Book Club Discussion

The resources below can help guide a land ethic discussion for your church group, high school class, writers’ group, or book club. See the appendix in the back of Threshold for Land Ethic questions.

In 1949 The Land Ethic essay by Aldo Leopold was published in A Sand County Almanac. Many conservationists consider the essay prophetic and its relevance more important with each passing decade. It examines the decisions we make about land and wildlife communities in which we live. How do we make decisions about land use, the value of species, and health of ecosystems? What values drive these decisions?

One way to address these questions is to read novels (stories) about critical times in American history when these decisions were being discussed and determined. Why novels? New cognitive research documents that readers “live” the story, as close to having the real experience, as any other form of literature. A good story engages areas of the brain that spark the imagination invoking the reader’s personal experiences. In this medium, the reader “takes on” the struggles of the characters and has to sort through the possible solutions. In social psychology research, this is called “perspective-taking”. For a topic as serious as climate change this may be an overlooked medium.

The resources below provide book clubs and discussion groups seven novels which return to times in American history when our country made critical decisions about land use. Each explores cultural perspectives about people and nature that often resulted in conflict, broken promises, and policies about land that exist to this day.

I created this project–Seven Stories–after participating in The Land Ethic Leaders Training at the Aldo Leopold Foundation in 2012. The project allows readers to revisit periods in U.S. history when land policies were being discussed and shaped in the social and political realities of the day.

Land Ethic Fact Sheet


Readers can select any novel for a discussion. Reading groups should first download and read The Land Ethic. This will provide a background for guiding questions to identify and discuss the ethical basis for how characters make decisions about land use and about each other. For local and regional book clubs, Susan Feathers is available to facilitate the discussion about The Land Ethic and the novel.


Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks                                                                    Caleb’s Crossing Book Synopsis –  N.Y. Times Book Review                                      Doctrine of Discovery — the Rights of Indigenous People in America

The Loon Feather by Iola Fuller                                                                                  The Loon Feather Book Synopsis – N.Y. Times 1940 Book Review

Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko                                                          Gardens in the Dunes Book Synopsis– N.Y. Times Book Review

The Man Who Killed the Deer by Frank Waters                                                            The Man Who Killed the Deer Book Synopsis – N.Y. Times Book Review

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven                                                            I Heard the Owl Call My Name Book Synopsis                                                      American Indians in Children’s Literature Review

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie                              The Absolutely True Diary_Book Synopsis – NY Times Book Review

The Round House by Louise Erdrich                                                                            The Round House Book Synopsis – NY Times Book Review                                             Louise Erdrich – the Ojibwe language 

UPDATE (DECEMBER 2015): Some book clubs have continued to read beyond the 7 novels listed above. These include:


N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible

Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow

Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been


Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World



WE SHALL REMAIN (PBS American Experience Miniseries) – Excellent history of Native American/Puritan relationships.


The Man Made of Words by N. Scott Momaday: “An American Land Ethic”, p. 42

Wallace Stegner’s Wilderness Letter 1960

N. Scott Momaday: Interviews. Scroll down an follow the video/audio.

Wendell Berry: How to Live on The Land



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