Aldo Leopold helped pioneer the land ethic inherent to modern ecological thinking and he had connections to Jackson Hole
By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST
Seventy years ago, one of the most consequential modern nature books appeared on shelves, months after its author died of a heart attack fighting a wildfire and following rejection from a number of prominent publishing houses.
Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” remains as timely as ever, not only with how it lays out the principles of the land ethic but also how it reminds that the healthiest of ecosystems are those that retain their ecological parts. With Leopold, there is a deep Jackson Hole connection.
He was dear friends with members of the Murie clan of Moose—Adolph and his wife, Louise; Olaus and his wife, Mardy—and indeed, it was at the Murie ranch where Leopold and Olaus Murie discussed many of the ideas that found their way into “A Sand County Almanac.”
Leopold and Murie were both founding members of The Wilderness Society, and each underwent a profound metamorphosis in their thinking about predators.
Not long ago I had a conversation with writer-historian-conservationist Curt Meine, senior fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans and Nature, to discuss Leopold’s ideas and reflect on “A Sand County Almanac’s” enduring relevance. It is considered an essential read, not only for aspiring wildlife scientists and land managers but it also provides fodder for pondering many contemporary issues.
Wilkinson: How would you describe the evolution that occurred in Leopold’s thinking and what precipitated it?
MEINE: Leopold’s approach to and understanding of conservation evolved continually across his lifetime in response to emerging environmental needs, changing cultural and political circumstances, developments in the underlying sciences, and constant reflection on his personal experiences in the field. Fundamentally, Leopold came to see that success in conservation could not be determined by simple, short-term economic measures, but by the creation of healthier relations on and with the land. The new science of ecology, in which he was a leader, was basic to that, but so were the changes he saw in human economic and social systems.
Leopold wrote in 1940, “Conservation is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and land.” And by land, Leopold by that time meant the soils, waters, plants, animals and people. Conservation, that is, involved not merely the striving for sustainable yields of this or that commodity from the land. Nor did it involve just protecting the special, rare, beautiful or economically significant components of the land. It involved both and more. And the more involved our ethical relationship to land and our work to protect, promote and restore land health which he defined as its “capacity for self-renewal.”
These were the end points toward which he was constantly moving across his career. Along the way were many particular episodes and experiences that shaped his perspective—his boyhood in Iowa, his education in the northeast, his early career with the U.S. Forest Service in the American Southwest, his travels to Europe and Canada and northern Mexico, his day-to-day work in the mixed landscapes of Wisconsin and the Midwest. One of the remarkable aspects of Leopold’s character was his ability to wring the most insight, it seems, from every experience he had.
Wilkinson: Leopold made some pointed observations about recreation. Yes, he believed in the rejuvenating effects of communing with nature, but he also warned about its commodification, monetizing and overuse. What do you think he saw coming and was concerned about?
MEINE: Leopold understood and appreciated recreation as one of the primary ways in which modern Americans interacted with land and the natural world—and through which we could develop a personal land ethic. And so he devoted substantial time throughout his career to providing recreational opportunity through wildlife conservation, wilderness protection, land restoration, and other means. But he also understood that recreation could also become just one more modern expression of consumption—of taking from the land without regard to its beauty, diversity or health.
In other words, the linkage between recreation and conservation was hardly guaranteed. Leopold once wrote that “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” He was concerned about that increasing disconnect between our rapidly expanding technological capacity and our still developing ability to perceive what he called “that ultimate enigma, the land’s inner workings.” Leopold was all about reading the land. He strove to understand how land functions. He sought to see land in its fine details and as a changing whole, and to understand our human place within it. Recreation could and should be one of the main ways to encourage these things in ourselves. But modern recreation was just as liable to separate us, to blind us.
He devoted substantial time throughout his career to providing recreational opportunity through wildlife conservation, wilderness protection, land restoration, and other means. But he also understood that recreation could also become just one more modern expression of consumption—of taking from the land without regard to its beauty, diversity, or health.
Wilkinson: When he spoke of those blank spaces [places] on the map, what do they mean to you in the 21st century?
MEINE: Yes; Leopold’s line on this was: “To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” For me, it means that we must appreciate in new ways the place of wildness in our lives. We still have many relatively blank, if I may coin a phrase, places on our maps. We still have places that we can value for the comparatively light footprint of humans, even as we acknowledge that our carbon footprints, and plastic footprints, and chemical footprints are pervasive, and have been for a long time. These places are still home to the rocks and soils and waters and to our fellow non-human earthlings—all of us facing together the rapidly changing atmosphere and oceans. They still call forth our respect and our humility.
But the blank places also involve our sense of the sacred, and the mysterious and the beautiful. And those places exist all around us, wherever we find ourselves, from our most remote wildlands to our most human-dominated urban cores. Those places are also within us—the unknown and overlooked microbiome, chock-full of the little wild things that keep us going. Wilderness in the classic sense has taken in its hits, both literally and in terms of our historical and cultural understanding. Wildness persists. I am reminded now of the songwriter John Gorka’s words:
I’m the tapping on your shoulder
I’m the raven in the storm
I’ll take shelter in your rafters
I’m the shiver when you’re warm
Wilkinson: Leopold’s writings about Escudilla possess strong resonance with people? Why?
MEINE: You are referring to his essay “Thinking like a Mountain,” the central event of which—the shooting of the wolves—did indeed occur not far from Escudilla Mountain. He also wrote a separate essay called “Escudilla,” about the demise of the last grizzly in that region.
