for the entity’s own sake, such that it can be wronged.” (3)

What is good? Here, I take ‘good’ to be a noun ~ do species have a benefit or advantage to themselves? We all may understand that the web of life, in our one biosphere on planet Earth, is interconnected. Food webs with cascades of trophic levels push and pull on one another, inducing waves of population highs/lows and evolutionary processes too. There is an absolute extrinsic value for each life, as useful to every other life, no matter how indirect (we share one biosphere, lest we forget), whether it be through reproduction, predator prey relationships and/or community interchange. In terms of the human species, there are socio-political factors. Who knows, this may well be so in other species, to varying degrees.

Another way of looking at species is by the diversity of them, and whether this is a good thing. How broad is the spectrum of life at present? Biodiversity, short for biological diversity, is the degree of variability within species, between species, and between ecosystems. Generally, the greater the biodiversity, the more functioning and resilient the biome. Earth’s life systems amount to larger biomes, are they intrinsically valuable also? As Lovelock implies in the Gaia Hypothesis (4) , if the whole Earth a self-regulating system, the whole Earth must be intrinsically valuable, in a Universe where life is possibly either non-existent or rare on a planet by planet basis. But the whole Earth must also be extrinsically valuable to each and every life form associated with it. The problem then, so it follows, individual life forms are expendable if ‘deemed’ (by whomever may decide), for the good of the whole. In theory, humans included.

A worthy, but not an entire argument, is to look for sentience (5) (Singer), in that if a living being may perceive suffering because of the intent of others, then it would be in order for this to be judged morally bad or an unjustifiable act against the interests of the living being. But what of suffering? How do we know for sure that a living being suffers pain or not? Science is only just beginning to reveal truths on the existence of sentience in trees, for example. Before this, many modern humans might have (and still do, because they do not yet know), consider trees completely incapable of sentient life and caused undue suffering because of it.

Attfield (after Goodpaster (6) ),asserts that if there is a dying man and a dying plant, it would be wrong to apportion water equally to both. (7) That’s not to say that all the water be given to the man or all the water given to the plant. After all, both beings are on the verge of death. Refreshment would be deserving in a more balanced way, so Attfield is legitimate in suggesting absolute biocentric egalitarianism (Taylor) (8) is problematical.

Routley’s Last Man thought experiment is also relevant here. (9) If the last man on Earth, for whatever reason, decides to go out with a ‘bang’ and take all other life with him, is this ethically wrong? The heart of the answer would rest on whether non-human life has moral standing regardless of human interest/existence. Most, hope springs, may think destroying all non-human life would be a wrong thing to do, because each life is precious, and has potential or ‘will’ to flourish, regardless of human existence. There would be an ‘injustice.’ Hence, there is further reason, perhaps, that intrinsic value is less prone to futile human debates on various extrinsic and anthropocentric/utility pretence.

J. Baird Callicott concluded that all value and obligations should be focused on the ‘integrity, stability and beauty of the biosphere’ (after Leopold) (10). The purpose of individual life, including that of humans, is only of instrumental value to the whole. When the overall collective good becomes paramount, the problem remains that individual life becomes expendable if the integrity of the whole is to be preserved. In extreme, humans also would be expendable, our current (leave alone future), population is directly a problem to the planet as a whole. So in this sense, Rolston and Callicott represent a view that the integrity of ecosystems transcend the value of human life.

As Robin Attfield states, this becomes an unacceptable ethic, in that the suffering of humans, as a ‘species,’ must be accounted for and avoided. So we begin to see a hierarchy of moral standing emerge. How are we to order such a hierarchy? There are problems, as we do not fully know the intricacies of the importance of certain species to the overall ecosystems (although, ironically, we know significant negative impacts of the human species upon the biosphere, well enough, at least, to discern a real, tangible threat to all life on Planet Earth in the form of rapid climate change and biodiversity loss). I am with Attfield when he states:

“So we need to combine biocentric understanding of moral standing with a form of consequentialism that recognises the full range of capacities whose development or fulfilment comprises the good of various creatures including human beings, and which also recognises the greater value interests that relate to complex and sophisticated capacities such as autonomy.” (11)

Selfless not selfish

Anthropocentrism is human-centredness, an ethical framework that grants moral standing solely to human beings.

