Sorting by

Skip to main content

Think of someone you wish you had known—perhaps someone historic, famous, or uniquely gifted. Would you be any different if you had known them back when? My choice, at least for today, is Aldo Leopold. He’s remembered most for his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac. 

Were there to be a pantheon of American environmental heroes, Leopold would be among them, joining others like John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Senator Gaylord Nelson. I like to think of their faces, sculpted somewhere in the Black Hills of South Dakota, on a Mount Rushmore of their own. 

Leopold didn’t aspire to be famous. He was just a U.S. forester doing his job—proper management for maximum return. One day, exercising those principles, he shot a wolf. That moment became a turning point in his life. As the wolf lay dying, she locked eyes with Leopold and that fierce stare, one spirit to another, forever changed him. 

He recalled the incident this way:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Leopold’s understanding of forestry opened up to a new way of seeing. The forest was a home to those who lived there—alive with mutually interdependent relationships. You might say that the wolf taught him what he needed to know. With his gift for common speech, Leopold summarizes his land ethic education this way: “‘Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left.” 

Knowing, however, becomes something of a burden. One can never indulge in the comforts of naivete again. As Leopold wrote, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

I don’t know what Leopold’s religious affiliation may have been, but I like to think that he would have been comfortable in the presence of Christians. Afterall, we are the people who say that our lives were changed by an encounter with the Spirit, that we are changing our way of living because of that encounter, and that we know that our relationship with the created order is out-of-order. 

We are the people for whom the comforts of naivete are no longer available. We might say with Paul that before the law there was no sin, but now our sin is ever before us. Our burden is that we know the true condition of humanity and the globe but often prefer to be told otherwise. 

Gospel is not a recalibration of one’s cosmic legal standing. Gospel is, for those with ears to hear, a voice from God which says “you’re going the wrong way; turn around.”  Gospel is being called to a way of living—a way of being the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community and acts to heal that damage. 

In the natural world, the marks of death are everywhere:

  • Worldwide, 90% of the stocks of large predatory fish, such as sharks, tuna, marlin, and swordfish, are already gone.
  • As many as 30-50% of all species face extinction by 2050.
  • The emission of carbon pollution from the burning of fossil fuels is altering climate in life-threatening ways. 

One might be forgiven, even called realistic, for slumping into despair; so much is going wrong with the natural world. How then shall we live when death is a constant companion?  How shall we live when embedded in a culture that believes itself well and prefers not to be told otherwise? 

The answer for Christian people is a return to where you began. Look Jesus in the eye—spirit to spirit. There’s something new to us in those eyes—something on the border of mystery and knowledge, something known only to God and to Creation. 

Hymn writer Helen H. Lemme tickled a similar thought when in 1918 she penned the lyrics to Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus. The hymn, despite its otherworldly framing, understands where the process of turning around begins—it’s in the eyes. 

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.

Peter Boogaart

Peter Boogaart is a retired Residential Energy Auditor, living in Zeeland, Michigan. He is the Caring for Creation Coordinator at Hope Church in Holland, Michigan.


  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    Thank you. There seems to be few heroes in the world left. Leopold is one. (Not, I imagine, that he would have wanted to be.) A Sand County Almanac should be required reading.

  • Daniel says:

    Thank you for this reflection, Peter. (I’ve heard of your leadership of the Creation Care ministry within beloved old Hope Church, through your brother, Tom, so it’s especially good to read what you offer here!) In concord with your emphasizing the importance of seeing, I commend to you (and anyone else reading along) another illuminating account of Leopold’s encounter with the wolf as found in William Greenway’s The Challenge of Evil: Grace and the Problem of Suffering (Chapter 6 “A Confession Betrayed). Drawing deeply on the philosophical insights of Emmanuel Levinas as well as the literary works of Dostoevsky, Greenway underscores the primordial importance of being seized in and by love for all faces. Thank you for your labors in the care of this beloved, beleaguered world of wonders–including bearing witness in the Reformed Journal to the foundational hope for this ministry in Christ +

  • Daniel Miller says:

    Being a historian in a society that knows so little of its own past carries a similar weight.

Leave a Reply