Learn to “think like a mountain”


Aldo Leopold’s famous suggestion that only a mountain has lived long enough to “listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” reminds us that to understand how ecosystems function, we need to “think like a mountain.”  If you’ve never heard this quote, its time to read A Sand County Almanac!  And if you are a student of agricultural ecology or a related field at the University of Massachusetts, perhaps its time to take a class in Agricultural Systems Thinking.

I’ve not offered this class for the past few years, but I’ve decided to resurrect it next fall (2012) because so many students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major at UMass seem interested in creating a way of farming consistent with ecological principles.  The dominant form of farming in developed countries, industrial agriculture, violates just about every ecological principle we know in an attempt to maximize short-term financial success.

Soil and fertilizer from farms drain down the Mississippi creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico

Leopold was hard on industrial farming in his 1949 essay in which he wrote that farmers and ranchers have “…not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”  We also have dead zones in the oceans, anti-biotic resistant bacteria developing from factory farms, nitrates in the groundwater, herbicides in the surface water, floods and drought, and on and on and on…..

The solution is a more sustainable agriculture designed in ways that are consistent with ecological principles.  It is unlikely however that we will be successful in developing such techniques until we learn to think like a mountain and come to appreciate the profound interconnectedness of the components of an ecosystem (either natural or agricultural) over both space and time.

Our educational system trains students to think in a linear, logical, analytical way at best, or simply to memorize disconnected facts at worst.  Graduates are well-prepared to take exams and write papers, but not to think creatively and systemically about climate change, war, poverty, hunger, environmental degradation etc.

These intractable problems won’t budge in response to linear thinking.  Systems thinking tools are needed to begin to understand why these systemic problems are so resistant to our efforts.  Systems thinking is a way of understanding complex real-world situations such as those often encountered in sustainable food and farming careers.

Systems tools are needed to complement more traditional scientific approaches when a problem under study: 1) is complex; 2) involves multiple relationships; and/or 3) involves human decision-making.  Agricultural Systems Thinking (PLSOILIN 379) will introduce students to systems tools for unraveling complexity and integrating their learning from previous courses and experience.

I’ve written about this in Digging for the Root Cause(s) of Global Crises.  My intention is to write more extensively about systems thinking in my next few blog posts.  I’d appreciate your own thoughts and feedback in the comments box below.  But for now, lets just remember Leopold’s famous description of the howl of the wolf…..

“A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call.”

 And his final thought:

“In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

Systems thinking provides us with the tools to learn to…

think like a mountain.

NOTE: click on the link for more systems thinking blog posts!


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Agriculture is a business – AND a way to connect with the divine


I have a student who reminds me that agriculture is a business – which is true.  But there is something about the business of agriculture that makes it much more than simply the efficient production and marketing of food and fiber.  Many people (including farmers) recognize that some forms of agriculture can feed both the human body and the human soul.  Some of us see local, sustainable food and farming as a way to participate in natural ecological cycles and thus connect with all of creation – and perhaps even the divine.

I believe this awareness of a larger purpose for agriculture is something that farmers should not ignore, as they seek creative ways to market local food.  In a world in which people crave entertainment and try to find meaning in distractions such as passive consumption of sporting events or “recreational” shopping, more and more people are finding a sense of purpose or a connection with “a power greater than themselves” through the act of purposeful eating.

Wendell Berry (1) wrote that “…eating is an agricultural act. Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true.”  Everyone living has no choice but to participate in agriculture through the act of food consumption. This can be either a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy — or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with the earth and thus with all of Creation.

According to Berry “when food… is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.”  This amnesia gets in the way of understanding food and farming as a source of both physical and spiritual nourishment.

Berry presents a few ideas on how we may learn to free ourselves from this cultural amnesia. He suggests that we:

  • grow our own food to the extent that we can,
  • cook and serve our own food,
  • learn the origins of the food we eat,
  • get to know a local farmer, and;
  • learn more about the biology, ecology and sociology of our food.

