The party was eating lunch on a high rimrock when they saw the mother wolf come out of the river, shake off the water, and greet her pups. They greeted the happy scene with a fusillade of rifle fire — wasn’t it always this way? — then scrambled down to view the carnage.
“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.”
For the young Aldo Leopold, who recounted the events in the essay Thinking Like a Mountain, doubts prompted by the wolf’s dying gaze were later confirmed many times over as he saw wolves and mountain lions extirpated, and the landscapes and ecosystems left behind changed beyond recognition as a result. He became a staunch advocate for a view of nature that recognizes the interconnectedness of all things, and a person who questioned whether human hubris does more harm than good.
When it comes to writings about the woods and waters and mountains, the animals and trees, and the land that is North America there were, truly, giants. Writers whose works were so powerful they changed our way of thinking about nature. Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey. And Aldo Leopold. His best-known work — A Sand County Almanac — is a classic of conservation writing that influenced generations of foresters, land managers, environmentalists and wildlife biologists.
Each year the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin celebrates the first week in March as Aldo Leopold Week. Wisconsin, where Leopold lived, and Iowa, where he was born, have made it official, but the event is observed in other states as well, thanks to devotees of Leopold. This year it runs from March 3 to March 11.
The week is marked with readings from A Sand County Almanac or screenings of the film Green Fire, said the Foundation’s Maria Kopecky. It’s an opportunity to “recognize Aldo Leopold, his writings, and his contributions to the conservation field. It is also a time for people to come together to celebrate the natural world and consider how Leopold’s land ethic idea of care for people, places, and the connections between them applies to their community.”
Even if you don’t live in the midwest, there are ways to take part. In Maine there will be readings from A Sand County Almanac at the Wayne Town Library. The Maine State Library is planning a lobby book display of Leopold’s work to mark the week, according to the library’s Alison Maxwell.
And — because this is 2017 — the Leopold Foundation will also post daily social media challenges, said Kopecky, that allow you to participate if you live in Madison, Wisconsin or Madison, Maine.
“Past challenges have encouraged people to read their favorite Leopold essay and tell us what they love about it, or to observe their environment like Leopold would and let us know what they find, or to share a photo that depicts their own personal land ethic,” said Kopecky.
Leopold was the nation’s premiere expert on wildlife management. He was an advocate for a wholistic view of nature and applied the term wilderness to a healthy natural landscape, a new use of the word. He was a founder of The Wilderness Society. The Aldo Leopold Wilderness in New Mexico was named after him. So was a network of trails in Wisconsin and a research center in Montana.
But Leopold’s true legacy resides in the hearts and minds of people influenced by his work.
People like Lloyd Irland, a forest economist from Wayne, Maine, who got his doctorate from Leopold’s alma mater, the Yale School of Forestry, and later taught there. Irland said he stumbled across a copy of A Sand County Almanac as a boy and “was hooked by its evocations of the Wisconsin woods and its strong advocacy for conservation.” After devouring it “I knew forestry was what I wanted to do.”
Leopold’s writings have been described as intimate and personal. Irland agrees: “He could speak to everyone, not just scientists.” He “saw the whole landscape” and wasn’t afraid to criticize programs that he thought were misguided, Irland said. “He changed his mind — from a supporter of eradicating wolves, he became the strong advocate of ‘keeping all the pieces.’ He saw ecology before the word was widely used and understood using the forest wisely. All of these influenced how I have tried to work over the years.”
“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” — Aldo Leopold
Robert Seymour doesn’t remember exactly when he encountered Leopold. Probably in an undergrad conservation history class. He does remember arriving at the Yale School of Forestry in 1974 and seeing Leopold in the 1909 class picture in the stairwell.
Seymour, who teaches silviculture and the natural development of the Acadian Forest at the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources, said Leopold’s description of a “Type B” forester fits him perfectly.
