[Note that this page is far from complete, lacking visuals, most excerpts, most insights, most planned discussion. Nevertheless, there’s enough to open the “room” in the hope you’ll bookmark the site & return to appreciate its improvements & additions. –8 October 2017]
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Aldo Leopold, born January 11, 1887, was raised on an Iowa bluff overlooking the Mississippi at a critical time in American conservation history. As a boy, he saw old-growth forests rafted towards sawmills downstream & barges of dead game-birds heading to markets east. By contrast, he learned ethical hunting & the concept of sustainability early from his father, Carl, who ran the Leopold Desk Company. From his mother, Clara, he learned the love of simple music.
His excursions along the river soon made him an expert on the music of the birds & the languages of wildlife. Once, he buried himself in the muck of a muskrat hole to catch a glimpse of a shy grebe whose calls he’d been hearing. Just as he was starting to glaze over in the sun, as he told it, “A wild red eye emerged in the open pool–& before I knew it, a second, & on her broad back rode two pearly silver young, neatly folded in the humped up wings, all rounding the bend before I recovered my breath. I wouldn’t want to be young without wild country to be young in.”
As Sam Clemens put it, “The face of the river became like a wonderful book, a dead language to the unaware, but which revealed its secret heart to me without reserve–& not a book to be read once & cast aside, for it had new stories to tell every day.”
Almost any natural shoreline rends to be a magical place, ocean tide-pools, lake coves with turtle coves & fish dreams, riverside thickets & reeds with countless fresh voices. A child who ventures out on solitary explorations need never feel lonely nor stay alone long. I suspect some, if not most, are born with a kind of hunting instinct–not to kill, but to discover, see, catch, perhaps, sometimes even tame, whether to test if one might or get to know more closely.
The first lesson such a hunter-explorer tends to learn has both practical & psychic aspects. The practical derive from the need to become invisible, utterly quiet, alert & receptive in the effort to see more than be seen & hear more than be heard. One learns early that the process of trying to observe can radically change what’s observed–or what’s not observed, the clumsily loud human presence having changed what was going on.
The practical need makes one more conscious of human impact. The psychological aspect has its own implications, one of which is a heightened sense of present attention, sensory openness, where the human chatterbox disappears into the natural landscape, feeling all the more present. Two key relational qualities emerge from this condition, state or sense of connection–respect for the original world encountered; & a sense of personal influence, some power to affect or manage.
Taken together, these may be the seeds which can give rise to an urge to dominate, to establish the illusion of control, or to a sense of stewardship, responsible appreciation. The former goes to war–one in which, as Gregory Bateson put it, “every battle won brings a greater threat of disaster.” A war against nature is inherently a war against ourselves, un-winnable to boot. Stewardship, by contrast, implies a win-win relationship, based on respect, admiration, appreciation, & good will–whether for that original living-world we remain part of or for others of our kind, children, generations to follow.
The roots of caring, in Leopold’s case, started early, as basic as with his family. Going with his father on early morning hunts gave it some practical application, but it was not primarily an economic or mental relationship. He did learn the difference between surplus one might harvest for consumption & scarcity that deserved respect, restraint, reinvestment. Long before agency-imposed limits, his father declined to take members of declining species. This is the kind of conservation practiced by many individuals & traditional, long-term societies in relatively stable periods, with populations more or less in balance with resources.
Relationships can get thrown wildly out of balance, however, by rapidly increasing the level of exploitation, whether from increased population or added power provided by machinery. Both were happening big-time as Leopold came to awareness, and at a level that was beginning to cause some national alarm to those most in the know. Thanks especially to the powers of machinery, the tragedy of the commons was getting driven from a primarily local problem local communities needed to address to a national scale. (By now, of course, it’s long been globalized.)
The race to convert long-term resources into short-term gain was doing away with wild country at an unprecedented rate. Maybe the country wasn’t disappearing, but its wildness was–& with it, a good part of the natural beauty & productive wealth of the continent, with wildlife just part of the loss. Unchecked, there might be a temporary boom in millionaires at the expense of making the country as a whole poorer, stripped not just of resources, but of the productivity living resources like forests represented.
