Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic emphasizes the beauty of nature, but a healthy forest can be downright ugly.
If you’ve spent some time on MyWoodlot, you’ve probably guessed we’re fans of Aldo Leopold. Landowner, author, and nature philosopher, Leopold was a giant in shaping the way we think about how we care for the land. One of his quotes cycles through our homepage, and last year we included his amazing book A Sand County Almanac as one of our recommended reads.
There’s another Leopold quote from his essay “The Land Ethic” that I find particularly interesting. It goes, “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.”
As much as I admire Leopold, this line has always bothered me a little. It’s that one word: beauty. When it comes to the woods and nature in general, what’s “pretty” or “beautiful” isn’t always good.
Let me give you an example. I recently took this photo of a local woodlot in the Catskill Mountains:
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 that 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? Yes, you can see a fair ways, but that means predators can too. There’s nowhere to hide or build a nest.
Even the plants here are in trouble. With fern dominating the ground, other plants like wildflowers can’t get their start. Tree seedlings will have trouble pushing through the ferns’ dense shade. When the parent trees die, there aren’t new trees to replace them.
Now look at these woods, which I visited on the same day:
Granted, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there are a few things that might make these woods less visually attractive. There are fewer big trees, for one. There’s also a lot of low, dense growth that limits how far you can see.
But while 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 types of plants). And 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 nature, 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 Aldo 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 better that way.
What are some ways you can make your woods a little “uglier” yet healthier and better for wildlife at the same time? Try our new activities on creating more young woods habitat, as well as our advice on helping your woods simulate an old-growth forest.