“Yes, I love silviculture, which is all about intervening in natural processes for human benefit, but my ethics (and others like me) try to always exhibit a humility in these actions, making sure we understand as best we can how the natural forest ecosystem works before we tinker with it. And keep rare things, respect old trees and forests, etc. even when it’s not economically convenient or expedient to do so. Engineering forest in plantations — agricultural forestry (Leopold’s Type A’s) — is not my passion, though I certainly understand it and teach it enthusiasticallly.”
“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” — Aldo Leopold.
Jennifer Melville came face to face with Leopold’s writing as an environmental science major at the University of California Berkeley. Thinking Like a Mountain affected her deeply. The passage about Leopold’s killing of the female wolf “and reflections about the interconnection of animals and land resonated deeply for me. I felt keenly the death of the wolf — . . . fierce green fire dying in her eyes’ — but also the larger wisdom that “only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.”
Melville, now at The Open Space Institute, remembered a moment when she came face-to-face with the wisdom of the mountains — on a trip to the Rockies when she was 16 — and “felt a deep connection to the land as well as a visceral understanding about humans’ inadequate knowledge in contrast to the innate wisdom in nature.”
Leopold validated the science she learned in college and in grad school at the Yale School of Forestry, while also “reinforcing my deep personal connection to the land. In other words, instead of there being a conflict between science and spirit, Leopold brought together both the intellect and the soul, which for me was very meaningful.”
“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.
Mitch Lansky, a writer and advocate for low-impact forestry, first read A Sand County
Almanac in the 1970s and it helped shape the conservation ethic he was already developing.
Leopold showed him, he said, that people can start from different perspectives and arrive at the same point. Leopold’s process, said Lansky, was “close observation of natural systems. From that he became more and more aware of the interconnectedness of nature — of the need to understand whole systems, not just the parts that are important for human use. And from that he learned the importance of top level carnivores, including wolves.”
Leopold came to see the paradox of humans’ relationship with nature — the desire to conquer it and the realization that we are part of it at the same time, said Lansky. “He saw that treating forestry as just an extension of agriculture puts the forester in the conqueror role, a role that Leopold felt was self defeating” for the simple reason that it implies that a conqueror knows everything there is to know about a complex system, adds Lansky.
Leopold’s conservation ethic emphasized humility, said Lansky. “Those with such an ethic attempt to work with natural systems that have evolved over thousands of years, rather than to override these systems on a huge scale and manage for the narrow needs of one species.”
“We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.” — Aldo Leopold.
Leopold left us more than a half a century ago. He died in 1948, not too long after completing A Sand County Almanac. He had a heart attack while helping a Wisconsin neighbor put out a fire on his land. But Leopold’s passionate fans — and there are many of them — say that he has so much to teach us today, if we will let him.
“He makes the case that listening to the land, observing how nature works, understanding science are essential to good stewardship of our resources,” said Melville. “He says it’s essential, but not sufficient to spend time outdoors. It’s essential, but not sufficient, to be informed by science. And science without a belief system is hollow. Leopold’s land ethic shows us that we need a deep and real understanding of the world around us to make sound decisions about our treatment of the land.”
Seymour said Leopold’s words speak “vividly to today’s issues, and it would be very interesting to have his views on climate change, as well as his disdain for those who deny the science underlying it.”
Lansky said Leopold was keenly aware of the need for education, regulations and other policy tools to influence land use practices that too often were governed by short-term interests. And he was also all too aware of their limitations.
In Maine, over the past few decades, short-term economic interest has continued to win out, Lansky said, resulting in woods that were too heavily harvested and small towns gutted when it all fell apart. “Leopold’s land ethic has not yet taken hold. The mentality that he was critiquing seven decades ago is still the dominant ethos of society. Yet, his conservation ethic is still alive and growing,” Lanky said. “But not growing fast enough.”
For Irland, Leopold is “still a powerful, heroic figure. He lives through his writings, which still evoke the woods, fields and creeks of Wisconsin” as nobody else can. “What does he have to teach us? The best way to find out is to read his essay on the Monument to the Passenger Pigeon. If you can read that without getting a bit emotional, then you’re made of wood. I still dip into A Sand County Almanac after these many decades.”
Joe Rankin writes on forestry and nature from his home in New Sharon.