Thinking Like a Mountain

Sustainability from the Ground Up


“What is the good of having a nice house without a decent planet to put it on?” – H.D. Thoreau

“Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” – Albert Schweitzer

“Three million years of evolution, followed by an explosive flourishing so violent that it consumes the world in ten thousand years, followed by extinction.” – Ishmael

“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long,  but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.” – Wendell Berry

“A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.  Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.  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.” – Aldo Leopold


Sand County Almanac

Thinking like a mountain is a term coined by Aldo Leopold in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac.

It is perhaps best reflected in his passage about the killing of a 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. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

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.

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. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. 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.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. 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 range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: 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.

The Wolf

Following is a compilation of attempts, however cerebral and limited, to “think like a mountain”.


Deep Ecology Platform

  • The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves.
  • Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  • Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  • Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive.
  • The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
  • Basic economic and technological policies must therefore be changed.
  • The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality.
  • We have an obligation to implement the necessary changes.


Charter of Rights and Responsibilities

created from the 1994 Women and Sustainable Development Conference in Vancouver, Canada            

  • The biosphere is a community to which we belong rather than a commodity belonging to us
  • All species have inherent value in the biosphere
  • Human beings have stewardship for the quality of water, air and soil
  • Real costs should be reflected in production and consumption
  • The health & wellbeing of all species is inseparable from that of the biosphere
  • Development must be in harmony with the environment
  • Unsustainable development cannot be counted as capital
  • Optimum allocation of resources must be in harmony with optimum scale, recognizing the finite limits of the biosphere
  • Human activity must not be conducted at the expense of other species or ecosystems
  • Diversity is integral to a sustainable society
  • Sustainable development maintains or enhances the integrity of natural capital
  • The present generation has obligations to future generations
  • The health of one nation ultimately affects the health of all nations


The Three E’s


  • short-term vs. long-term perspective
  • piecemeal vs. systemic change
  • natural limits to ecosystem resilience
  • ecosystem services:
    • purification of air & water
    • mitigation of floods & droughts
    • detoxification & decomposition of wastes


  • recognition of importance of creating secure employment without jeopardizing the health of ecosystems
  • recognition of “natural capital” in addition to human, financial, and physical capital   (Paul Hawken & Amory Lovins)


  • recognition that the well-being of the individual and the broader community are interdependent
  • recognition of the importance of an equitable distribution of resources and opportunity to encourage social cohesion, compassion and tolerance


Precautionary Principle

Where an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.  In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.  The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic, and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.


The Natural Step

Created by Swedish oncologist Karl-Henrik Robèrt in 1989 as a “road map” for businesses and institutions to shift attention from peripheral details to root causes.  Brought to the US in 1995 by Donald W. Aitken and Paul Hawken, and now with offices in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

  • In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the earth’s crust.
  • In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances produced by society.
  • In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically impoverished by physical displacement, over-harvesting, or other forms of ecosystem manipulation.
  • In a sustainable society, resources are used fairly and efficiently in order o meet basic human needs globally.


Asilomar Declaration for Sustainable Agriculture

Created by the International Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (now the Alliance for Sustainability), dedicated to systems which are:

  • ecologically sound
  • economically viable
  • socially just
  • humane

Designing with Nature

 “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein


R. Buckminster Fuller – comprehensive, anticipatory design scientist (1895-1983) 

“Does humanity have a chance to survive lastingly and successfully on planet Earth, and if so, how?”

  • synergetics (sum is greater than the parts)
  • ephemeralization (doing more with less)
  • geodesic dome (minimum structure for maximum value)


Hannover Principles

Developed by architect William McDonough for EXPO 2000 in Hannover Germany

based on accepting responsibility for the consequences of design:

  • Insist on rights of humanity and nature to co-exist
  • Recognize interdependence
  • Respect relationships between spirit and matter
  • Accept responsibility for the consequences of design
  • Create safe objects of long-term value
  • Eliminate the concept of waste
  • Rely on natural energy flows
  • Understand the limitations of design
  • Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge



William McDonough and co-author Michael Braungart (Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, 2002) challenge us to consider eco-effectiveness rather than eco-efficiency: “Our concept of eco-effectiveness means working on the right things – on the right products and services and systems – instead of making the wrong things less bad.”


Five Principles of Ecological Design

from the 1995 book Ecological Design by Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan

“When we become familiar with the nuances of a place, solutions reveal themselves.”

  1. Solutions grow from place – inhabit without destroying
  2. Ecological accounting informs design
  3. Design with nature – regenerate rather than deplete
  4. Everyone is a designer – listen to every voice
  5. Make nature visible – bring the environment back to life


Todd’s Principles of Ecological Design

John and Nancy Jack Todd founded New Alchemy Institute (1969), Ocean Arks International (1980), Living Technologies, Inc. John is Research Professor & Distinguished Lecturer at University of Vermont (1999)

  • The living world is the matrix for all design
  • Design should follow, not oppose, the laws of life
  • Biological equity must determine design
  • Design must reflect bioregionality
  • Projects should be based on renewable energy sources
  • Design should be sustainable through the integration of living systems
  • Design should be co-evolutionary with the natural world
  • Building and design should help heal the planet
  • Design should follow a sacred ecology


Sanborn Principles

Developed at the Sanborn Conference near Colorado Springs in 1994.

  • Ecologically responsive
  • Healthy, sensible buildings
  • Socially just
  • Culturally creative
  • Beautiful
  • Physically and economically accessible
  • Evolutionary



“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does Nature, because in her inventions, nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

In her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, Janine Benyus looks to nature as a model and mentor.

Biomimicry Principles:

  • Nature runs on sunlight
  • Nature uses only the energy it needs
  • Nature fits form to function
  • Nature recycles everything
  • Nature rewards cooperation
  • Nature banks on diversity
  • Nature demands local expertise
  • Nature curbs excesses from within
  • Nature taps the power of limits



Back in the 1970s, two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren developed principles to avert the destruction of post-war agricultural methods. In 1978, they published those ideas in Permaculture One, eventually expanding them to encompass all areas of sustainable human activity.

Principles of Permaculture:

  • Work with nature
  • The problem is the solution – everything is a positive resource if properly understood
  • Make the least change for the greatest effect
  • The yield of a system is limited only by the available information and imagination
  • Everything gardens (has an effect on its environment)

What is vitally important is that we return to right relations with the Earth and with the intricate web of life she has created.  Permaculture gives us tools we need to proactively address the escalating environmental crisis – but it is much more than a set of tools: it is an expression of mindfulness and reverence for the sacredness of life.

“Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last fish has been caught, only after the last river has been poisoned, only then will you realize that money cannot be eaten.”
– Cree Native American saying


Community Prayer

by Peter Lee

I wish for you discomfort at easy answers, half truths, superficial relationships so that you will live deep in your heart.  May you be blessed with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation so that you will work for justice, equity, and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer so that you will reach out your hands to comfort them and change their pain into joy.  And may you have the foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do the things others tell you cannot be done.


by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes


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