Bryan Norton argues:

“Policies serving the interests of the human species as a whole, and in the long run, will serve also the “interests” of nature, and vice versa.” (12)

But what of the mosquito that carries malaria? Our interest are clearly not directly shared. If we wipe out the carrier, the mosquito, one could speak of it as human ‘self defence’. But what of the other species that are inextricably associated with those same mosquitos? Do their needs not count? If we erode these particular food webs, what impacts are there upon the whole? Indeed, the biodiversity and evolution of viruses themselves may be viewed as a vast new area of thought, in terms of environmental ethics.

What of the life that we, as yet, do not even classify at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean? Although the argument still stands, that all life is connected, it would be too easy to drive policies, say, on the anthropocentric economic pursuit of oil over the needs of the life forms beneath the arctic.

Anthropocentric biases creep into decision making processes at every level. Sadly, we are seeing Norton’s ethic, not least, within the UN (13) and other conservation organisations in the misguided normative ethic of commodifying nature as a way of making it visible to governments and economic facilitators. Such anthropocentric calls for natural capital accounting clearly bring nature more deeply into the volatilities of the human realm via economic markets and other financial deviations. A second point is that it seeks to mentally separate ourselves from the rest of nature by commodifying in monetary terms, rather than considering we are part of nature and might seek instead to count non-human life as kin to be cared for, respected and loved.

Should there be hierarchical order to moral status, with the highest degree of status given to humans? As part of nature, humans are interdependent on nature, not separate. So how can we have a framework for living our lives based simply on human need, or human dominance over nature singularly for our own sake? It seems to me this type of thinking, actions and policies resulting, is what is causing climatic and ecological upheaval in the first place. A species selfishness.

New scientific knowledge may change our attitude towards trees, as indigenous and more ancient cultures may have acknowledged trees as sentient, with folklore, as cultural remnant, turning up signals that this was so. (14)

Ethical considerations must be extended beyond the human community. But what of moral standing, that we must be mindful, compassionate and considerate of the needs of entities other than our own kind? Selflessness? Ecocentrism and Deep Ecology of Arne Næss (15) and in similar respects Snyder (16) and more recently, Albrecht et al (17) inspired by the work of Leopold, argue a degree of moral standing to the whole. Our moral community ought, therefore, to be extended to systems such as rivers, mountains, flood plains, landscapes and ecosystems. But interestingly, in terms of moral standing, it is still intrinsic value which is proposed as least contentious.


“We argue it has been the failure to fully appreciate the objective intrinsic value of biological diversity (species and habitat) and the overwhelming dominance of human-defined instrumental values that are the main reasons why we are facing the prospect of dangerous climate change and other manifestations of ecosystem distress in the first place.” (18)

Determining whether our environmental obligations are based on anthropocentric or non- anthropocentric reasoning, leads to different accounts of what our responsibilities and obligations are. Despite inevitable pluralistic approaches (we humans are a diverse ‘species’), we need to be more mindful, deliberate. We owe this to nature, for all that we take from it.

A Will to Flourish.

Consider the self determination of trees, a biological genus, though each species of tree may be inherently valuable. Self determination in humans is looked upon generally as a good thing. Food, warmth, nourishment, medicines; just some of the most basic of our needs but for the sake of this exploration, I’ll assume we in the West are guaranteed them. Perhaps, a wishful assumption.We are also at liberty to legally reward ourselves for our endeavours, mostly in material things (often at the expense of trees).

Do trees have wants and a will to succeed beyond simple needs? Given adequate life support, a lone tree can be grown from a fertilized seed in a laboratory under synthetic conditions. We can offer the tree what it needs to exist, as we can offer a brain dead patient. Whether it flourishes to a natural end is another matter. Trees reproducing and existing in nature, in landscape and sunlight, rely on symbiosis; partnerships with microorganisms to supply the nutrients for growth using different bacteria and yeast to succeed, moreover, to flourish.

