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Lessons in Biodiversity: The Writings of Aldo Leopold

George R. Sly
Union High School
Dugger, IN

Type of Entry:

Target Audience:

Background Information

1) What question does this activity help students to answer?

This lesson is designed to: (a) introduce students to the conservation philosophy of Aldo Leopold and (b) reinforce our discussion and understanding of the importance of biodiversity.

2) Notes for the teacher.

During the conduction of Environmental Science classes it is common to introduce students to some of the "giants" of conservation. People such as Rachel Carson, John Muir, and Theodore Roosevelt are commonly discussed. Many of the textbooks I have seen fail to mention Aldo Leopold, a man considered by many to the "father" of the environmental movement.

Leopold's writings, particularly his book, A Sand County Almanac, should be considered by all teachers interested in environmental science and conservation. The insight Leopold possessed regarding the importance of biodiversity (long before the term was in common usage) is sublime and his writings are wonderfully poetic.

3) Required of students.

4) Preparation time needed.

Teacher preparation time should consist of familiarizing oneself with Leopold's work. At least Parts I and II of A Sand County Almanac should be read and their implications regarding biodiversity and man's connection with nature considered.

Two of his essays in Part II are considered to be among his best and are quite useful in discussing biodiversity. These are "Thinking Like a Mountain" and "Escudilla". These essays focus on how Leopold came to understand the importance of large predators in maintaining healthy ecosystems. An essay entitled "Keeper of the Cogs" by Curt Meine which appeared in the Nov/Dec 1992 Defenders magazine is also quite useful. This article gives an excellent summary of Leopold's professional life and can be used as a reading assignment in itself.

Additional time may be needed to devise your own strategy for incorporating his essays into a class lesson and to formulate questions to guide students through the chosen essays.

Abstract of Activity

Lessons in Biodiversity is a one week unit which I include in my Environmental Science class. The lesson is used to reinforce our discussion of biodiversity and its importance in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Additionally, the lesson gives us the opportunity to read the work of Aldo Leopold, a man considered by many to be a prophet of the environmental movement. Leopold possessed an insight into the workings of nature which was truly wondrous and his writings on the subject are beautiful in the literary sense.

During this lesson we read two of Leopold's more popular essays. "Thinking Like a Mountain" and "Escudilla" deal with the role of large predators in maintaining ecosystem health and serving as symbols of an intact biota. The essays also serve as useful vehicles for discussing how attitudes toward predators have changed over the years and how damage to one component of the earth's biodiversity can adversely affect others.

"Lessons in Biodiversity:
The Writings of Aldo Leopold"
Lesson Outline

Materials Needed
No special materials are needed other than the assigned readings. I use one copy of Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (Ballantine Books, New York) for each group of two students in my Environmental Science class.

Further information on this subject, either for teacher enrichment or student use, may be found in the following articles.


Class Period 1

This period has been preceded by lessons introducing the concepts of biomes, biogeography, and the causes of seasons and climatic zones on earth.

I. What is meant by the term biodiversity?
1) bios = life
2) diversity = having variety
3) Biodiversity refers to all the living organisms on earth.
II. Ecological relationships as a part of biodiversity.
1) Living things do not exist independently of each other.
2) Damage to one component of biodiversity may affect others.
a) Elimination of predators and the resultant negative effects on the Kaibab plateau deer population.
III. Thus, biodiversity includes not only all the earth's organisms but their interrelationships as well.

By posing a logically progressive series of questions lead your class into an understanding: (a) of the definition of biodiversity, (b) that biodiversity is more than just all the earth's living things, and (c) that "tinkering" with one part of the earth's complex systems may easily and catastrophically disrupt another part in ways which may be unpredictable.

Class Period 2

I. Who was Aldo Leopold?
1) Born in Iowa in 1887.
2) His professional career began in 1909 with the U.S. Forest Service.
3) In 1924 Leopold joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin.
4) Leopold's areas of specialization were forestry and wildlife management.