Enter Teddy Roosevelt & his appointed forestry expert Gifford Pinchot. We know Roosevelt harbored an abiding attachment to wildness. Why, he even went camping once with John Muir. Still, Washington was a hard-nosed, dollar-&-cents kind of environment, with no lack of interests petitioning for advantages, windfalls at best, a fair share (plus 10%) at worst. Companies had shorter-term cash-flows & mid-term investments for future quarters to focus on; future generations were not usually part of their decision-making equations.
To stem the incredible waste of these otherwise productive resources, and largely on the basis of purely economic criteria, Roosevelt & Pinchot vastly expanded national forest protections–until before congress limited their power to do so. It was neither first nor last time the people’s representatives weren’t necessarily representing the same people, at least equally. In the hours before their ability expired, the president & his forestry expert got down on their hands & knees on the White House floor to draw lines on maps, designating new national forests while they could.
Less at home in classrooms & textbooks than in the field, young Aldo nevertheless graduated from Yale’s new forestry program, to which Pinchot himself had donated a family-owned forest “to help grow foresters.” As a fresh graduate & Forest Service recruit, Aldo arrived in the New Mexico territory July 1909, determined to do his part, & was promptly sent off to the mountains of eastern Arizona to find out what one of those newly designated national forests was actually like on the ground, i.e., following guidelines to map what they had, with an emphasis on terrain & timber.
Smitten by a Santa Fe beauty named Estella Luna Otero Bergere, Aldo was given a transfer to northern New Mexico, though based far north of the capital that calls itself “the city different.” Among his rivals was another Yale graduate, a capital attorney with far better prospects than a young forest ranger, at least in economic terms. Aldo had to do a good bit of his courting by letter.
Once he wrote, “The Taos mountains werea great glory of bronze & gold today, and thi snight is so wonderful, it almost hurts. Are you watching,. too, the little sheep-like clouds grazing the moon? I wish you were here right now to walk the canyon and feel its beautiful wild spirit in our hearts together….”
Well it took some doing. It could have been the solitude & thin air, or he might have been crazy, an impractical dreamer at best, unstable at worst. Perseverance (including a meeting of the families, from different cultural & religious traditions, & a promotion) paid off, and he brought his bride to the new Supervisor’s cabin, nestled into Ranger’s Rock, by the main crossroads of an outpost called Tres Piedras (where the cabin now hosts visiting fellows).
The main lesson we may take from this could be the way Aldo & Estella prioritized values. One needn’t reject practical economics to recognize that some other existing values are higher, & not necessarily in conflict. Among these higher values are some aspects of relationship. Aldo was certainly not the first to connect kinship values with relation to land, mother earth, but he was a pioneer nevertheless in seeking harmony between such values & the practical economics of natural resource management, arguably all the more so within a federal bureaucracy.
When he was sent back to his original posting temporarily, to conduct an official evaluation of conditions, he compared the state of the forest he’d helped map a decade earlier with adjacent land, originally identical, that had remained under native management, & had to report “a painful humiliation to the Forest Service.” It wasn’t that the original aim was wrong–to introduce sound economic management based on scientific understanding.
Results on the ground had shown that the science & economic analysis of the prior decade had both proved incomplete, “works in progress.” Having noticed that “the wild was taken for granted until progress began to do away with it,” Aldo realized that we “now face the choice of whether a supposedly higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things wild, natural & free.”
Leopold’s phrasing, and its focus on the naturally wild qualities, represented a significant conceptual advance in the interpretation of “utility” from when the national forest idea first started to get traction as the people’s means of protecting a “capital resource” being rapidly squandered, i.e., something capable of producing an economically quantifiable profit for the many in perpetuity being wasted for the short term gains of a few. A forest produced far more than board-feet & measurable grazing–and it took a healthy system as a whole to do even these over the long term, sustainably (the only responsible way to manage long-term capital resources).