Do trees want for more, beyond survival? They may need to create community, collectives of many life forms and species, not just to survive but to thrive, reproduce and live a long and enduring life. Incentives may not be relevant, no city breaks, but ‘good’ soils, carbon dioxide, oxygen to roots in varying degrees, unpolluted water and the unrestricted ability to photosynthesize, respire and transpire. Of course trees need ‘place’ in Leopold’s deep sense of the word. The size of woodland may once have been limited by climate, hydrology, altitude, coast and so on. High rates of human intervention have accelerated these factors (even altitude if you consider mountaintop mining), and imposed the development of farmland, utility forestry, transport infrastructure and urbanity. Resulting fragmentation, island bio-geography and edge effects change the very nature of living woodland community, and consequently what it is to be a tree. Mono-cultured plantation stands are more vulnerable to pest and disease, without further human interventions like spraying pesticides and herbicides, although not exclusively. Indigenous trees in collectives may also offer some protection from windfall, fire and climatic change, and in the past with pre-industrial mammalian destruction. We see many lone trees around cities, fields and hedgerows of course, planted or selected for our utilitarian needs, at least with access to some of the most basic essential life support, whether or not they flourish. They may be less likely to reproduce naturally, however. A sociable tree may be the healthiest tree. Everyday, scientists solve more puzzles. For instance, trees may not feel pain as we do, using a central nervous system like ours, but are able to sense vibration, oncoming rain and gravitational orientation. We didn’t know these things a hundred years ago. Many questions remain unanswered, the mysteries. A fertilized seed will sprout given basic prerequisites and seek to root. There are signs that trees have a will to self-heal, recover, regenerate and adapt to a changing environment. Research into hormones, i.e. jasmonates, are key to signalling morphological changes in plant cells, such as dwarfism, and through natural selection, similarly to spinescence evolving in response to environmental conditions or ‘stressors.’ A tree can generate new limbs, should others fail. New life can even spring from a fallen tree crown ~ phoenix generation could be the ultimate evidence of ‘will.’


So, to me, trees do have a will to survive, reproduce, moreover to flourish. It is this very point that makes them inherently valuable and of moral standing, beyond the human realm (theoretically, if for instance an alien species should ever visit planet Earth). Grub out a forest, stop burning heathland, knock down a building and watch the regeneration in action. To me, primary and secondary succession are all pointers to a will for life. Aren’t there recognizable similarities here between the will of a pioneer tree and the will of a person?

To lead a full life, to flourish and reproduce, are just a few of the basic things we humans value about life. They are intrinsic to us. Homo Sapiens are species, in that loose sense of the term (mixed Neanderthal DNA accepted). You could say we are genetically coded and socially primed to do so. One could say the same of trees.

Schopenhauer examined the unconscious driver of body and mind as ‘Will’. This ‘kernel of existence’ generates and underpins phenomena, and manifests in the impacts around us. ‘Force’ and ‘energy’ were also considered but he decided on ‘Will” because of personal self reflection, as an individual living being with needs. Someone who has considered things similarly…

“… will recognise that same will of which we are speaking not only in those phenomena which exactly resemble his own, in men and animals, as their innermost nature, but the course of reflection will lead him to recognise the force which shoots and vegetates in the plant, indeed the force by which the crystal is formed, the force which turns the magnet to the north pole, the force whose shock he experiences from the contact of two different kinds of metals, the force which appears in the elective affinities of matter as repulsion and attraction, decomposition and combination, and, lastly, even gravitation, which acts so powerfully throughout matter, draws the stone to the Earth and the Earth to the Sun.” (19)

In this case, according to Schopenhauer, all phenomena have a will, but how could we disseminate what has moral standing as a result? Panpsychism (20) explores spirit-Gaia, on similar grounds. That all things are conscious, from subatomics to the cosmological vastness. But, still, if there is no moral order, and all things have an egalitarian right to exist, there would be no end, no death, no food chains. So there must be some hierarchy for old to give way to new.


To discern living beings of key moral standing seems the obvious course, because they are not inert, or at least, not for eternity. Life is an assemblage of the inert, but it is the will ‘to flourish’, which distinguishes organic from the inorganic. In this sense, I’d call for a new kind of biocentric deontologicalism, responsibility for ensuring all life continues to flourish, (and consequently a care for ecological processes and the inert as a support mechanism) but for the need to assimilate some order in the moral standing of other beings, according to our needs not ‘wants.’


Goodpaster was right when he wrote about the difference between asserting moral rights (and subsequent claims), and moral standing (respect and interests taken into account). (21) But the question here is simply ‘do species have a good of their own, a moral standing.?’ Subject to a loose definition of the word ‘species’, the answer is a clear yes, though I would not yet call for the rights of all as persons.

