In his essay “The Round River,” Aldo Leopold wrote: “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.”
I first read these words as a college undergraduate more than forty years ago now. I still have the yellowing pocketbook edition of A Sand County Almanac with Essays on Conservation from Round River, published as a Sierra Club/Ballantine Book in 1966 and priced then at 95 cents. Leopold’s words resonated with me instantly. By then my environment and experiences growing up on the edge of wild country in northern New Mexico had already made me an ecologist and environmentalist by avocation and passion, although not yet by much formal education. The old weatherbeaten book has been taken on many a wilderness backpacking trip, protected from rain and snow in a Ziploc bag, and read and re-read over many decades. It has been a foundational text and inspiration, a strong undercurrent in my work and worldview, ever since I first read it.
Now, finally, all these years later, I was on a road trip through south-central Wisconsin, on the way to visit old friends on a farm on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in the far southwestern part of the state. I was passing by Leopold’s “sand county” country, so of course I had to stop and pay him a visit.
A man of diverse interests and talents, Aldo Leopold is recognized as a forester, ecologist, conservationist, promoter of outdoor recreation and hunting, environmental philosopher, writer, and educator. He is considered the father of the academic study of wildlife management, and he played a key role in creation of the U.S. system of wilderness protection on public lands.
Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887. His father, a partner in a company that made hardwood desks, was an avid hunter, and passed on a love of the outdoors to his sons. Aldo became a keen observer of the birds around his home and the countryside around Burlington, and a hunter also. He graduated from the Yale School of Forestry in 1909, and like most other graduates of the school, immediately took a job with the U.S. Forest Service, first posted to Arizona and then New Mexico. In 1912 he married Estella Bergere, from a long-established New Mexican Hispanic ranching family, and put down roots, first in northern New Mexico – very near where I grew up – and then Albuquerque, where he lived until 1924, when he was transferred to Madison, Wisconsin, to head the USFS Forest Products Laboratory. After writing the first textbook of wildlife management and essentially establishing the field, he was offered a position at the University of Wisconsin in 1933, the first faculty position in “game management” created in the U.S. He taught there until his death in 1948.
Leopold’s life and career with the Forest Service in the Southwest and upper Midwest provided him with a wide range of experience with challenges in forest, land, and wildlife management, and soil and water conservation. His progressive political views and philosophical and moral outlook went to work on those experiences, and Leopold looked for patterns and tried to make sense of them. “There are two things that interest me;” he wrote in an unpublished manuscript, “the relationship of people to each other, and the relationship of people to land.” But Leopold really didn’t see people and land as separate, but rather as interdependent parts of an ecological system. He was driven to try to improve the human-nature relationship.
I arrived at the Aldo Leopold Foundation Center on Levee Road on a warm late June morning, and got a permit to visit “the Shack,” situated a bit farther west on the south bank of the Wisconsin River. I had contacted the Leopold Foundation earlier about wanting to visit the Shack, but unfortunately, they said, they only opened it to visitors on guided tours, which took place on Saturdays. This was Wednesday, so I was on my own to wander around and look from the outside. I parked and walked a quarter mile through a shady forest of tall pines, and then out across a prairie field abloom with butterfly milkweed and black-eyed Susans, buzzing with bees and aflutter with butterflies, until I finally saw the Shack, tucked under more tall pines and oaks.
In Wisconsin, the Leopold family had taken up the sport of archery, and bow-hunting, and in 1934 started seriously looking for a place to establish a hunting camp not too far from Madison where they could go for weekends and hunting trips. In January of 1935 Aldo finally found and purchased a worn-out farm on the south bank of the Wisconsin River in Sauk County, one of the “sand counties” that once sat under the edge of the continental ice sheet or glacial Lake Wisconsin. The farmhouse had burned down, and the only building still standing on the property was an old chicken coop. In April, 1935, the family shoveled out the chicken manure and began to rebuild and refurbish it as a simple camp dwelling, which they came to call “the shack.” Starker, the eldest of Leopold’s sons, built an outhouse, which he felt was so beautiful and well-designed that he called it the “Parthenon.” The name stuck. The family spent many weekends, and later longer periods of time, at the Wisconsin River farm. As a hunter and birder, Leopold was highly attuned to animal behavior, movements, and migrations, and began to keep careful records of his observations through the seasons at the Shack. He noted what plants were blooming when too. These records eventually became a basis for the seasonal natural “almanac” at the heart of A Sand County Almanac.
It was quiet, no one around – I had the Shack to myself to examine and photograph. I poked around and I found the rebuilt outhouse, the “Parthenon,” tucked in the woods down a narrow path. I walked down to the Wisconsin River to listen to its strong current sucking along the sandy banks. Back at the Shack, I sat in the shade, imagining what it was like when the Leopold family was here.
Then a pony-tailed young man came striding up purposefully, with a can of paint, paintbrush, and tools in hand.
“Looks like you’re here to do some work,” I said.
“Gotta paint the door of the Shack,” he replied.