Leopold proposed various changes in management practices, while trying to expand the policy-making process. Part of the problem, he realized, came from the kind of mapping done, based on too narrow a conception of what a living, breathing, productive forest was. Another part of the problem was too narrow a conception of productive value. The forest produced far more than merely “board-feet,” meat & hides, for example. In addition to firewood & higher-end wood products, & also grazing for wild & domestic herbivores, it nourished birds & other wildlife, provided local families a variety of foods, herbs, craft products, healthy recreation & psychological renewal, inspiration of all sorts &, yes, even knowledge–more than one might find elsewhere.
Knowledge could be of many sorts–all especially relevant to those entrusted with the management of such resources. But knowledge of what wildlife teaches, of ecological dynamics, of life & the living systems we, too, are part of has primacy, and deserves priority, all the more since it’s our impact as a scale-multiplying species that threatens their loss, and our own with it. Practical self-interest & the ethical responsibilities of stewardship coincide.
A few things he realized as a public lands manager included:
# You can’t manage living systems on the basis of economic resources alone, because these are themselves sustainably produced only by the healthy system-as-a-whole they’re part of, including many essential non-economic & even unrecognized components.
# Values–& even utilities–come in many flavors, with identifiable uses of many sorts, e.g., practical & more or less economically definable (grazing, nut-gathering, hunting, timber, lumber); recreational (hiking, bird & wildlife watching, healthful exercise, personal & spiritual renewal); aesthetic (inspiration, sense of the beautiful in sight, sound, smell, etc.); scientific (recognition & understanding of nature, what it is, how it works, the effects of our choices, etc.).
# Of these values, only those of the first kind are more or less easily quantifiable–though even these are ultimately dependent on qualitative factors. A sick forest has less value than a healthy one of the same size & economic composition, for example. Recreational & aesthetic values are harder to measure in meaningful units. They are no less real, or valuable, however.
# The values of inspiration & renewal may be considered quite real, despite not being easily translatable into economic terms. The same may be said for the cultural values associated with maintaining some active memory of traditional practices, a connection with earlier ways of life, possibly useful in developing the strengths of character we associate with self-reliance, living close to the ground, & in tune with our original world.
# Scientific values with no immediate economic payoffs in themselves often have far-reaching consequences of many types, including economic. Some scientific knowledge has rather direct economic value, if not in itself, in its applications. Knowledge has particular importance to those charged with managing resource-systems that are inherently long-term, as a basis for effective practices, informed & appropriate choices. (Ideally, these are the same, but may not always be.)
# Thanks to the deep (& intricately inter-woven) roots natural systems have, the ability to study them as they are in themselves gives the concept of scientific “control” special relevance, if only to measure the effects of our own actions, connecting changes with the interventions, for comparison. Given the breakneck speed of the spreading machine, the internal combustion engine, along with the roads & highways, air traffic, chainsaws, giant earth-chewing monsters, etc., the problem was compounding faster than we yet had any handle on. “If we want to have anything left for our kids,” he told a group around 1917 or so, “we’d better get busy.”
# Healthy wildlife depends on healthy habitat, and vice versa. The same can be said for more or less domesticated critters managed by humans, as well as for any other productive harvesting. All ultimately depend on the health, vigor & vitality of the system as a whole, including its diversity & its various qualities, as well as quantities of whatever “surplus” may be produced. Take too much of the year’s production & you’re consuming future productivity–potentially a downward spiral.
# Less quantifiable, but potentially even more devastating, are those values lost from waste & pollution–including what Aldo called “the watering of a soup already too thin.” Here was a real dilemma for public management–the more crowded & polluted cities grew, the more people sought some temporary refuge in the great outdoors, meaning the need for ever more roads & toilets, meaning a rapid decay in the range & quality of values produced, under management, & offered to future citizens, fairly judged in retrospect as a violation of the public trust.
