Guided by the Land Ethic

by Christian Freitag, former Executive Director

This article originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of The Twig, our newsletter for Sycamore members. To see more articles or view it as a PDF, click here.

“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.”

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Many of you know that I left Sycamore Land Trust in August after eighteen years as its first and only Executive Director. I am proud of the work we’ve done. I am hopeful for the organization’s future. In that time, we went from 500 acres to nearly 10,000 acres. We built the Beanblossom Creek Conservation Area. We saved Columbia Mine. We’ve taught thousands of children in southern Indiana to love plants and bugs. The board and staff are committed, smart people full of love and dedicated to service. We are financially strong and poised to change the course of southern Indiana’s natural history.

My work with the Conservation Law Center will allow me to continue working with Sycamore and other conservation groups. I’ll also be able to focus on endangered species and public lands and other topics close to my heart. I hope you’ll follow our work. Once more into the breach.

The sentiment I feel most strongly about my time with Sycamore is gratitude, for we have only ever been able to do what our supporters have enabled us to do. I have gratitude for many people, but I’ll mention only three. They’re all passed, so nobody can complain. Dan Willard was an early board president. He taught me that the land can’t save itself. People are beautiful. Embrace them. Harry Hollis was a longtime member of Sycamore and donated a conservation easement on his family land in southern Brown County. He told me about a time before cars, before television. The land spoke volumes if you’d listen. Marian Armstrong grew up on a farm that became a gravel mine for the new I-69 highway. She never let me drive her by the homestead because it hurt her too much. She taught me about heritage and connection. They each taught me about love in their own ways.

Throughout my time at Sycamore, and continuing on in my new adventure, I will be guided by those lessons, and with their blessing, Leopold’s Land Ethic. Thank you all. We have work to do.

Some of my favorite excerpts from Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” from A Sand County Almanac

All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage.

Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.


In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, of course, I mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.

Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff. If crops could be raised by hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well. Synthetic substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and other natural land products suit him better than the originals. In short, land is something he has ‘outgrown.’