II. Why is Leopold considered such an important figure in the history of environmental conservation?
1) He introduced the concepts of philosophy and ethics into conservation.
2) He espoused that humans were a part of nature not its adversary.
3) He suggested that humans needed to develop a land ethic, a basic respect for plants, animals, and resources in order to live in harmony with our natural world.
4) Although the term biodiversity was not used in his time, Leopold understood and promoted the concept that all organisms have a role in an ecosystem.

III. Read Leopold's essay entitled "Thinking Like a Mountain"

Class Period 3

I. Discussion of questions assigned with the reading of "Thinking Like a Mountain" focusing on its symbolism and application to the concept of biodiversity.
1) Example question.
Leopold's stories are filled with symbolism. For example, we know that mountains aren't alive and can't hear. What then does he mean when he says that "only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf?"

2) Through discussion of this question I try to get students to understand that Leopold is trying to tell us that the wolf has an important role as a component of the mountain's ecosystem (biodiversity) and that the mountain is a symbol for nature. To say that the mountain "understands" is his way of allegorically depicting a complex ecosystem with interrelated components. That such a system exists is a concept not yet understood by most humans.

Class Period 4

I. Conclusion of our discussion of "Thinking Like a Mountain"

II. Read Leopold's essay entitled "Escudilla".

Class Period 5

I. Discussion of questions assigned with the reading of "Escudilla".
1) Example question.
Leopold refers to the government trapper's killing of the bear as "toppling the spire from an edifice building since the stars sang."

What is a spire? an edifice? What does he mean by this from an environmental or ecological point of view?

2) As in the previous example, this question provides a vehicle for a class discussion of Leopold's point as it relates to biodiversity. In this case the spire he refers to is the grizzly bear. The edifice which has been built over eons of time is the ecosystem within which the bear is the tertiary predator.

Method of Evaluation

I use two parameters for student evaluation. First, I present six or seven questions for each of the two essays. These may be graded and returned or they may be graded in class as each is discussed in turn. It must be taken into account that the student's interpretation of the symbolism in the essays may not exactly match yours. Credit should be given for the attempt to wrest a biological meaning from the literature.

As a second means of evaluation, credit is given for participation in the discussions which form the basis of this lesson. Again, I consider the attempt to participate as important as the correctness of the answers given. Even those answers which are somewhat off base will provide the means to eventually focus on an understanding of biodiversity and its importance.

Extension and Additional Ideas

A Sand County Almanac contains many other stories which could be incorporated into Environmental Science class lessons. One I have also used is "Odyssey". This is a clever little essay which deals with the concept of elemental recycling. After reading this essay, I ask students to depict through original artwork (using colored pencil or water colors) a series of organisms through which some element of their choice is recycled.

This reinforces our previous discussion of the fact that it is said that the mass of protoplasm which has existed throughout the earth's history is actually greater than the mass of the earth itself, a situation which obviously requires the recycling of the earth's elements.

You may want to determine your own points of emphasis and questions relative to the two Leopold essays discussed in the lesson activity. Below are some of the questions I have used in order to generate classroom discussion.

"Thinking Like a Mountain"

1. Leopold says that when he reached the old wolf, he saw "a fierce green fire dying in her eyes" and that there was "something in those eyes known only to her and to the mountain". What is the meaning of this passage?

2. At the end of his essay, Leopold refers to Henry David Thoreau's famous dictum that "in wildness is the salvation of the world". What do you think Thoreau meant by this?

3. What point was Leopold making when he said that we "have not learned to think like a mountain. Hence, we have dustbowls and rivers washing the future into the sea:"?


1. "Bigfoot claimed for his own only a cow a year and a few square miles of useless rocks, but his personality pervaded the county." In regards to this statement, what was Leopold saying about the danger the bear represented to humans? What was he saying about the bear's status as a legend in the area?

2. What does Leopold mean when he says that "we were the captains of an invasion too sure of its own righteousness"?

3. Leopold says that "Escudilla still hangs on the horizon , but . . . It's only a mountain now." Explain how the death of the bear has changed the nature of Escudilla. From the standpoint of the area's biodiversity how have things changed?

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