Dear Sir,

Are you familiar with that old parlor game that asks, if you could talk to anyone in history, who would it be and what would you say? Well, I’m turning that around a bit to be the one speaking from history. I have chosen to have a conversation with you, Mr. Coates, about statements you made in a certain book you have written. I feel I am in the perfect position to talk to you about this book, because at the moment, and probably for eternity, there is nothing but reflection between the Earth and me.

Specifically, at the end of your book, you said this: “Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by the technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky.”

In response to these words, I am writing you this letter to express my concern for the fire next time. My goal in writing to you, Mr. Coates, is not to try to convince you of anything. I am not attempting to defend any political stance or persuade you to see any particular side of things. I agree with your premises. I see how easily your argument aligns with mine. We have much in common, you and I, especially our strong desires for respect, justice, and long-term healing. This letter offers no comfort, although I remain an optimist. Rather, it describes a path we can forge, a way forward in difficult times.
At the turn of the last century, early in my career as a forester, a reporter for a well-respected newspaper asked me what it would mean to lose all the forests. I’m certain the reporter was an intelligent man, but he had no understanding of the nature of the question he asked. He wanted to know why I believed that losing the forests was inevitable. I have faced this kind of question before, sometimes posed in different words. It always makes me angry in a way that simmers just under the surface at the dim awareness humans have in their complicity in this loss. The answer to this question is wrapped in what we consider ourselves to be. The answer is what it means to be human.

Humans have long judged themselves to be the dominant species, put here to have dominion over all things. When I say “humans” I mean Americans—you would correct me to say, “white Americans,” or “those who believe that they are white.” We didn’t use this language back in my time, so I’m using your words to try to make myself better understood by contemporary thinkers such as yourself. Therefore, if we start this conversation with the agreement that race is a social construct, as you have written, can we also agree that when I say “humans,” I mean all humans? I conducted all my studies and field work in North America and Western Europe, right after graduating from the Yale School of Forestry in 1908. So more specifically, I mean humans with an orientation toward Western thought, especially those who follow the words of the Bible, which states: “And God said to them, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over all animals of the earth and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” This passage from Genesis has been open to interpretation for centuries, and its meaning has evolved over time, although not all believers have adjusted their thinking accordingly. Religious scholars continue to debate whether those words give us the right to cut down forests, dam rivers, and mine the earth.

The reporter’s question implied that these humans who have put themselves in charge of the forests, without understanding that humans are never actually in charge, might one day lose their power to control the natural world, to control what grows and what doesn’t grow, and what can burn and when, as if we could give or withdraw our permission, as if it would even make a difference. With our philosophy of imperialism toward other species, we have made ourselves gods of the natural world, or some Americans thought they had, with no acknowledgement that we are actually at the mercy of the forces of nature, forces that would probably laugh at our petty beliefs if the consequences weren’t so deadly serious.

This is not an extreme sentiment. Americans have believed for centuries that they are gods, that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for our advantage. That passage from Genesis has had the effect of establishing a dualism between humans and nature. There is a long Western history of an anthropocentric and patriarchal approach that has devalued the land. Although these terms are not the types of words I have used, I understand they have become significant in present times. As a person with a Western orientation myself, I once viewed the natural world as an object of investigation, to be counted and inventoried. I take hope from the fact that some interpretations of the words in the Bible are changing.
Here is what I would like that reporter to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy our environment. What does it mean to inhabit a home that we are simultaneously destroying?
A leader in Western thought who knows the Bible quite well is the current head of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis has evolved his thinking to be more respectful of what I call the land—an enlargement of the boundaries of community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals. In his 2015 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si, Francis wrote, “…nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the Earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world.”

You have written of your distance from the church and have wondered if in that distance you might have missed some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond your physical perception of the world. I am not a religious man myself; I find my god in nature. So I can only give to you Francis’s interpretation of these words: “‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature… The vision of ‘might is right’ has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful…”

I find Francis’s statement of a mutual responsibility between humans and nature especially interesting. Does that mean that natural disasters are nature’s way of abdicating its responsibility to us? Or, like a strict parent, is it nature’s way of enforcing a subjective and often arbitrary justice?
Obviously, I can’t speak for the entire country. I can only speak from my own experience, as do you. My experience taught me to think differently one day in the Arizona rimrock, shortly after I had started my new job with the United States Forest Service in 1909, more than a hundred years before the pope’s letter. I had been surveying an area in the Apache National Forest and stopped for lunch. Above the voice of a turbulent river that resounded below, I heard an outburst of wild defiant sorrow and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. You might have already heard this story; if so, please forgive me for repeating it here. Because it is a sound that only a mountain has lived long enough to listen to objectively.

We are embedded in the landscape, under the authority of the mountains. Mountains unify us in a way that recenters all our pieces—the physical, spiritual, and mental. The mountains and everything that lives and grows on them bring you down to who you really are—they put us in scale. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who can live without wild things and those who cannot.

Back then, I never passed up a chance to kill a wolf. I was not an innocent; I had blood on my hands. Like you, my impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And as you pointed out, because I was as human as anyone else, it follows that others—those who build cities and countries and claim the stories told about them—are not innocent, either. Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning known to the mountain have made the wolf the enemy.

From high on that rimrock, I watched something I thought was a deer cross a river far below. But when she emerged from the water, followed by half a dozen pups, I saw a playful pile of writhing wolves with wagging tails. I unloaded my rifle until the wolf was down and a pup was dragging a leg off into the slickrock. I climbed down that cliff and reached her in time to watch the green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then that fewer wolves did not mean more deer. I knew then that I wasn’t thinking like a mountain.

