Corn planting season has arrived again, and the soil is moving. Hot spring winds that have foresters on red alert are picking up the earth, clay fractions first, and sending it off. This gale mocks the fine print don’ts on the 50-pound sacks of rootworm pesticide. It too is blowing in the wind. No way will the stuff conform to the encyclopedic “Regulations for Application” printed on the bags.

Halfway between Milwaukee and Madison, towering clouds of soil rise from the pithy muck-farm fields as “Black Rollers,” ghosts from the 30’s, drift across I-94, a mystery to the hedonistic rubberneckers heading toward a rock concert in Mad City; “must be a fire over there somewhere.”

North of Uvalde and hours west from San Antonio in “Cactus Jack” Garner’s West Texas hill country, the goats have pared much of it down to bedrock. Like Rodney Dangerfield, the goats don’t get no respect, but they do get all the mesquite, cactus, rabbit brush, the tough thorny things that any other self-respecting grazing critter would leave unbrowsed.

We can see white slabs peppering the slopes in the distance. They are not cemetery markers but rather bits of bedrock, and the whole nation should be in a state of mourning because all this really is just part of a long-running funeral service for the earth itself.

A thousand miles to the north, silt beds stratify in a vast lake at New Town. Downstream at Oahe and Francis Case more silt chokes the Missouri as it picks its way through Montana and the Dakotas.

Elmer Peterson laid this whole Muddy River fiasco out for us with that wonderful diatribe “Big Dam Foolishness” over 30 years ago, and one must wonder if the head of the Army Corps of Engineers or any North Plains politician—anyone with influence in the federal colossus—ever read or understood a single word of it. Or cared about it if he did. Nihilism always seems to be at work in our federal agencies.

And out on the ranch our good of cowboys seem to believe that erosion just happens. Each should come have a look at what their bossies have done to the Missouri. The Sacred Cows of Denzel Ferguson are not illusions, and because of them the West today is but a battered remnant of its former robust self. Pioneer rancher Will Barnes first saw cows doing it to the San Simeon Valley in Arizona in 1887. “Green meadows,” he said, “were replaced by wide expanses of drifting sand.”

A hundred years have since come and gone, and the relentless pummeling by cattle, sheep, and sodbusting monster machines continues. Take a look at the Paluse north of Moscow, Idaho, or the vast tracts along the Snake. Almost anywhere on the Public Lands west of the 100th meridian you can see evidence of the problem. Meanwhile, our two great federal land agencies, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, have been either unable or unwilling to stop it. And as a consequence, some of the privatizers at Bozeman and Arizona State are using it all as evidence to make a plausible case, superficially at least, for federal divestiture.

Everywhere the rib cage of Mother Earth is showing. Pat down the deceptive velvet-like blanket of soybeans and alfalfa in Iowa and Minnesota, and you can feel her vertebrae. Here granite and limestone, there shale or gravel—it’s all right up there! No longer much well-muscled soil on these cherished bones. And the bills for fertilizer run into thousands.

Between Boise and Salt Lake, permanent road signs advise headlights because there are “Dust Storms Ahead.” So this is a coast-to-coast kind of thing and north-south from Milk River to the Brazos.

What to do? It may be necessary, but it is next to impossible to follow Aldo Leopold’s commandment that we must somehow live more interconnectedly, more harmoniously with the land. As Leopold visualized it, “land” included products of the earth plus water, wilderness, wildlife, forests, moods, vistas, the works. The health of the land was dependent on our moving beyond the “A” (of what he called “the A-B cleavage”) and its utilitarian emphasis, to the “B” level, where we would come to understand that trees were not just for two-by-four’s any more than sandhill cranes were merely food for the table.

Sheep are destined to stay illiterate, goats helpless dropouts, and the cows have been following one another about, single file, on fragile mountain ecosystems ever since cows were invented.

But what about us humanoids who are said to be able to outthink the ungulates and whom Professor Durward Allen ranks with glaciers and volcanoes as a formidable geologic force? One visit to Ducktown, Tennessee, will show you the point he is making.

If with a mere four million citizens we couldn’t “get” conservation in George Washington’s time (both he and Jefferson complained about the lack of a resource sensitivity), can we expect to “get” it today, with 250 million?

It has been 80 years since TR’s conference on conservation, well over a hundred since the homesteading laws. Free education ran through all of it. How could we have not, by this time, developed an ecologically literate populace, aware of the necessity of limits, on killing whales, cutting redwoods, controlling our own numbers, appetites, anything.

But just as the Masai in East Africa cannot or will not stop their age-old practice of overgrazing with consequent desertification, and the primitive mountain peasants on every continent will not alter their deforestation practices, so American and European landowners cannot seem to forgo overfarming and overgrazing that fill the air and water with soil particles.

We have mountains of data on all our resource problems. What we lack is the moral and civic spunk finally to take care of what we have.

As they usually do, in an attempt to stop the abuse, the regimenters ask for more and better laws.

But unless we are better men and women, what difference do laws make? Every year on our farm, though laws are on the books, we lose Christmas trees to the poachers. Every day rare and endangered animals are being shot. This too is illegal—as is pollution, arson, grand theft-auto, insider trading. To practice the right kind of conservation, we have to be the right kind of people.

During World War II, when Aldo Leopold wrote his seminal essays, this was an unspoken given, simply taken for granted, and his projected solutions, though visionary, were somehow palpable. Yes, we could do it. We would do it. We could batten down our moral hatches, patch up our tattered ethical armor, suck up the old gut, and for once in our lives do what this good man said we ought to do, about soil, land, wilderness, flora, and fauna—even if it hurt some, even if it didn’t feel good.

He was talking duty.

