A Muddy-Boot Lover of the Land
ALDO LEOPOLD was a rare and wonderful combination of prophet, professor, civil servant, and muddy-boot lover of the land. Like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, his heart was in the forest and the field, and his best-known work, "A Sand County Almanac," has rightly been compared in soul and spirit to their writings. But unlike Thoreau and Muir, Leopold also spent a lifetime in the suit-and-tie world of government and academia. He led the way in propelling the United States conservation movement from garden and shooting clubs to government agencies and legislatures, and was perhaps the first person to fully perceive the importance of a new scientific discipline - ecology - that half a century later would have profound political impact.
Published in 1949, his Sand County essays - the "delights and dilemmas" of "one who cannot live without wild things" - have been a classic of natural history literature for years. But Leopold was a far more prolific writer than his "Almanac" and university textbook on game management would indicate.
Now, two Leopold experts have gathered together 59 essays (from a total of about 500 published pieces and as many that were never published) to show the breadth and depth of his thinking and above all his intellectual development. "The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays," edited by University of Missouri historian Susan L. Flader and University of Wisconsin philosopher J. Baird Callicott, reinforces the view that he was far ahead of his time.
Leopold, whose life spanned the first half of the 20th century, was born in 1887 and had his roots in the 19th-century notion of westward expansion. Land was to be tamed, resources hunted and harvested for human consumption. Wilderness was for man's enjoyment, indeed necessary as a reminder of distinctly American virtues. (Coincidentally, a neighbor of his, years later in Wisconsin, was Frederick Jackson Turner, the preeminent historian of the frontier.)
In his early years, Leopold viewed wolves, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and other predators of livestock and game animals as "varmints" that both ranchers and sportsmen like himself should "control" (that is, destroy by poison and trap). As a young government forester in the Southwest, he also saw fire as something to be controlled rather than as part of a natural cycle. And he believed that intensive cattle grazing was good for the land.
But over the years, he came to see more clearly the negative impacts of human development on the land - overgrazing, massive logging, the damming of rivers, and the cutting of roads into areas that ought to be left as wilderness for its own sake.
Man's capacity to dominate the land through modern machinery, he said, was accelerating far faster than his understanding of its importance. "Our engineering has attained the pearly gates of a near-millennium, but our applied biology still lives in nomad's tents of the stone age," he said in "The Conservation Ethic," the 1933 address that the editors believe to be the most important of his career.
Part of the problem, he came to see, is that European immigrants found along the East Coast of North America the kind of sturdy land they were used to, but then tried to transplant their same methods of agriculture into the far more arid and fragile Great Plains and far West. "America represents the first instance of a society, heavily equipped with machines, invading a terrain in large part set on a hair-trigger," he wrote in the 1935 essay where he first uses the phrase "land ethic."
It was about this time too that he began to espouse a different view of man's place in nature, a definition of ecology in which "no animal - not even man - can be regarded as independent of his environment."
PLANTS, animals, men, and soil are a community of interdependent parts, an organism," he told a dedication ceremony for an arboretum and refuge at the University of Wisconsin, where he taught. "It may flatter our ego to be called the sons of man, but it would be nearer the truth to call ourselves the brothers of our fields and forests."
All along, however, he kept a conservative view of government's role in protecting the environment, believing it was those who spent most of their time on the land - farmers, mainly (he maintained a weekend farm called "the shack") - who needed to take the lead on conservation.
"Husbandry watches no clock, knows no season of cessation, and for the most part is paid for in love, not dollars," he wrote in Audubon Magazine in 1942. "Husbandry of someone else's land is a contradiction in terms. Husbandry is the heart of conservation."
Many of these articles led up to the essays in "A Sand County Almanac," published the year after he died fighting a fire on a neighbor's farm. They do not, as the editors point out, "show us a new Aldo Leopold." But they do show us more of him - his struggles within the realms of business and government and the way in which his view of man's place on the land evolved as a result.
Leopold was a remarkable thinker and writer as well as activist and teacher. Professors Flader and Callicott have done an excellent job of giving public voice to a pioneer environmentalist.