We too are nature, and have needs to survive and reproduce, moreover to flourish and this may involve killing other species, for example, trees, before they live a long and productive life. However, just because various tree species cannot run away from a wielded axe, we shouldn’t treat them simply as disposable assets for excessive luxury, or woodlands as dispensable in the face of economic downturn. Genus of trees of course are beneficial to humans as they are to many other species, and some benefits will be reciprocal. As intrinsically valuable individual beings, they are self determining living species (Attfield)22 with a will to flourish (Schopenhauer). We need to remember this in our individual and collective relationship with them and in our decision making or utility of them.


1 Richard Burton reads Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’. <; via YouTube

2 T.C. Boothby et al. “Evidence for extensive horizontal gene transfer from the draft genome of a tardigrade.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online November 23 (2015) <https://; via Science News

3 Jaworska, Agnieszka and Tannenbaum, Julie, “The Grounds of Moral Status”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < sum2013/entries/grounds-moral-status/>.

4 James E. Lovelock, Bowerchalke, Nr. Salisbury, Wilts. England and Lynn Margulis, Department of Biology, Boston University, 2, Cummington Street, Boston, Mass., USA.
Published in Tellus XXVI (1974), 1-2. Manuscript received May 8 1973; revised version August 20 (1973)

5 Singer, P “All Animals are Equal” Philosophical Exchange, Vol 1. No 5 (Summer 1974), pp243-257

6 Goodpaster, K “On Being Morally Considerable” The Journal of Philosophy, LXXV, 6 (June 1978), 308-25 7 Attfield, R “Environmental Ethics” Polity Press, Cambridge (2011) p 44


7 Attfield, R “Environmental Ethics” Polity Press, Cambridge (2011) p 44

8 Taylor, P “The Ethics of Respect for Nature” Environmental Ethics, Vol 3 (Fall 1981), pp 197-218

9 Sylvan/Routley R “Is There a Need for a New Environmental Ethic?” Proceedings of the XV World Congress of Philosophy, No 1 Varna, Bulgaria, (1973) pp. 205-210

10 Leopold, A “A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There” Oxford University Press (1989) pp 224-225

11 Attfield, R “Environmental Ethics” Polity Press, Cambridge (2011) p 45

12 Norton, B “Toward Unity” Oxford University Press, 1 Sep (1994) p 240

13 <; via UNEP

14 For example, “He who takes an axe to the home of wood sprite will have no peace, nor much life, a traditional Hookland saying according to C.L. Nolan. <; Similarly in Japan there are the Kodama spirits, Dryads of Greek mythology, and in Ireland, the Fairy Trees.

15 Næss, A “The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects” Philosophical Inquiry 8, (1986) 1-2

16 Snyder, G “The Place, The Region and The Commons” The Practise of the Wild, North Point Press, San Francisco (1990)

17 Albrecht, G. A. ; Brooke, C. ; Bennett, D. H. & Garnett, S. T. “The Ethics of Assisted Colonization in the Age of Anthropogenic Climate Change.” Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2013) 26 (4) pp 827-845

18 ibid

19 Schopenhauer, A “The World as Will and Representation” Christopher Janaway Cambridge University Press, 28 Oct (2010) bk.1, chap. 21

20 Skrbina, D “Panpsychism in the West” MIT Press January (2007)

21 Goodpaster, K “On Being Morally Considerable” The Journal of Philosophy, LXXV, 6 (June 1978) 22 Attfield, R “The Good of Trees” Journal of Value Inquiry 15 (1):35-54 (1981)





A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There


I own a well thumbed Special Commemorative edition of A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, by Aldo Leopold. It was published in 1989, one hundred years after his birth and hosts a faithful introduction by Robert Finch. It’s an assembly of pieces originally intended by the author to be called, “Great Possessions.” Sadly, Leopold died unexpectedly a week after Oxford University Press accepted his submission. It was re-named Sand County Almanac, and the essays were edited by his son, Luna, friends and colleagues. The process must have been, at once, difficult for them yet cathartic.

It is a shortish book of thoughtfully communicated knowledge, loaded with ideas and with a spine of steel. Leopold bore close witness to human/nature discordancy, and his anger emerges from time to time. It is not beyond reason that those enlightened with understanding basic ecological principles should find emotional distress, solastalgia 1, in the destruction of such systems ~ home ~ as well as a profound sense of the illogic. As Leopold said:

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”2

As someone who has had a lifetime’s passion for nature and the living world, I’m familiar with the strong emotion that is solastalgia, though I’m comforted this book intended to counter it. At the time, of course, there was no single word for it in English.

