April 21, 2011
Aldo Leopold: A Man of Quiet Action
By Hal Herring
“Perhaps no one but a hunter can understand how intense an affection a boy can feel for a piece of marsh. I came home one Christmas to find that land promoters, with the help of the Corps of Engineers, had diked and drained my boyhood hunting grounds on the Mississippi River bottoms. My hometown thought the community enriched by this change. I thought it impoverished.”
So wrote forester and sportsman, ecologist and family-man Aldo Leopold in 1947, the year before he died. In a new film on Leopold’s life, I am reminded of just how powerful this humble man really was in laying the groundwork for so much- most- of what we modern hunters and fishermen enjoy today. The movie is called Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, and I recommend it without reservation to any reader of this blog. For a list of showings or to purchase a copy of the movie, go here.
Watching the film, it becomes clear how history can produce, in a kind of forge of events, the human beings that, literally, change the way we see the world. It takes a special kind of steel to put in that forge, too- not the strongest or the hardest or the steel that rings loudest when struck – to produce a thinker and man of quiet action like Leopold.
Aldo Leopold was born into a German-speaking family in Burlington, Iowa, in the winter of 1887. His father was successful businessman who loved the outdoors, and taught Aldo how to hunt and fish from a very early age. According to his sister, what Aldo loved most was roaming the wild country that remained around their town, and that was in abundance on the Les Cheneaux Islands where the family spent their summers.
Leopold came of age as a hunter when the rush of “progress” was destroying the wildlife that he and his family loved and studied. He graduated from the new Yale School of Forestry in 1909, and his first job was to explore and map the Apache National Forest in Arizona, which had just been created by President Theodore Roosevelt. Leopold hunted the backcountry of the White Mountains, where he first began to develop his ideas about the preservation of wilderness, and worked in predator eradication, which led him eventually to write his most famous essay, “Thinking like a Mountain.”
He witnessed the Dust Bowl, and at least read about the death of the last passenger pigeon in the St. Louis Zoo in 1914. “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun,” he wrote years later. And “The destruction of soil is the most fundamental kind of economic loss the human race can suffer.” (quotes from the film can be found here-they are profound)
He witnessed two world wars, both fought primarily over land and natural resources, while raising five children of his own, restoring the old farmstead near Baraboo, Wisconsin, and teaching forestry at the University of Wisconsin. He travelled in Mexico’s northern Sierra Madre, to landscapes that he thought of as pristine, but where human beings had been living for centuries. “Our tools are better than we are and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice to address the oldest task in human history-to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” Leopold’s conservation ethic- and he said this over and over- never excluded human beings. “I have two questions that interest me,” he said “People’s relationships to each other, and people’s relationship to the land.”
In an interview in the film, one conservationist notes that Leopold ‘”embodied all the tensions of the modern conservation movement” that he helped to found. As a forester, he maintained a practical approach to producing timber, while maintaining a fierce advocacy for wilderness preservation in many places. His travels to study forestry in Germany left him horrified at the sterile ‘bearless, wolfless, eagleless woods” where German foresters had managed intensely for “maximum harvests of game and timber, and got neither.”
His wife came from an old ranching family in the southwest, and Leopold was as comfortable horseback, doing ranchwork, as any cowboy, yet he worked tirelessly to address the overgrazing that was destroying the western lands and watersheds. In short, he was a kind of radical pragmatist, who never lost sight of the beauty and mystery of the very practical resources he was trying to conserve.
Leopold died with his boots on at age 61, of a heart attack, while helping to fight a runaway brushfire on a neighbor’s property. His words, and his story, are more relevant today than ever before. I urge any hunter or fishermen to seek out and watch the movie. Also- for anybody who has ever pondered the science and the energy that they see at work in their favorite river, Aldo Leopold’s son Luna Leopold wrote the best book I’ve ever found on the subject- it’s called A View of the River. More on this, perhaps, in a future blog post.
One last Leopold quote, from “Thinking like a Mountain” to inspire you to see the movie:
“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.”