# Arguably as bad or worse were the more venal sins of willful ignorance & corruption, presumably factors wherever humans faced choices, set policies or made deals. There was simply no place for either for those acting as public trustees, whether overt or implicit. That meant a fair deal to all, special favors to none. It also meant the responsibility to base decisions on sound principles–& to correct assumptions that don’t pan out on the ground.
As Superintendent of the Carson National Forest, freshly married to his Santa Fe bride & soon a father, Leopold was very conscious that the public trust served across generations–tomorrow’s people as well as today’s. Long before agency-imposed limits, Aldo’s father had refrained from hunting species whose numbers seemed in decline. In this, as in Pinchot’s forestry policies, ethics & pragmatism fully coincide–the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.
Entrusted with the management of long-term resources held in common, the public servant serves the present & future public by serving the health, beauty & integrity of the systems managed, its ability to produce values of all sorts. In this there are ethical, as well as practical, factors that transcend political party. It may be that not all people will actively seek to harvest a share of the values, just as not all use other kinds of infrastructure in common (toads, fire departments, institutions, etc.), but they are still there for all, belong to all.
It follows, therefore, that all interests are equally “special,” and all deserve fair treatment–tomorrow’s children & today’s; today’s ranchers & tomorrow’s; today’s hunters (& bird-watchers) & tomorrow; ordinary folks, not just those with wealth & influence; people whose interests are in more or less non-economic values as well as those who have practical needs for forest products. Aldo began to articulate such responsibilities as a necessary aspect of forest management.
Long before Garret Hardin coined & defined the phrase, Aldo faced the kind of challenge the “tragedy of the commons” represented on the ground, the Carson having then been described as one of most seriously over-grazed national forests in the country. Allotments had to start from an informed sense of what the productivity (i.e., the health & integrity of the system) can bear, a foundation below which future users would receive less than their fair share.
From that base, all should receive fair treatment. Obviously, activities with the largest impact required the most regulation, if appropriately allowed at all. It may be that in simpler times, with fewer people & far less powerful machinery, locals managed just fine without any visible regulatory presence. As pressures on the resource mount, that changes, however, if only to maintain the system. Not everyone likes the change, especially those most inclined to make more than their fair share of use of the resources-in-common. (Rangers routinely went armed.)
Meanwhile, there was a lot to learn about the system & its wildlife, and a lot of learning-in-progress to share both in-service & with local people. As part of that process, Aldo & one of his assistants, Elliot Barker, a near-local from two mostly high-country counties south, along the Sapello, started The Carson Pine Cone, a staff newsletter “to scatter the seeds of wisdom & encouragement” throughout the area under their jurisdiction.
This publication, modest & humble as it was, takes on more significance when considering where the two ended up, professionally & as writers. Elliot’s non-fiction won every major western writing award except for poetry (which his brother S. Omar Barker won). He also became the state’s longest serving head of the Game & Fish Department. The newsletter–& the thought it encouraged–must have taken on greater relevance to Aldo during the time he was out of commission, out of the field & headquarters, awhile at death’s door even, more than a year recovering, thanks to a kidney ailment, thanks in part to bad medicine when misdiagnosed back in civilization. He’d gotten caught out in a spring blizzard in the Jicarilla country, and survived to that point only for the hogan shelter (& good medicine) provided by the fellow who’d found him.
Working less rugged terrain out of the regional office in Albuquerque after, he roamed far & wide, with many duties. In his off hours, he & his former assistant on the Carson, Elliot Barker, helped organize habitat-&-wildlife protection associations statewide. They even revived The Pine Cone, this time as an expression of the voluntary group of private citizens who shared the premise that healthy habitat benefits all stakeholders, crosses public & private domains, and requires a grass-roots community working together to have its interest represented. The same is true for wise wildlife, game & fish policies.
Aldo was by then well aware of cultural factors in land use & ways of life. He learned much from his wife’s family, which had at least two counties named for its members (Luna & Otero). He learned at least as much from native teachings, practices, attitudes. He also saw by then the escalating effects of technology on both culture & the natural environment, & recognized that it wasn’t just a quantifiable difference in scale of impact that was involved, but also essential qualities, no less real for being hard to grasp & resistant to bureaucratic language.