The accompanying drawings by Charles W Schwartz, are perhaps undervalued by reviews in the past, and bring a sense of biophilia 3 firmly into the occasion. Combined, the language and imagery don’t ostracise the reader but retain a strength of statement. They present a case for both a shift in ethical considerations of natural and technological worlds, and a cultivation of ecological literacy, in a multi-disciplinary sense, with consequential positive actions of humankind. The book is a clarion call.

Here, I introduce Leopold, the book in three sections, the “Land Ethic” and his implicit, yet broad, call for ecological literacy.

Aldo Leopold

Leopold was a Yale forestry graduate, employed later by Gifford Pinchot’s newly formed USDA Forest Service. Pinchot, controversially, advocated commodification of nature as human resource, in the belief (and I think mistaken), that humans would consent to abundance on the understanding that rewards are reaped economically. Although influenced by the nature-as-utility argument (he was a farmer, after all), Leopold went on to reject Pinchot’s purely anthropocentric, economic determinism.

Leopold also helped found the Wilderness Society, as an agency for implementing evidence into preserving pristine ‘natural’ environments. He secured the first US professorship in ‘wildlife management,’ now viewed as wildlife ecology, at the University of Wisconsin. At this time, he purchased eighty acres of barren farmland, The Shack, and began attempts to restore it to balance. Sand County Almanac is an expression of bearing witness to ‘the law of diminishing returns,4’ as the human species cast dark shadows upon the land. Consequentially, Leopold seeks to shift human consciousness to an integral way of living, within what we now describe as Earth’s ‘planetary boundaries.5’


The Book in Three Parts

The essays, written over a twelve year period, focus on the human intersect with the biosphere, and works toward a cordial, non-abusive relationship, or community with the land and its varied inhabitants over and above property ownership.

Moreover, the book is itself an act of love, it’s obvious Leopold’s intent was to share and nurture this core emotional response in others. His ethical ruminations have inspired a number of environmentally minded philosophers to respond, develop and inform on human relationships with nature, contributing to the development of the new academic field of environmental ethics.

Part I ~ A Sand County Almanac (or shack sketches)

This section contains verbal and visual images of Leopold’s experiences at The Shack in monthly episodes. They are brief narratives on local natural history, noting some of the seasonal explorations, or ‘god-like’ decisions, he made in attempting to reconcile the needs of nature with those of a more sympathetic farmer; the food and heat requirements of himself and his family. They are underpinned by experience and knowledge, though the latter being more subtle at times, driving the drama of the narrative. There’s a smattering of human history (natural and social, national and local), and the patterns of ownership, abuses and restorative processes.

And there are questions, some unanswered, and so by their presence, engender trust by the reader in the vulnerabilities he shares. A wonderful example is found in the section on March, The Geese Return. Why do geese annually return to corn growing on old prairies? Is it the nutritional content of the new flush of corn, or an ancient homing instinct to the lost prairie? He notes:

“…I am well content that it should remain a mystery. What a dull world if we knew all about geese.”

Leopold is an educator, a good one, and well qualified in ecological understanding. But he has a humble idea of his limits. Those questions too are the drivers of discovery. Sometimes, as Rilke says, we simply need to ‘live the questions’6.


Schwartz’ illustration of geese on the ground calling to a skien above implies their language is, perhaps, beyond our full comprehension. But implicit is the need for us to recognise they have their own language, and a need to express it.


Part II ~ Sketches Here and There

Fundamentally, this section recounts Leopold’s life experiences, mistakes and successes in acquiring ecological conscience. His use of language is a little less conversational, evolving to a critique of who/what is lost to human excess. Loss is the theme, and a disturbing indictment of human action. More so, he defines moments of enlightenment, crossroads, junctures in his own life, where he viscerally realised an absolute need for change. Experience, perception and logical reasoning all contribute to change of either habit or ethic. The section entitled, ‘Thinking Like A Mountain,” illustrates.

Leopold recounts, unsentimentally, the hunting of a wolf pack by shotgun, and his personal witnessing of a she-wolf’s moments of death…

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes…I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither wolf nor mountain agreed with such a view.”

