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Aldo Leopold: Genius In His Own Time

aldoleopoldSo perhaps it is appropriate that on the fiftieth anniversary of his passing, we look at some of the reasoning and experiences in Aldo Leopold’s life that contributed to his sense of interconnectedness of natural systems. Through his ecological understanding came his love and respect for the land. As a boy, my father found his calling in the marshes along the banks of the Mississippi River near Burlington, Iowa. From his boyhood interest in birds and natural history, he went on in adult life to work actively on behalf of conservation, laying the groundwork for the field of environmental ethics.

Throughout his life, Aldo Leopold persisted in his personal intellectual struggle to better understand the land community and his own participation in it. Recording and integrating all the strands of his experiences, he came to his final statement of the land ethic, a product of the heart as much as of the mind: “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” My father’s lifelong habit of keeping records fortified his expanding factual and scientific knowledge of natural systems, and his continuing sense of wonder. From childhood on he wrote in a journal, detailing his emotions and his encounters with wildlife, plants and the weather. Phenology is the term for the science that records and studies these events.

As my father kept his phenological records he summarized his habit as follows: “Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search and the chance of finding order and mean- ing in these events.”

In tracing his love of the outdoors, I have reviewed much of his correspondence. In those days people did write letters, and in this case fortunately they were saved. The outpouring of letters to his family began while he was attending a prep school in New Jersey. It would not let up until long after his college days. Sent off at a rate that sometimes reached four and five letters a week, Aldo’s correspondence was his reprieve from schoolwork, his literary training ground, his naturalist’s notebook and his private connection to his family. Aldo’s letters allowed him to explore and express his absorbing relationship with nature. They became a regular chronological record of the natural events of the seasons.

Consider the following passage from a letter written on May 6, 1905; father was 16 years old at the time:

“Once in a while one will strike a Red-letter day anywhere, and especially in May. And if today was not one, I am off on my definitions. For imagine yourself in a beautiful piece of brushy, timbered hillside, an ideal place for wood-birds, and feeling rather disappointed because the long trip has so far revealed nothing. Then you hear a sharp cheep! cheep! note which you take for an Ovenbird and idly follow it up. From out of a clump of newly leaved Kinnikinick springs an olive-green bird too large for most warblers and too small for anything else, and with flight of no unusual character but astounding rapidity flies low over the ground to the next clump. You follow and peer in. Nothing moves. You look more closely. Perfectly motionless, a bird with spread tail and greenish back perches on the trunk of a sapling. He turns! A flash of black and gold! and Ye Gods!–A hooded warbler! He regards you still motionless, but on the alert for your slightest movement. Nervously you fumble for glasses, get them focused successfully, and look and look and look. A hooded sure enough, and O what a beauty!”

For Aldo, this sheer joy in the natural world evolved into a kind of love. Today we might ask, what does love have to do with science? The two can be made compatible; they can even enhance one another. My father learned to write by writing. His sensitivity to land and biological interconnectedness increased with the volume and quality of his observations. As science was beginning to reveal the complexity of nat- ural systems, the emerging field of ecology was shifting the foundation upon which resource management was built. How, my father wondered, do the plants, animals, soil, water and other natural resources operate together as an inter- dependent community? He began to discover the answer in several key field experiences that triggered a new maturity in his thinking: a trip to Germany, a hunting trip to Mexico, and the acquisition of his own property in the sand counties of Wisconsin.

Aldo’s experience in Germany in 1935, as he studied German game management and forestry, brought him new perspective. He was appalled by the highly artificial system of management and the resulting loss of biodiversity. He came to realize that what was lacking in Germany was wild- ness. In the slick, clean forests he had seen, he detected not the lack of wilderness per se but the lack of wildness. He wrote: “The forest landscape is deprived of a certain exuberance which arises from a rich variety of plants fighting with each other for a place in the sun. It is almost as if the geo- logical clock had been set back to those dim ages when there were only pines and ferns. I never realized before that the melodies of nature are music only when played against the undertones of evolutionary history. In the German forest one now hears only a dismal fugue out of the timeless reaches of the carboniferous.” In a Berlin hotel room one evening, Aldo jotted down some notes on a piece of stationery.

“One of the anomalies of modern ecology,” he wrote, “is that it is the creation of two groups, each of which seems barely aware of the existence of the other. The one studies the human community almost as if it were a separate entity, and calls its findings sociology, eco- nomics and history. The other studies the plant and animal community and com- fortably relegates the hodge-podge of politics to ‘liberal arts.’ The inevitable fusion of these two lines of thought will, perhaps, constitute the outstanding advance of this century.” My father’s experience in Germany enabled him to begin looking on America’s land in a new light, and with new alarm. The second of Aldo’s key field experiences that profoundly influenced his thinking was a trip in the l930s to the Rio Gavilan in northern Mexico.

In those days, the Gavilan River still ran clear between mossy, tree-lined banks. Fires burned periodically without any apparent damage, and deer thrived in the midst of their natural predators. “It is here,” my father reflected years later, “that I first clearly realized that land is an organism, that all my life I had seen only sick land, whereas here was a biota still in perfect aboriginal health.” This vital new idea was the concept of biotic health. The term biodiversity had not yet been coined in the 1930s but Aldo was moving toward the realization that conserving the interconnectedness and biodiversity is broader than just conserving wildlife. In his essay “Song of the Gavilan,” Aldo used his scientific and ecological understanding to enrich his values. This voice of Leopold is not the language of science but of a deeper sense of resonance and intensity:

“This song of the waters is audible to every ear, but there is other music in these hills, by no means audible to all. To hear even a few notes of it you must first live here for a long time, and you must know the speech of hills and rivers. Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to under- stand. Then you may hear it–a vast pulsing harmony–its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries.”

My father came to a deeper understanding of the new biotic idea and its implications for land management through his own participation in the land community at our Wisconsin farm. The acquisition of his own land was the third field experience to influence his mature thinking. The farm he purchased had been abandoned; the land was worn out and eroded.

“There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” Those words from my father, which I now look upon with new perspective, were at the core of our family weekends at our farm, which became known as “The Shack.”

During those visits, my father put the two concepts into practice–the relationship of our family members to each other and their relationship to this piece of land. With the flurry of weekend activity he was allowing this family of teenage kids time for adventure and discovery while also working to bring health back to the land. With shovel and axe over the next 13 years we worked to bring life back to the depleted acres of river bottom. Was my father thinking melody rather than a fugue?

From April to October scarcely a weekend went by that someone did not plant or transplant something. We recorded daily, weekly, sea- sonal events–tracks of animals in the snow, the arrival of migratory geese, the courtship of woodcock. And in doing so, we learned the true meaning of my father’s statement: “Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search.” By his own actions, my father instilled in his children a fundamental respect for the integrity of the natural world. Clearly, he succeeded in his life in find- ing a blend of science, natural history and philosophy. A few years ago, educator David Orr touched me deeply when he wrote: “It will take decades to fully grasp what Leopold meant by a ‘land ethic’ and considerably longer to make it a reality.” In my old age, I am beginning to feel the depth of this statement.

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