The wildness of wild country had meaning to him, in other words, both in itself & in its effect on those who draw from it & love it in countless ways–presumably not wanting to love it to death, a danger partly of culture, partly of scale of use & machinery….
Asked to help some ranchers figure out why they were having an unusually high incidence of cow miscarriages, he traced the problem first to the fact the cows were eating too many pine tips dropped by what seemed to be a population boom of squirrels. A lesser intelligence might have encouraged shooting, trapping or, more dangerous still, poisoning some of the trouble-causing beasts seemingly responsible, despite long-term costs entailed. Leopold’s whole-system way of looking at things did not; he wanted to know what had upset the more normal, naturally balanced squirrel population. Lo & behold, he found that these same ranchers had been shooting the hawks. The solution to restoring the system’s integrity was as simple as, “Stop shooting the hawks.”
At one point, which happened to be in World War I, after scientific management studies had concluded that particular forest areas needed a significant cut-back in grazing to reverse a deteriorating productive capacity, orders came from higher up the bureaucracy to double the allotments there instead. Rather than implement such a wrong-headed, ultimately disastrous policy on the basis of political expediency, Leopold resigned from the Forest Service.
As Executive Director of Albuquerque’s Chamber of Commerce, he brought people with otherwise diverse views & interests together over many “Open Space” issues. Indeed, his economic insight told him that nothing was healthier for a place’s well-being (including economics, health, culture & quality of recreation) than a healthy relationship with what nature has provided–living rio, bosque, mesa, mountains…. It was a community’s responsibility–& great opportunity not to be wasted–to think ahead about & plan for such things.
It did not take long in this case for the government’s disastrous over-grazing policies to come crashing down, along with beef prices, & many bankrupt ranchers (80% in some areas), leaving gullies behind. The Forest Service lured Leopold back for another five years or so. By then, he had become accustomed to thinking ahead on the basis of data & trends, especially on those issues that make the most difference. Some of these issues were hard to quantify, so easily avoided by many.
One of these was the issue of quality. He had noticed that there was a difference in the size, vigor & general vitality of some hatchery-raised fish from their wild relatives, for example. Or take a scenic spot rich in wildlife–bound to draw more & more people in more & more cars, meaning more & more roads & toilets. What happens to the original natural attraction in wild qualities lost?
Every place on earth was becoming accessible to modern transportation, unmapped places were ever scarcer world-wide, and the impact on other species, wild management in general, and us in particular was evident to him, and he began to articulate what became known as the “wilderness idea,” the notion that some rapidly dwindling wild-country areas (like the headwaters of the Gila River) should be permanently protected from human development, especially the high-impact effects of human machinery, managed largely by the same forces that created it, while we still had the chance, if only as a “control” to see how natural systems work at large enough scale.
Such places would still be open to reveal their majestic wonders to the fit & adventurous. Even if not traversed by the busload, they could still provide value to all, including those who only breathed cleaner air downwind, or drank fresher water down river, or enjoyed the scenery & wildlife from afar. There’s something about such places that touches the spirit of people just knowing they are there.
In 1924, while the Leopold family was on way north to Wisconsin, having just left the Forest Service, the regional office declared the headwater of the Gila the country’s first officially designated wilderness. It would take congress another 40 years or so to put the idea into federal statute. And still not a settled idea, you might say, the notion that the country would draw a line around some places & say, in here, neither short-term economics nor political influence rules, but long-term nature, the life-giving systems of creation that gave rise to us, too.
In Madison, the Leopolds lived just down the street from the fellow who had declared “the end of the frontier” in 1893. Leopold led a mid-west game survey & then published a ground-breaking new book, Game Management, en route to starting the country’s first university program in that field, based at the U. of Wisconsin Arboretum. Having successfully resisted various offers from Washington, including one to lead the biological survey, he was far more at home teaching future private & public land managers in the kinds of field-based research that would provide them, the field, & the people at large a more informed foundation.
