As a forester, I’m a big fan of Aldo Leopold. Landowner, forester, author and nature philosopher, Leopold and his classic book, “A Sand County Almanac,” inspired the way I approach caring for the land. Leopold advocated for a “land ethic,” where we see land as a member of our community, one we work with in partnership. I try to apply this ethic when making decisions about what to do in a forest or woodlot. In my book, “Backyard Woodland: How to Maintain and Sustain Your Trees, Water, and Wildlife,” I devote an entire chapter to the land ethic and what it means, on the ground, for the actions we take on our properties as landowners and foresters.
As much as I enjoy Leopold, there’s one part of his land ethic I’ve always struggled with. As he describes the concept, he writes, “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.”
This line has always rubbed me the wrong way. It’s that one word: beauty. When it comes to the woods and nature in general, what’s “pretty” or “beautiful” to human eyes isn’t always good for wild plants and animals.
Here’s an example. I recently took this photo of a local woodlot in the Catskill Mountains (picture A).
It would be tough to argue that these woods aren’t pretty. There’s that one crooked tree in the foreground, but aside from that, this photo is a classic woodland scene. Big, straight trees, a lush fern carpet, plenty of open space for a long view.
But while this “biotic community,” as Leopold would call it, has beauty, it’s actually in poor shape. How can that be? Suppose for a moment you’re a wild animal. Where is the food you need in these woods? Very few animals can eat hay-scented fern. Even deer turn up their noses at it. What about cover? There are few places to hide or build nests.
Even the plants here are in trouble. With hay-scented fern dominating the ground, other plants like wildflowers can’t get their start. Tree seedlings will have trouble pushing through the ferns’ dense shade. If the parent trees die, say in a windstorm, there won’t be new trees to replace them.
Now look at these woods, which I visited the same day (picture B).
Granted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there are a few things that make these woods less visually attractive. There are fewer big trees, for one. There’s also a lot of low, dense growth that means you can’t see very far.
But though we might call these woods “uglier” than the ones in the first photo, these woods are a lot healthier. There’s plant growth at every level, so animals can find plenty of cover and nesting sites. The forest floor has a bunch of plant species instead of just one, so there are more food options available for picky eaters (most plant-eaters are specialists and can only eat a few species of plants). If a bigger tree dies here, there are plenty of young trees that can grow up to fill the gap.
It’s easy to equate “beauty” with “natural,” and to assume that because something looks pretty to us, it must be pretty to plants and animals. But that isn’t the case. So with apologies to Leopold, it’s perfectly OK if your woods aren’t beautiful, and it isn’t “wrong” if you do something that makes them less pretty. Nature can be downright ugly. In fact, sometimes it’s meant to be that way.
There’s no need to apologize to Leopold. He realized this, too. In the same section of his book where he describes his land ethic, he praises nature’s complexity, calling it “a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly,” but that “its functioning depends on the cooperation and competition of its diverse parts.” For Leopold, for wildlife, for me, and I hope for you, natural beauty lies not in a tidy appearance, but in the woods’ grand, unsorted variety.