But all this was before Mario Salio, Hugh Hefner, Phil “Feelgood” Donahue, Timothy Leary. The liberal establishment, in charge of interpreting “the environmentalists” and “farmers” to the larger society, seemed to favor the “do it” messages coming to us from our rock and movie stars, media fellow travelers, and the professors who thought Richard Weaver was the ultimate simp. But of course Professor Weaver was right and his nihilistic critics were wrong. Some ideas are now having their consequences.

Nihilism is breeding thoughtless environmental citizens—from the litterbugs to the corporate midnight dumpers. Moms on heroin are spawning fetal addicts. Nobody is connecting anything to anything. Hedonism is creating slothful truckers, engineers, brakemen, hurtling through the night with thousands of pounds of toxics aboard. Eventually we might expect junkies at control panels in nuclear power plants, missile silos, with job tenures guaranteed by the ACLU and the Supreme Court.

Nihilistic federal bureaucrats and tax-and-spend congressmen (is not spend now, pay later—or never—a nihilistic act?) are stealing the farmers’ land by sitting on their hands as resultant inflation mocks any attempt to pay off the farm debts. Cornered by political/philosophical forces he cannot control or even influence, the farmer/rancher opens up all his vulnerable acres in a last-ditch effort to stay alive. Erosion follows. Richard Weaver, indeed, was the prophet of common sense.

Beyond hedonism and nihilism, the third and final God of our Zeitgeist, materialism, engenders an avaricious thing-worship which, from the assembly-line workers to the takeover strategists upstairs, pooh-pooh thoughts about the environmental consequences of the product. Thus Milwaukee sewage workers who shut down the Metro plant and polluted Lake Michigan are as culpable as Monsanto chemists who did not think or care or plan or test ahead for the environmental fall-out of polychlorinated biphenols.

Leopold had unhappily found that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” but there was nevertheless the duty to sound the alarm, to be a land doctor who sees the marks of death in the community “that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

His message, despite what his students have done to deform and politicize it, was always education, responsibility, stewardship.

Prior to Leopold, there was education and some commonsense understandings from TR and Gifford Pinchot, but environmental awareness was never in the forefront—never fully focused on the minds, the attitudes, the hearts of men and women. Conservation for Leopold grew to be an ethical imperative and less a statistical, technological, or legislative happening.

So it was not until Leopold’s two nontechnical books of essays appeared posthumously (’49-’53) that a sophisticated ecological message emerged, as potent as it was persuasive.

Leopold’s powers of persuasion tantalized some good minds through the 50’s, and his works, in paperback, became premier source-books among the cognoscenti, in time for the fateful 60’s and 70’s.

Sadly, for all Leopold’s brilliance and astonishing environmental insights, the campus multitudes discovered the essays when all hell was breaking loose about everything. The political priorities of the crazies—their sermonizing (will it ever end?) about drugs, promiscuity, Vietnam, proper racial percentages, politicized curricula, their repudiation of academic standards, their intimidation and disregard of authority—drove off their parents, who to this day remain skeptical about most everything their radicalized kids did and said.

The kids called themselves and believed themselves to be “environmentalists.” Their parents and troubled taxpayers apparently believed this cause was about as far-out as everything else. But like Hitler’s Kinder Corps, these future leaders were being taught by their professors to “think” with their blood, their skin pigment, their endocrines. If it feels good, do it. If you don’t like the dean, run him up the stairs of Old Main and burn the place down. Blow up the math building.

The nonpolitical solutions for soil conservation and other environmental difficulties proffered by Round River and Sand County Almanac were drowned by the concurrent flood of other environmental material from the Sierra Club, Charles Reich, Alvin Toffler, Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich. The “gurus” were running with the hounds of the Zeitgeist and sleeping with the foxes (the politicians, then attempting a successful takeover of the movement), blaming the establishment for not pushing “enlightened” legislation. Loath to put off their young audiences, they refrained from suggesting there were prerequisites for conservation, like self-denial, accountability, a willingness to listen, a respect for the knowledge of others, the courage to discriminate, a concomitant skepticism for egalitarianism, empathy for one’s own country, a duty to know and then do one’s duty.

Philosophy leads us back to the Muddy Mo, dust storms, siltation, and what we have done to this beautiful country in 200 years.

All of us, farmers and foresters, yippies and yuppies, corporations and cooperatives, are a product of our philosophers.

Our world is shaped by philosophers. In Antelope, Oregon, the Bhagwan Rajneeshi got thousands to perform like puppets on a string. In Guyana, “Rev.” Jim Jones persuaded 900 to take cyanide on command. Marxist-Leninism threatens to send the whole world up in flames. What we believe and why we believe it and what we do in the world as a consequence of our beliefs has everything to do with what happens to our supporting resources.

Environmental thinkers from our near and distant past knew this. Men like Durward Allen, Paul Sears, Loren Eiseley, John Steinbeck, and before them TR, Henry Thoreau, Indian Chiefs Seattle and Looking Glass. Cartoonist-pamphleteer Jay N. “Ding” Darling never failed to emphasize the imperative of philosophical underpinnings. Leopold said that Theodore Roosevelt “insisted that our conquest of nature carried with it a moral responsibility for the perpetuation of the threatened forms of wildlife . . . to anyone for whom wild things are something more than a pleasant diversion, it constitutes one of the milestones in moral evolution.” Prof Durward Allen at Purdue attempted to equip the environmental citizen with “his own conservation philosophy . . . (so) like Agassiz he could take the facts into his own hands, look, and see for himself.”

For the good of this earth, we must work to see that our ethics are in order, that our first principles are up to speed as we go out on the great trek of life, lest we become part of some unconscious, insane migration that unwittingly pushes its future into the sea.