It is doubtful that any single name is as revered among conservationists from all walks of life as the name Aldo Leopold. His distinguished career as a writer, speaker, professor, and revolutionary conservationist makes him one of the most broadly talented figures in the history of conservation.
Leopold earned his Master’s Degree from the Yale School of Forestry in 1909 and shortly thereafter began his career in Arizona as a forester for the US Forest Service. By the end of his career, he had written hundreds of publications, launched conservation organizations, founded the field of wildlife management, and held the first such professorship at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. However, he would not live to see his most memorable contribution to conservation.
Published in 1949, a year after his untimely passing, A Sand County Almanac ranks among the most important pieces of environmental literature in American history. With a lifetime devoted to effective conservation, a literary skill comparable to the great nature writers, and a passion for natural beauty, Aldo Leopold eloquently captured the joys and sentiments of being an outdoorsman that so many of us feel but lack the words to express. Although Leopold was a first-rate scientist, he never allowed the sterile objectivity of academia to dull his distinctly sentimental perspective. Indeed, some of his most compelling themes regard the intangible aspects of wilderness and natural beauty as well the inextricable bond between land and human culture. He was a master at reading the landscape and even the subtlest natural event would elicit intuitive conclusions and intriguing questions from the professor. To Leopold, “Every farm woodlot is a textbook on animal ecology; woodsmanship is the translation of the book.”
In part I of ASCA, he conveys his thoughts, biases and observations in a uniquely personal account of the seasons on his 120-acre property in the Sand Counties of Wisconsin. In January, we follow skunk tracks in the snow, see what saplings the rabbits have girdled and ponder the worldly perspectives of a meadow mouse and a hawk. In March, when “The Geese Return”, we learn about the satisfaction of being attentive to nature and of honing our perception of natural events. In April, we watch the mating ritual of the woodcock’s “Sky Dance”, while coming to understand that entertainment is not only to be found in theaters. In June, we follow Leopold on a fishing trip on “The Alder Fork”, and sense that the value of the outdoor experience is not in the size of the trout, but in the chance to pursue him. In October, we tag along with Aldo and his dog Gus among the “Smoky Gold” tamaracks of Adams County in pursuit of ruffed grouse, but in the end, wind up hunting the landscape as much as the grouse. In November we take to the woods with “Axe in Hand” where we really begin to understand how the mind of a conservationist works. In December, we smile at Leopold’s enthusiasm for banding chickadees, as well as his heart-felt dedication to restoring the natural beauty to his previously over-farmed lot.
In the sections following the Almanac, Leopold’s prose becomes more poignant as he recounts his early years as a forester in the American southwest. Through his exquisitely told stories and clever literary devices, Leopold conveys important messages on issues such as predator control, destruction of wilderness, the role of science in conservation and the cultural value of wild places. Finally, in what is perhaps his most famous work, Leopold pulls it all together in the book’s capstone essay called The Land Ethic – a beautifully written and logically sound exposition on the relationship between land and people.
“That land is a community”, Leopold explains in the Forward to ASCA, “is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.” It is those three concepts that Leopold so eloquently weaves together throughout his monumental book. In the end, we have an inspiring glimpse into the mind of one of history’s greatest conservationists. Most of all, however, Aldo Leopold left us with a piece of work that clearly lays out both the cultural and economic values of wilderness, as well as a resounding call to preserve it, both for its own sake, and for ours.
For more on Aldo Leopold and his conservation legacy, or to purchase a copy of A Sand County Almanac, visit aldoleopold.org