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Leopold's Novel: The Land Ethic in Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer

From: Ethics & the Environment
Volume 8, Number 2, Autumn 2003
pp. 106-125 | 10.1353/een.2003.0028

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Ethics & the Environment 8.2 (2003) 106-125


Like many good novels, Prodigal Summer's account of love, tragedy, conflict, and choice in human relationships conveys an overall message about how life should be lived. In this case the message corresponds to Aldo Leopold's call for "a land ethic [that] changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it." People should "respect . . . fellow-members and also . . . the community as such." Barbara Kingsolver explains Leopold's key ideas and updates the Land Ethic by showing how it might guide people today. The present paper selectively displays this relationship, and then suggests some pedagogical advantages of fiction.

Prodigal Summer tells three interconnected stories that take place from May through July one year in contemporary rural Kentucky. One story features Deanna Wolfe, who has spent the last 25 months working for the U.S. Forest Service in a wilderness area on Zebulon Mountain where she restores trails and impedes illegal hunting. She has just discovered that coyotes have arrived, but so has Eddie Bondo, a handsome man from the West who hates coyotes because they sometimes kill livestock.

Another story features Lusa Landowski and her husband Cole Widener. Lusa is an entomologist who taught at the University of Kentucky before marrying Cole and moving to his family's tobacco farm that adjoins the national forest where Deanna works. Cole dies early in the novel and Lusa tries to save the family farm.

Finally, Nannie Rawley is a senior citizen who grows organic apples nearby and has conflicts with her more senior neighbor, Garnett Walker, who wants to kill weeds with chemicals to keep his property looking neat. Garnett's goal is to cross-fertilize chestnut trees to create an American chestnut that is immune to chestnut blight.

Ecocentrism, Hunting, the Biotic Pyramid, and Exotic Species

Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic is famously holistic and ecocentric. The ecosystem, a holistic entity, has value over and above, and in most cases more than, the value of its individual components. This ecocentric perspective is summed up in the maxim: "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" (1970, 262).

Ecocentrism explains Leopold's attitude toward hunting. In many passages, such as the October account of hunting ruffed grouse (58-62) and partridge (62-69), Leopold describes the hunt with approval. However, he disapproves of programs to eradicate keystone predators because their elimination impoverishes ecosystems. His classic account, "Thinking Like a Mountain," concerns wolf eradication. He writes, "I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise" (138). But he found that wolf eradication harms mountains, that is, ecosystems.

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 saddle horn. . . . 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. (139-40)

Leopold's concept of a biotic pyramid explains why wolf eradication harms ecosystems. According to Leopold, the energy that plants absorb from the sun:

. . . flows through a circuit called the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers. The bottom layer is the soil. A plant layer rests on the soil, an insect layer on the plants, a bird and rodent layer on the insects, and so on up through the various animal groups to the apex layer, which consists of the larger carnivores. . . . Proceeding upward, each successive layer decreases in numerical abundance. Thus, for every carnivore there are hundreds of his prey, thousands of their prey, millions of insects, uncountable plants. (252)

Killing carnivores removes predators of species, such as deer, that tend to overpopulate and harm ecosystems by over-eating the plant layer near the base of...

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