I had noticed that the bright, white door – so bright it complicated the exposures of my attempted photos – was cracking and peeling a bit. He unlocked the Master lock on the door, opened it, and started scraping at the old cracking paint. Sensing an opportunity, I give him a minute, then went over and asked “Would it be OK to take a peek inside? Or would that be highly illegal…?”
“Oh sure, come on in and take a look around!” he said.
Emmett, a summer intern with the Leopold Foundation, grew up in nearby Portage, and first read A Sand County Almanac in 4th Grade. His parents were big Leopold fans, he said. He opened the shutters on the windows so I would have better light for taking pictures, and proceeded to give me a spontaneous, serendipitous, inside tour of the Shack. Leopold’s folding canvas Adirondack chair sat in a corner opposite the fireplace, along with a couple other folding camp chairs. A heavy table and benches of dark wood sat under a front window, and four bunks and a spare mattress were tucked into the sloping side of the Shack behind the fireplace.
When I’d had plenty of time to look around inside and ask questions, Emmett offered to guide me over to a plaque that marked the site of the oak tree featured in Leopold’s essay “Good Oak.” I think he was happy for the chance to pass on his extensive knowledge about Leopold – and postpone the painting project!
Leopold was probably one of the keenest “readers” of landscapes and their ecological history I know of. His essay “Good Oak,” the February chapter of A Sand County Almanac, cleverly presents the ecological history of his sand county farm through the annual growth rings of an oak tree that was killed by lightning and which the family cut up for firewood. I described my recent visit to John Muir’s boyhood farm at Fountain Lake, Wisconsin, only about 30 miles east of the Shack. Leopold recognized, as Muir had, the key role of fire in maintaining the oak openings and prairies of this part of Wisconsin. In the “April” chapter of A Sand County Almanac, in a section on “Burr Oak,” he wrote: “In the 1840’s a new animal, the settler, intervened in the prairie battle. He didn’t mean to, he just plowed enough fields to deprive the prairie of its immemorial ally: fire. Seedling oaks forthwith romped over the grasslands in legions, and what had been the prairie region became a region of woodlot farms. If you doubt this story, go count the rings on any set of stumps on any ‘ridge’ woodlot in southwest Wisconsin. All the trees except the oldest veterans date back to the 1850’s and the 1860’s, and this was when fires ceased on the prairie. John Muir grew up in Marquette County during this period when new woods overrode the old prairies and engulfed the oak openings in thickets of saplings.”
On the way back to the Shack from the site of the “Good Oak” oak, we met another Leopold Foundation intern, who was involved in a tree-thinning project that aimed eventually to restore open oak and hickory savanna on about 150 acres along the river. We had a good conversation about ecological “restoration,” and agreed that it is a complicated subject. For one thing, the open oak and prairie landscape they are trying to restore was itself an ecosystem maintained by Native American burning – so only “natural” to the extent you consider anthropogenic fire “natural.” The Leopolds themselves initiated a massive ecological “restoration” project here as soon as they acquired the property. They eventually planted an estimated 30,000 trees, shrubs, and bushes, including red, white, and jack pines. Those pine species may have existed in the area before the logging era, but were scarce by the time Leopold bought the farm. Now, a tall pine forest surrounds the Shack – a very different ecosystem than would have existed here either 150, or 100, years ago. The tall pines reminded me quite a bit of the Federico Albert National Reserve in Chile, which I wrote about earlier this year – except that Albert used exotic species from around the world to create a planted forest and stabilize the sand, whereas the Leopolds at least used native species. The Leopolds also started restoring the beautiful prairie I’d passed on the way in to the Shack. It is now burned every year, the intern said. Obviously the prairie plants love fire – their old “ally,” as Leopold called it. We ended the conversation in agreement that “ecological restoration” is a bit of a dicey philosophical proposition, because it hinges on deciding what you mean by “natural,” which depends on the time-frame, scale, and cultural values involved. Still, I think we agreed that trying to restore areas of once common but now rare ecosystems like oak savanna and prairie is worth doing.
Although I had read A Sand County Almanac and some other essays, and sketches of his biography, I knew I didn’t really know that much about Leopold, so I plowed into the definitive biography, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, by Curt Meine (1988). The book is detailed and massive, at 529 pages of text, not including notes, bibliography, and index. Meine mined out so much detail from Leopold’s records and writings that at times it is slow reading, but I found myself pulled along by the story, and I began to feel I was getting to know Aldo personally.
One striking aspect of Leopold’s personality was that his views were constantly evolving, and he wasn’t afraid to learn lessons from his experience and change his mind. During his first Forest Service posting, on the Apache National Forest in Arizona, fresh out of forestry school, Leopold and a buddy were having lunch when they spotted movement in the canyon below, and saw that it was a wolf with pups. Having been brainwashed with the view that all predators were bad and should be killed, they began shooting. When they went down to see what they had done, they found the mother wolf still alive, and watched her die, with her dead or wounded pups scattered around her. The experience haunted him, and many decades later, after observing how deer herds unchecked by predators could destroy vegetation and change ecosystems, he eventually changed his view about predators, and wrote one of his most powerful essays, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a humble call for respect for ecological integrity and the value of “wildness.”