I would add to the list, composting all usable kitchen and garden “wastes”, as a necessary means of participating in natural ecological cycles.

I believe the nature of our interaction with the earth is an expression of how we see ourselves as human beings. Wes Jackson (2) describes our awareness of the earth as a technologically mediated rather than a direct personal experience.

When Astronaut Edgar Mitchell is asked about his experience on the moon “he replies that he was too busy being operational to experience the moon.”  According to Jackson, we have become  “..more operational, with less and less time to experience the earth.”  Buying pre-packaged food at the supermarket for example, or eating at fast food outlets surely do not add to the direct human experience of the earth.

The disconnection between the human species and the earth is reinforced by a Cartesian worldview that divides wholes into parts and gives priority to the importance of the part (humans) over the whole (the earth). Science is particularly good at dividing wholes for the purpose of study.  However when we do this, we sacrifice an understanding of those characteristics that only have meaning at the level of the whole.  It would be foolish to try to measure the speed of an Olympic runner by examining her foot. It is equally as foolish to try to understand the health of a human or an ecosystem by studying its parts.

The science of Sir Issac Newton and Descartes is based upon an understanding of a mechanical universe in which whole systems can be dismantled for study. This understanding is indeed quite useful when the area of study is actually mechanical.

However, people, farms and ecosystems are not machines but living systems born of an organic universe in which the parts are interdependent components within a hierarchy of increasing complexity.

Agriculture is highly efficient and successful when considered simply at its own level. But when it is viewed as a component of a hierarchy of increasing complexity, it fails in the sense that it causes a continual erosion of the capacity of the earth to support life (including but not limited to human life).  An agriculture that destroys both natural and social systems fails to achieve its own larger purpose. Wendell Berry (3) writes; “an agriculture cannot survive long at the expense of the natural systems that support it…  A culture cannot survive long at the expense either of its agricultural or its natural sources.  To live at the expense of the source of life is obviously suicidal.”

I believe farming should be viewed as both an economic (business) and a moral act. Americans (and most of western society) worship the economic act, while ignoring the moral implications. Aldo Leopold (4) boldly stated that we must understand an act as (morally) right “… when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  If we consider agriculture as merely an economic act, then the business of agriculture is a grand success, as it is efficient at extracting resources from the earth.  On the other hand, if farming is more than a just a business then we must acknowledge that industrial agriculture fails to “preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.”

Leopold does not stand alone in his broad understanding of a successful agriculture.  E.F. Schumacher (5), wrote that agriculture must fulfill at least three tasks: “to keep man in touch with living nature…; to humanize and ennoble man’s wider habitat; and to bring forth the foodstuffs and other materials which are needed…”

In this statement he acknowledges the need to serve both an economic and a moral purpose.  Schumacher continues; “I do not believe that a civilization which recognizes only the third of these tasks, and which pursues it with such ruthlessness and violence that the other two tasks are not merely neglected but systematically counteracted, has any chance of long-term survival.”

A world in which agriculture is merely an economic act is doomed to continue causing damage to both the global ecosystem and the human soul.  We need to view agriculture as both a business AND a means of connecting with something larger than ourselves; with our community, with the earth, and perhaps even with the divine.


(1) Berry, W. 1990. The pleasures of eating. IN: What are People For? North Point Press. San Francisco.

(2) Jackson, W. 1990. Making Sustainable Agriculture Work. IN: Our Sustainable Table. Ed. R. Clark. North Point Press. San Francisco.

(3)  Berry, W. 1977. The Unsettling of America. Sierra Club Press.

(4) Aldo Leopold. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Ballantine Books.

(5) Schumacher, E.F. 1972. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.  Harper Perennial.

NOTE: this blog post is an abbreviated and slightly revised version of an essay I wrote in 1997, Agriculture is a business, a lifestyle and a conversation with the universe.


Please share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.