Essay Thinking Like A Mountain

Interpretation of Aldo Leopold's Thinking Like A Mountain

May, 2001.

A little more than 50 years ago, the manuscript of a book by a relatively unknown University of Wisconsin professor named Aldo Leopold was accepted for publication. A Sand County Almanac has long since been enshrined as one of the world's environmental masterpieces. In the opening paragraph, Leopold reveals the vast, momentous creature that means so much to the deer, the coyote, the cowman, the hunter, the pine, and the mountain: The wolf.

Leopold's conviction towards the wolf was changed forever on the day in his youth when he saw a wolf die. Aldo Leopold and a friend of his opened up on the wolves, never wanting to pass up a chance to kill a wolf in those days. When their rifles were empty, the old wolf was down. They reached the old wolf in time to watch "that fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then," wrote Leopold, "and have known ever since -- that there was something new to me in those eyes -- something known only to her and the mountain." He saw the green fire in the wolf's eyes die, and since then he recognized his brutal error.

Leopold wrote that since that day, he has seen the wolves driven to the brink of extinction and the wolfless mountains defoliated by the exploding deer herds. And he suspected, just as the deer herd lived in mortal fear of its wolves, so does the mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while the buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a deer's range pulled down by too many deer, may never be replaced. In essence: The wilderness we hunt is the salvation of the world, to paraphrase Thoreau. It must not be destroyed.

Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known by the mountain, but seldom understood by men. Just as Leopold came to realize, so must we: that wildlife populations are a part of a bigger picture, and that no matter what new game laws are passed, wildlife populations will not improve until the carrying capacity of the land that supports them improves.

In his last paragraph, Leopold reels the reader in. To paraphrase: In our lives, we all think about that which will better ourselves and secure ourselves, but those who look for a little temporary safety instead of wildlife understanding deserve neither. We should look to help secure the blessings of wildlife before we secure the blessings of ourselves because "in wildness is the salvation of the world."



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Thinking like a mountain is a term coined by Aldo Leopold in his book A Sand County Almanac.[1] In the section entitled "Sketches Here and There" Leopold discusses the thought process as a holistic view on where one stands in the entire ecosystem.[2] To think like a mountain means to have a complete appreciation for the profound interconnectedness of the elements in the ecosystems.[3] It is an ecological exercise using the intricate web of the natural environment rather than thinking as an isolated individual.

Origins of the term[edit]

Aldo Leopold first came up with this term as a result of watching a wolf die off. In those days of Leopold’s adventures, no one would ever pass up killing a wolf because fewer wolves meant more deer, which meant great hunting experiences. However, when Leopold saw the “fierce green fire dying in her eyes” he knew that neither the mountain nor the wolf deserved this. Leopold stated in his book, A Sand County Almanac:

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn … In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers … So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the change. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

In this example Leopold shows that the removal of a single species can result in serious negative consequences in an ecosystem. While avoiding trophic cascades is one way to think like a mountain, there are countless other environmental actions that can be categorized under this broad and interconnected concept.

Examples in antiquity[edit]

Although the term was not coined until 1949, several philosophers of the ancient times had viewpoints similar to those who “think like a mountain”. Epicurus was one of the first ancient philosophers to view the role man plays in nature. His philosophy, Epicureanism is a materialistic viewpoint that aims to explain the physical earth.

Lucretius was a later philosopher who had Epicurean ideals. He wrote a six book collection, De Rerum Natura, categorizing the natural word. In Book 5 of De Rerum Natura he writes:

They [Roman gods] did not create the world for us [man], why should they? They did not create man, how could they? They had no conception of man until nature and natural causes (the union of atoms) showed them the way. Besides the gods were absolutely happy as they were, and the creating of man could not increase their happiness. After numberless attempts and numberless failures the concourse of atoms gradually formed the world.[4]

In this passage, Lucretius is defining man’s place in the creation of the world. Lucretius is an Epicurean supporter, believing that living modestly and gaining knowledge of the working world were the keys to a more pleasurable life.[5]