Along with regret, there’s a duality of expression here. That the mountain has consciousness just like that of the wolf. Leopold, a spiritual man speaking, along the lines of philosophical panpsychism; Schopenhauer, Spinoza and, more recently, Skrbina.

Simultaneously, we interpret a mechanistic view, not about taking life per se, more in denying the wolf her particular role in which she was born to participate, in the wider scheme of things. Leopold, the ecologist, speaks, in parallel with enlightened scientists; Carson, Wilson and Paul R. Ehrlich.

Trophic cascades (ecological phenomenon on the role of predators play over trophy levels in food chains within the overall function of an ecological system), are only now receiving the attention they so deserve. Predators are inherently of value but also instrumental to entire ecosystems. There are many other prescient environmental issues foretold in SCA, and I mention some in conclusion.

Part III ~ The Upshot

In this section, the more philosophically edifying of the three, Leopold maps how to begin to reverse nature-offensive processes. There’s courage in doing so, in a time of post-war economic adversity, when there will have been pressure on primary resources as the chief price to pay for War. Leopold saw a chance for a different kind of ‘recovery’ though, sadly, his quiet yet firm eviscerations of the economic paradigm still struggle to be heard among the neoliberal raucousness of globalisation.

As Finch summarises these essays:

“They breathe a distillation of a lifetime of thinking and living in nature.”

The four pieces, not least The Land Ethic, are a culmination of his own analytical processing, and also a guide. We may shift our values, priorities and, therefore, our modus operandi. If we perceive our place within nature (as opposed to without), recognise that we are part of a community, then we can truly perceive degradation of the biosphere as self-defeating. There isn’t necessarily a virtuousness here from Leopold, but a pragmatism.


The Land Ethic

Leopold’s Land Ethic, though not technically articulated thus, is one of an holistic or ecocentric value set. Ecological systems and supporting chemicals and elements combine to be core to existence and, therefore (to Leopold, it appears), the whole requires moral standing and protection. Other environmental philosophers who came later, such as Arne Næss, Rolston III and Callicott, reinforced this holistic approach.

Human clearance of the post ice-age wildwood and prairie mosaic was well underway before industrialization but certainly accelerated with demand in timber for shipping, trade and war together with grazing pastures to feed a booming population. In our Western Civilization, we can combine this instrumental need with John Locke’s assertions on life, limb and Property as a God given natural ‘right.’ A simple equation emerges. Natural Resources (non-human nature) plus human labour equals Property. It is ‘good’ to aspire to own property. What property we deem useless can then be thrown back into nature. Nature, plundered, becomes our dumping ground.

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”7

The land ethic extends our community to embrace soils, waters, plants and animals ~ the land. By doing so, there’s an inherent ecological conscience, driving our own human and individual responsibility for the wellbeing of the whole. To Leopold, Conservation is the process of facilitating self-renewal of the land, and this he valued highly.

“By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends other-wise.”8

Leopold pinpoints one of the strongest arguments against commodification of nature, interestingly, in proposing ecological complexity as being the great scientific discovery of his time.

“Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance* is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”


Conservation does not equate with development as Pinchot had stated. He could see there has to be more done to prevent abuses running away with themselves in the name of human advancement. In this way, Leopold forecast correctly some of the problems associated with the concept of sustainable development and ill-conceived boundaries in valuing nature in monetary terms. Natural Capital advocates still appear to make the same mistake, by implication 9, within an even more neoliberal system of exponential growth, accumulating wealth and increasing gap between rich and poor.10

Leopold steps further, with a powerful plea for love and respect for ‘land,’ for places in their entirety, locale-specific and intimate, and I am presuming he thought similarly of oceans, et al. In this sense, he inspired the Deep Ecology movement, heralded by Arne Neass, 11 in objecting to the human-centred approach of Pinchot and, later, others such as Passmore and unequivocal anthropocentrism.

The problem, of course, is if someone asserts that individual lives are worth sacrificing in order to maintain the whole. I can’t agree this is an acceptable moral tenet. Each life is intrinsically worthy, each individual being as a will to flourish. Sure, we humans, and other species also, need to take life as part of food webs, but we ought to be doing so only according to need not want or excess.