The change in my thinking was not immediate. It took years before I recast my relationship with the natural world from one of unchecked control to one of stewardship and responsibility. I think back to the thousands of years it took mankind to develop an ethical structure that meant owning human chattel was immoral and must be ended. You would argue that it hasn’t stopped at all, that it continues to this day. Yet I feel this understanding hasn’t been taken far enough. If ethics begin with the premise that an individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts, then my philosophy is to extend this ethic to the fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and every living thing that moves on land. To consider the earth as kin to be known and respected. Like enslaved people throughout time, land is still considered property. Our connection to it is still economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.

The definition of property and our human relationship to it has changed significantly over time; organizations have been fighting for decades to raise the legal status of nonhuman animals from that of property. For fifty years, cases have been deliberated over whether “so-called natural objects” like mountains, rivers, and forests should have the same body of rights that human beings have. In 1972, twenty-four years after my passing, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote that, “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.” Over time, courts have granted standing to a list of nonhuman animals, including Hawaiian Crows, Northern Spotted Owls, Marbled Murrelets, Florida Key Deer, and Mount Graham Red Squirrels. In cases that have earned public attention, rivers have been treated as legal persons in the United States as well as several other countries around the world. The definitions continue to change as the land ethic is taken up worldwide. My own feelings have evolved to believe in a land ethic that changes the role of humans on this earth from conqueror to citizen. This belief is just a beginning—any lasting remedy requires all humans to change our relationship with the land—all land, public and private, developed and fallow, wild and cultivated—and with all living things.

I would like to take the liberty of rephrasing the words of a man who I suspect had some influence on yourself. James Baldwin’s first publication appeared in 1947, during my last twelve months on this Earth. Although I was not fortunate enough to be familiar with Mr. Baldwin’s words at the time he was writing them, I find resonance in them now. Where Mr. Baldwin was speaking of the Black community, I say instead, “Whatever humans do not know about nonhumans reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” People who disagree with me are not merely of a different mind. They and not the wolves or the rodents or the roaches or any other living thing we want out of the way are now the enemy. They go beyond blocking the path toward making things right again—they actually make it all wrong. They are jeopardizing the future of our children and our grandchildren.

You write from a future that I could not have imagined. The process of god-making was not a succession of venerations and elevations, but rather a journey through the pillaging of land; through the forceful removal of the indigenous people who had been the caretakers of their homelands for generations; through the spraying of poisons that have found their way into the food we eat and the water we drink; through the greed that privileges profit over health and safety. The wolf is not the only enemy we humans have constructed. Industrialization has exacted a cost we cannot afford to pay, but neither can we default. Our so-called progress raises unanswerable questions, but the search for answers is not futile. In the face of the lies we have been fed—from the fossil fuel industry, the developers that cause deforestation, the commercialization of intensive agriculture—global warming, droughts, wildfires, and record-level storm surges threaten us all. The situation is hopeless, but that should not prevent us from doing our best.

There is nothing uniquely evil in this moment because this destruction has been going on for centuries. However, in my lifetime and increasingly in yours, humans have responded to changes in our surroundings with unprecedented violence. Efforts to protect the land and the rare species on it—the condors and the grizzlies, the flora of the prairies and the bogs—are protests against this biotic violence.
A television host once asked you about hope during a conversation about violence, and you have written that you knew at that moment that you had failed. The answer to this question is American history, you wrote. When I was asked similar questions about hope for life on a planet that rejects us, I, too, was often overwhelmed by sadness. The number of species that have been exterminated increases so frequently I have lost count. It has taken millions of years for nature to develop a species, and humans, in all our assumed godly wisdom, have not developed so much as a ground squirrel.

Finding hope in the midst of death and destruction can seem not just inconceivable, but antithetical to the struggle in which we all must engage fully. The Earth, as you have pointed out, has no respect for us. How could it, after the violence we have inflicted on it? And yet.

You have written that you rejected magic in all its forms some time ago. I would ask you to rethink your position and consider the magic of the Earth’s ability to heal itself, like the body’s ability to heal itself, until it becomes overwhelmed with the grief of living. The pandemic that plagued the planet in your lifetime was the Earth expressing her grief. They say that in the human body, grief associates with the lungs, which are tasked with bringing energy from the air and distributing it throughout the body. The same problems that affect our bodies are affecting the body of the Earth. I have written about the biotic pyramid: in a healthy system, energy moves up the pyramid as the organism consumes and is consumed. Although these systems have always had to respond to changes in order to stay alive, humans have been able to effect changes of unprecedented violence, rapidity, and scope.

One of my instructors at the Yale School of Forestry described forests as living societies of living beings, and I must admit I know this to be true. I have come to realize that land is an organism, and all my life I had seen only sick land. Personally, I am glad that I shall never be alive without healthy, wild country to be alive in.

Human history shows that we tend to repeat past mistakes as if we are incapable of learning new truths. You say that learning is a fundamentally individual pursuit; my own experience obliges me to agree. My moral evolution reached a milestone when I understood that mankind’s conquest of nature demands a moral responsibility for the safety of all forms of life. I believe that we can all learn from the stories spelled out in the alphabet of the soils and rivers, the birds and beasts. Some people are illiterate to this language. Some are eager to be taught. By learning these stories, we can love what we have learned to understand.
Yours respectfully,
Aldo Leopold