Land Ethic

How did a hard-boiled forester, hunter, professor, and fisherman become one of our most eloquent spokesmen for loving and caring for the land? Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was a pioneer conservationist who is well known for his book of essays, A Sand County Almanac.  He credits a wolf in Arizona and a shack in Wisconsin for his personal transformation and the evolution of his ideas.

As a young forester in Arizona, Leopold killed a wolf.  In a section of his book called “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he remembered, “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.”  Part of his transformation in the Southwest was that he ceased to merely act on his environment and began to act with it, listening to wolf and mountain, tree and stream.

“We abuse land because we regard 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.”  To enter the community Leopold made his own, at least on weekends when he could get away from his work at the University of Wisconsin, I drove to the Aldo Leopold Center near Baraboo, Wisconsin (www.aldoleopold.org).  At the Center, a gorgeous pine and stone building with two kinds of geothermal systems, I talked with an intern named Anna and she gave me directions to the secluded Shack and loaned me a bicycle to get there.  Following a paved road and then a grassy path, I arrived at the place that inspired so many of the essays in A Sand County Almanac.

When Aldo, his wife Estella, and their five children bought their property in 1935, it was a sandy, over-farmed field near the Wisconsin River, with only an old chicken coop left on it.  The family shoveled out the dirt and manure and made that coop livable for their many visits from Madison.  (One son built an outhouse they called the Parthenon.)  For Aldo, it was an experiment in renewing the land.  He and his family planted thousands of trees and wildflowers, making it a lush, green place.  A place to listen to the land.

“A land ethic,” Leopold wrote, “reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.  Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.  Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”  He did that with his own hands, and died trying to extinguish a brush fire on his neighbor’s land.  His daughter, Nina, still lives near the Shack and has kept the green fire burning.

In 2012, look for the documentary on PBS, “Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic in the 21st Century.”

I biked to the shack where Leopold wrote Sand County Almanac
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