Aristotle also philosophized about man’s place in the ecosystem. In his Politics, he discusses the role of community as used when referring to cities, neighborhoods, and households. The idea of thinking like a mountain is primarily ecological, but it can be applied to politics as well. Aristotle provides resources for citizens on how they as individuals fit into their community.[6]

Other ancient philosophers approach the idea of viewing one’s place in the ecosystem as well. They include Sophocles, a Greek philosopher, and Columella, a Roman philosopher. Sophocles writes in Antigone about natural law and legal institutions. In his eyes, the laws of the gods outweigh those of man and man must understand his place in the order of natural law.[7] Columella, in contrast to the Epicureans, believes that in order to make the most efficient use of the land, humans should not rely on the gods, but should become more educated and learn to use resources more efficiently.

Contemporary examples[edit]

In much the same way that Rachel Carson’s bellwether manuscript Silent Spring changed the realm of how and which chemicals are used in nature, Aldo Leopold forever changed the way we view our ecological impact on the environment around us with the introduction of the term “Thinking Like a Mountain” in his book A Sand County Almanac[1] in 1949. Since then, the phrase and the particular mindset it generates has greatly influenced people in all walks of life.


Philip Connors has attempted to further Leopold’s elucidation with respect to matters of the environment through literature. In many of his books, most notably Fire Season,[8] Connors alludes to thinking like a mountain when he urges the reader to think about more than just the costs and benefits an action has on their person. He believes that everyone who witnesses the environment should have the goal of achieving what Leopold spoke of when he describes living in harmony with nature. Connors said,

We touch the ancient mysteries of life in the wild. We may even learn to see in new ways — more closely, perhaps, and deeper into geologic time. If we’re lucky we get close to learning how to ‘think like a mountain,’ in Aldo Leopold’s great phrase.

Another author, Leslie Thiele refers to thinking like a mountain in multiple chapters in his book Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch.[3] Within one chapter, Thiele explains how thinking like a mountain is, first and foremost, an ecological principle for a sustainable existence. Later, he also cites this sort of living as a basis for environmental ethics. Thiele summarizes his view of thinking like a mountain as

a full appreciation of the vast and intricate web of interdependent relationships that constitute a mountain oikos.[3]


The idea of thinking like a mountain has also permeated its way into the world of full length movies and documentaries. Green Fire, released in 2011, is a documentary about Aldo Leopold’s influence on modern environmentalism and revolves around the concept of thinking like a mountain.[9] The name Green Fire was meant to capture the image of Leopold’s dying she wolf and the passion with which he pursued environmental justice and ecological balance throughout his life.


The mindset of thinking like a mountain has been infused into music as well. Folk artist Libby Roderick has used the idea of thinking like a mountain as a foundation for her album Thinking Like a Mountain.[10] In one song in particular, Roderick equates thinking like a mountain to being safe, home, or complete. Also, she ends each stanza with “Thinking like a mountain, honey, we will make it home” as if to say that eventually we will all think with a long-term perspective and get our lives back on a safe and sustainable track. Furthermore, Roderick ends the song with an ultimatum for each of our lives.

Find the mountain deep within your heart, it's calling you back home!

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abLeopold, Aldo (1949). A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-500777-8. 
  2. ^Leopold, Aldo Thinking Like a Mountain
  3. ^ abcThiele, Leslie (2011). Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-01609-4. 
  4. ^Lucretius Carus, Titus; Lowe, William Douglas (1907). De Rerum Natura, a Selection from the Fifth Book. Oxford, Clarendon Press. 
  5. ^O'Keefe, Tim (2010). Epicureanism. Acumen. ISBN 978-1-84465-170-2. 
  6. ^Saunders, Trevor (1995). Aristotle's Politics. Oxford University Press. 
  7. ^Kitzinger, Margaret Rachel (2008). The Choruses of Sophokles' Antigone and Philoktetes: A Dance of Words. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-16514-4. 
  8. ^Connors, Philip (1992). Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout. Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-185936-6. 
  9. ^Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time (film). Aldo Leopold Foundation, the Center for Humans and Nature, and the US Forest Service. 2011. 
  10. ^Thinking Like a Mountain (Media notes). Libby Roderick. Alaska. 1994. 

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