During this time, the heart of dust bowl & great depression, the Leopolds bought what the county records describe as 120 acres, bordering the Wisconsin River north of Baraboo. Having been severely over-cut by a previous owner who’d used most trees to power his still, the Leopold family–by then 5 children & two parents strong–turned an old chicken house into their weekend Shack & set to work, ultimately planting 30-50,000 trees, mostly pines.
Early mornings at the Shack usually found Aldo outside, pondering in his journal while waiting for the kettle to sing, listening to the birds wake one by one, or off with his dog Gus into that endless realm of fresh discovery nature had in store for them that day. All one had to do was pay attention. Noticing invariably led to wondering, and, for Aldo, pondering–coming back to an issue from various angles, getting a feel for its often irregular dimensions.
I don’t know if Leopold knew the story of the blind monks trying to describe what an elephant was like, each feeling a different part of the diverse anatomy. That was not his way to understand or describe something, which rather obviously required moving around it, examining it from different angles &, as possible, different senses. And then to think about it, wonder & ponder more, go out & look more, feel more, test more, and not with one kind of measuring device only.
Time at the Shack must have been all the more valuable as calls on his own attention increased–a research trip to German in 1935, helping start national wildlife & wilderness-supporting organizations, regional issues, & presidency of the relatively new Ecological Society of America.
The personal pondering of his Shack adventures, following wherever trails led, were gradually joined by more focused “sketches here & there,” still more or less place-centered, but touching issues he’d been considering for more than thirty years. In addition, from time to time, invited by a journal, magazine or professional organization, he grappled with key philosophical issues, seeking a comprehensive view of the country in relation to habitat, wildlife, & culture, including “Conservation Esthetic,” “Wildlife in American Culture,” “Wilderness,” & “The Land Ethic.” Taken together, these set a conceptual foundation for conservation over the next half century.
# Ten days before Aldo died of a heart attack while attacking a grass fire on a neighbor’s land near the Shack, he’d received an invitation from Oxford University Press to publish a collection of his writing. A son, Luna Leopold, later considered one of the world’s leading researchers on river dynamics, took charge of delivering, including a title. Really 3 titles, one for each of the three kinds of writing–at the end, “only [for] the very sympathetic reader,” Aldo thought, the philosophically comprehensive overviews; in the middle, sketches from a wide-ranging lifetime of thought, observation & experience; & at the beginning, a month by month selection from his Shack explorations, which Luna called A Sand County Almanac, the name the whole 226-page volume is generally known.
# A Sand County Almanac came out in 1949, to very modest sales, but kept in print long enough for the country to start catching up. By the launch of Earth Day, it was being considered a conservation classic, rich with insights & realizations becoming all the more relevant every day. [Some excerpts will soon be offered below.] Even so, Leopold’s legacy is still due wider recognition, as one of the most profound, pioneer, whole-system thinkers of the 20th Century.
# The work wasn’t done for personal recognition, of course, and Leopold never considered himself the head of a movement. He worked shoulder to shoulder with countless others in the tasks & learning that beckoned–including his children. Luna, as indicated, became an expert on rivers. Starker was recognized as one of the country’s leading experts on wildlife, with various books to his credit. Estella became an eminent paleontologist based at the University of Washington, Carl a plant physiologist at Cornell, and Nina, a champion of native prairie restoration & in charge for many years of the Leopold forest & educational foundation.
# About 25 years after Aldo’s death (in 1948), his wife, the former Estella Luna Otero Bergere, was asked what it was that gave Aldo such impact, she answered, “He always brought out the best in people.” That legacy seems to have continued after his death as well, thanks to the writing–& through the efforts of his family, students, friends (whether they met him in life or not).
Here’s a little piece Aldo would have appreciated, from Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac (9-29-2017).
They are not
we say, in the way
of the exquisite
high parts of
you cannot wish
“Those Places” by Kay Ryan from Erratic Facts. © Grove Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)