Leopold lived through the Depression and the Dust Bowl, and the social, economic, and ecological turmoil of those events also colored and animated his views on the human-nature relationship. In his essay “The Land Ethic,” he continued to develop the idea that humans need an ethic toward nature that is grounded in ecology. He wrote: “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts… The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land. … In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”
In espousing this view, Leopold was really a founder of the ecologically-grounded philosophy of “deep ecology.” Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess is credited with coining the term in 1973 in his article “The shallow and the deep, long-range ecology movement: a summary.” But Leopold was thinking and writing about what later would be called deep ecology in the early 1920s. In 1923, when living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and working as Chief of Operations for the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwestern Region, he wrote an essay, never published, titled “Some Fundamentals of Conservation in the Southwest: Conservation as a Moral Issue.” In this essay Leopold “confronted the religious question of man’s relationship to the earth – whether as master or plain citizen – more directly than anywhere else in his writings,” according to Susan Flader, a Leopold scholar. Many of his ideas at the time were shaped by his reading of founding American ecophilosophers and writers including Emerson, Thoreau, John Muir, and John Burroughs, whose 1920 book Accepting the Universe was a significant influence. At the time, Leopold was also fascinated by the work of the Russian mystic-philosopher Piotr Ouspensky, whose book Tertium Organum had just been translated into English in 1920, and presented a sort of Gaian view of the Earth as an organic whole and a living organism. In some ways, this was just another adaptation of Alexander von Humboldt’s idea of “cosmos,” which I’ve written about many times before here.
Leopold could also be seen as a founder of what is now known as “ecological economics.” Already in the 1920s his writing began to point out how the economic values and assumptions of the day were causing irreversible damage to the ecological life support systems underpinning the human economy. In his essay “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” one of the “Round River” essays published posthumously, Leopold wrote: “Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of [passenger] pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring? It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of the species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.”
Passenger pigeons, once an abundant, keystone species in the oak savannas of Wisconsin and the upper Midwest, became extinct in the wild around 1900 because of hunting and habitat change – one of the “cogs and wheels” lost forever through humans’ incautious and unintelligent “tinkering” with the biotic system.
Somewhere in my Wisconsin travels, I read a statement that Leopold was the “spiritual heir of John Muir,” whose boyhood homestead was so close to Leopold’s Shack. Perhaps so: Leopold proposed, promoted, and saw implemented the first wilderness area on U.S. public land, on the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. He was a founder of the Wilderness Society, and eventually became a champion of conservation of the non-material, recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual values of nature, just as Muir was before him – even though he came out of the utilitarian, Yale School of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot tradition. An ever-deepening humility underlies the evolution of Leopold’s thought and writing, which moved from promoting the eradication of wolves to the ecocentric ethics of saving “every cog and wheel” and of humans becoming a “plain member of the biotic community.”
Although it was a hot mid-morning in June, as I sat in the shade in front of the Shack I could imagine getting up before dawn, pouring a cup of hot coffee, and sitting outside with Aldo as the sun rose, listening to the bird chorus. The immediacy of our conversation with our fellow-members of the local biotic community took precedence at that hour. But as the dawn chorus died down, we cooked some breakfast and poured more coffee. We had lifetimes of experiences to compare, and endless things to talk about.
For related stories see:
- Not Man Apart: Genealogy of an Ecological Worldview. August 2014.
- Not Nature Apart Either: A Case Study of Point Reyes National Seashore and the Drakes Bay Oyster Company. August 2014.
- Lunch at Grey Towers. May 2015.
- An Afternoon at Slabsides with John o’ the Birds. May 2015.
- Butterflies in a Blizzard, or Chaos in Colorado and What It Means for Us. January 2016.
- How Federico Albert Stopped the Sand from Swallowing Chanco, Chile. April 2016.
- Another Visit with John Burroughs at Slabsides. May 2016.
- Nature’s Warm Heart: Following John Muir’s Footsteps at Fountain Lake, Wisconsin. August 2016.
Sources and related links:
- A Sand County Almanac
- Aldo Leopold biographical sketch. The Aldo Leopold Foundation.
- Aldo Leopold significant places
- The Aldo Leopold Foundation
- Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Curt Meine. 2010. U. of Wisconsin Press.
- Arne Naess. 1973. “The shallow and the deep, long‐range ecology movement. A summary.” Inquiry 16.
- Some Fundamentals of Conservation in the Southwest: Conservation as a Moral Issue. Aldo Leopold. 1923.
- “Toward an Ecocentric Community.” Bruce Byers. Turning Wheel, Spring 1992.
- Leopold’s Shack and Ricketts’s Lab: The Emergence of Environmentalism. Michael Lannoo. 2010.
- International Crane Foundation