“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.”12

Is this really a truism? The decision to take life for the benefit of what we may ‘deem’ to be whole, say in conservation terms, given science already reveals to us that ecosystems are dynamic and evolving (and with, at least, some uncertainty always present), can be clearly framed as an anthropocentric process. Let’s not forget, anthropocentrism stands accused, and rightly so, of being the driver of environmental degradation. Can we realistically expect the same ethic to somehow begin to work positively? I think not.

Further, land (or sea) is community only when there is life present. The inorganic matter, water and sunlight that supports the life is of worth, of course, but does not have the moral standing of life. There is an important distinction to be made here, as advanced by later biocentric environmental ethicists, such as Taylor 13 (egalitarian) and Attfield 14 (consequentialist). It is the lives of individual intrinsic worth, which constitute community to which Leopold wishes us to acknowledge, love and belong. Inert materials in support may not be the community, but provide sustenance and, therefore, deserve protection and certain obligations, but not the same moral standing.

Geologists dream of land without the ‘green stuff’ because they can analyse the rocks, gravels and sands clearly. The fossil life is important too, the life that once was, as it informs of the evolution of life, our origins and the importance of temporal and climatic events. But I still could not assert that a planet full of fossils would be as worthy of protection as a planet full of life, sentient or not.

As Attfield says:

“Rather than ecosystems embodying all value (as Callicot used to hold) or at any rate somehow embodying independent value (as Rolston sometimes seems to suggest), our obligations in their regard could relate primary to living creatures, present and future, without the importance of ecosystems being in any way downgraded or diminished.” 15

Albrecht delineates a love of the whole (living and inert), thus the human struggle against environmental injustice against home and place, as Soliphilia.16 Inherent in the emotional concept there must be moral considerations of the interests of individual non-human, as well as human life.

Ecoliteracy (or ecological literacy)

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home,” (Snyder)

When one becomes intimately familiar with the living systems of home, place, your locale, your ‘wild’, as Leopold did, almost to perfection, it’s difficult not to develop a deep sense of respect and love for them. I argue, the relationship we may develop for individual beings, the butterfly, otter or bee, their daily, monthly and seasonal patterns stand proud. From these relationships, the guidance of strong mentors, and any hard-wired remnants of biophelia, comes the strong desire to protect and conserve. Finch says:

“Though there are genuine bitterness and pain in the essays, he remained convinced that most environmental mistakes are due, not to some inherent baseness in human nature, but to ignorance.” (xxi)

Ignorance* leads to the disconnect and Leopold even admits his own in the case of the she-wolf. His ecological conscience, derived from both formal study and self-learning, supplied insight into the general lack of human awareness as the main driver of economic and environmental destruction. Russell says:

“The desire to understand the world and the desire to reform it are the two great engines of progress without which human society would stand still or retrogress.” 17

I understand well, as a woman with a life long passion for such beings, the vitality of both affinity and observation of the non-human world. Leopold was an educator, but also an advocate, and his agency for both is perhaps the authenticism in the message of this book. Education, via storytelling/ narratives, is an ancient human methodology to further the human cause, enhanced this last few centuries by the glorious invention of the printed book. Now, we are able to apply it all to further the causes beyond the human realm. The ‘cultural harvest.’18

Ecoliteracy is a term coined by American educator David W. Orr (who has served on the board the Aldo Leopold Foundation), and physicist Fritjof Capra, to promote nurturing ecological values, and ultimately the well-being of the Earth and its ecosystems, through mainstream education (inside and outside of the classroom). It’s obvious that Aldo Leopold’s authenticity is deeply influential to the systems overview apparent in the development of the idea. They have taken forward the idea by suggesting a more egalitarian process of mentoring and exposure to ecological systems.

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” (Angelou)

An ecologically literate society would be a sustainable and resilient society that did not destroy its own ecological roots. Centre stage, the student, child or adult, an individual human person with empowered potential to address urgent and complex environmental issues whilst being nurtured herself into a life of competent opportunity, peace and fulfilment.

This is not simply an ode to science, per se, but also to colour, to creativity, to storytelling. Leopold, wary of higher education at the time deliberately ignoring ecological concepts, asserted labelling the process of sharing ecological understanding wasn’t as necessary as the act itself. There is a difference between what may remain a mystery without harm to human/nature integration, and what is lacking in our human understanding leading to definite problems, demonstrated as baselines shift and degradation exponentially accumulates.

I have enormous faith in the altruistic powers of an informed community, the route to true sustainability and peaceful coexistence. There’s a natural justice to it. Cross disciplinary, multi- intelligences (not simply academic), applied action. Not one person should be excluded; an exciting prospect.


SCA is many things, an expression of a man deeply connected to nature, but also communicating his dual desire to both berate and educate his fellow homo sapiens. In doing so, it’s a final act of honour for what he loved deeply. I am reminded just what a diverse, enriching book of knowledge, observation and judgement it is; way ahead of its time, and in many aspects of ecology, responsibility and political conscience towards non-human life and the land.

Many of the recent wildlife campaigns emerging from Conservation NGOs are prescient in the book. Examples include using highways verges as wildflower and pollinator reserves, the vitality of farming set-aside, trees as the staple of slope stability and rainwater absorbency, predator re- introduction and the positive effect upon trophic cascades.

What is clear is that idea of anthropocentric focus is problematical. We cannot isolate ourselves from all other life. We are part of a complex web, sharing one biosphere. Any notion that we homo sapiens prevail at all cost is a huge misnomer, and a dangerous one. It is legitimate to question anthropocentric behaviour and policies, even if purporting to support life.

After Muir and Thoreau, along with later great American writers and thinkers of the twentieth century on the human relationship with nature, such as Carson, Wilson, Erhlich, Snyder, Dillard, Carroll, Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” has a lasting modern cultural explorations of place and landscape, and is still influential with modern writers such as Robert MacFarlane 19 and Rebecca Solnit 20.

Not only does Leopold set out a vision in order for ecologically aware ‘dissenters 21’ to act on their 22 dissent, he highlights the need for a higher accord or purpose of our communing with nature to enhance and enrich our perception and connection with nature at an intimate level, and a re-connection with ‘place.’ In this sense it is a call for understanding and an ecological conscience ~ Ecoliteracy.


I suggest, however, it is the non-human communities which make the place community, the interconnected lives and the will to flourish. Therefore, my own biocentric leanings are affirmed. None-the-less, SCA rightly asks the following of us.

Are we simply owners of land as chattels, purveyors/traders of property, heading down a cul-de-sac of obsessing over a materialist, wealth accumulating economy, whilst the ability to produce is itself undercut by the very ethic of land as commodity?

Or are we members of the community of interconnected life, with responsibilities in loving and, therefore, nurturing the land, and so benefitting our own sense of liberty in reaping a rich cultural harvest in doing so?

As Leopold says,

“Perhaps a shift of values can be achieved by re-appraising things unnatural, tame and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free.” (ix)

The answer is surely the latter ~ after all, there is natural justice to it.



1 <; (G. Albrecht)

2 Leopold, A “Round River” Oxford University Press, New York (1993) p 165 3 Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

3 Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

4 Leopold, A ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ Oxford University Press (1989) p vii 5

5<; (J. Rockström)

6 “Letters to a Young Poet” Rainer Maria Rilke to Franz Xaver Kappus, translated by Reginald Snell, Courier Corporation (2002) Chapter Four.


7 Leopold, A ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ Oxford University Press (1989) p viii

8 Converging Philosophies and a Land Ethic: Leopold text, Aldo Leopold, “The Conservation Ethic.” Journal of Forestry 31(6): 634- 643 (1933)

9 <; (S. Sullivan)

10 <; (S. Sullivan)

11 <;

12 Leopold, A ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ Oxford University Press (1989) p224-225

13 Various ‘Environmental Philosophy From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology’ 3rd Ed. Prentice Hall New Jersey (2001) ‘The Ethics of Respect for Nature’ by Paul Taylor p71

14Attfield, R ‘Biocentric Consequentialism & Value-Pluralism: A Response to Alan Carter.’ (2005) Utilitas 17 pp 85-92

15 Attfield, R “Environmental Ethics” Polity Press, Cambridge (2011) p41

16 <; (G. Albrecht)

17 Russell, B. “Marriage and Morals” Routledge, London and New York. (2009) p184

18 Leopold, A ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ Oxford University Press (1989) p ix

19 (R. Macfarlane)

20 (R Macfarlane & R. Solnit)

21 Leopold, A ‘A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There’ Oxford University Press (1989) p viii

22 ibid p176