With the possible exception of “The Land Ethic,” Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” has probably been the one that has most deeply touched and challenged readers over the decades. To understand that resonance, it helps to understand the circumstances of its writing. He composed it in 1944, at the behest of his student Albert Hochbaum. Hochbaum was pursuing graduate studies under Leopold, focused on waterfowl in Canada and the upper Midwest. Hochbaum was also a gifted artist, and was working with Leopold to illustrate the essays that became “A Sand County Almanac.”
Hochbaum has a unique rapport with Leopold, which is to say that he had no hesitation about speaking his mind to “the Professor.” Hochbaum pushed Leopold into writing “Thinking like a Mountain,” arguing that Leopold had to admit that he did not always appreciate the ecological significance of predators—that he in fact had played a role himself in the extirpation of wolves from the Southwest. Leopold resisted at first, but finally came around. It was a turning point in the evolution of Leopold’s manuscript, and in the voice that he adopts in his writing. It’s quite a short essay, really, but in it Leopold packs a lifetime of personal observation, regret, insight, and perspective. In offering his mea culpa, Leopold reached a deeper layer of meaning, and readers pick up on this. It holds up to multiple readings, I think, because in rereading it we find ourselves reflecting on our own changing views on the world and our lives within it!
Wilkinson: Can you tell us about the friendship he had with members of the Murie clan of Jackson Hole?
MEINE: Leopold’s connections to the Muries go back to the early 1930s, as Leopold was laying the foundations of wildlife ecology and management and communicating with other leaders in the emerging field. I think he felt a special kinship with Olaus Murie, with whom he corresponded and worked for the rest of his life. The Muries’ early field work on wolves, coyotes and other predators was a particular point of mutual interest. They bonded through their shared questioning of the standard anti-predator stance of the time, and became close colleagues.
Especially after the founding of the Wilderness Society in 1935, Leopold and the Muries would interact on wilderness protection campaigns, and would finally meet, I think for the first time, in 1944. Leopold held the Muries in very high regard. Olaus Murie, in return, considered Leopold one of conservation’s leading visionaries. One of my favorite documents from this period is Murie’s 1954 article “Ethics in Wildlife Management,” published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. In the article, Murie cites Leopold and takes up the ethical torch that he lit: “Thoughtful people are trying to understand our place in Nature, trying to build a proper social fabric, groping for a code of ethics toward each other and toward nature. The current controversies in the diverse field of conservation are an expression of this ethical struggle.”
Wilkinson: As someone who has studied his writing, how would you describe Leopold’s thoughts, generally speaking, about predators?
MEINE: As just noted, his views changed across his lifetime. Based not only on his personal experience, but on emerging field research and new ethical frameworks, his early, simplistic view of predators as detrimental to game populations evolved into a much more sophisticated understanding of the role of predators in general in ecological communities. But he was also a pragmatist who understood that protection and recovery of large apex predators was fraught with difficulty and compromise. Nevertheless, he persisted in his view that we had to rethink our relationships to large predators and strive to make room for them. One might choose many statements he made on this point. Among the more obscure: “Predators originally performed for deer and elk the function of dispersal which most other species perform for themselves. When we elect to remove deer and elk predators, we automatically assume responsibility for performing their job. We have failed to do this because we have failed to realize that they had a job.”
MEINE: Well, it is a life-long story, tracing Leopold’s route from predator exterminator to predator appreciator. For that story, see especially Susan Flader’s essential study, “Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests,” first published in 1974. Wolves were always sign-posts along that route. In 1920, Leopold could write: “To try and raise game in a refuge infested with mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, and bobcats, would, of course, be even more futile than to try and run a profitable stock ranch under similar conditions.” By 1945 he would argue that, “…Predatory animals, in proper numbers, including wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, hawks, and owls, are necessary to the future forests of Wisconsin. It would be fatal to the forestry program to allow tree-eating rabbits and deer to increase to unreasonable levels.” The change in his views on wolves was not simple, fast or one-way. He struggled to be both pragmatic in his conservation politics, but also true to his evolving scientific and ethical insights. And yet, he also had a firm bottom line. In that same 1945 article he wrote, “We have no right to exterminate any species or wildlife. I stand on this as a fundamental principle.”
MEINE: Leopold reached into the high ranges of his own prose when thinking about and describing grizzlies. For him the grizzly was “the noblest of American mammals.” He held that “Only those able to see the pageant of evolution can be expected to value its theater, the wilderness or its outstanding achievement, the grizzly.” He also regarded griz as, in some ways, the ultimate test of our commitments to conservation, our willingness to make room and a place for our fellow creatures on this continent. “That there are grizzlies in Alaska is no excuse for letting the species disappear from New Mexico. … Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.”
Leopold also understood grizzly bear conservation in terms that remarkably anticipate modern conservation biology. As is often the case, it is best to let Leopold speak for himself. As grizzly populations in the West dwindled, fragmented, and blinked out, he wrote: “The recent extermination of the grizzly from most of the western stock-raising states is a case in point. Yes, we still have grizzlies in the Yellowstone. But the species is ridden by imported parasites; the rifles wait on every refuge boundary; new dude ranches and new roads constantly shrink the remaining range; every year sees fewer grizzlies on fewer ranges in fewer states. We console ourselves with the comfortable fallacy that a single museum-piece will do, ignoring the clear dictum of history that a species must be saved in many places if it is to be saved at all.”
Wilkinson: What were the circumstances of his death?
MEINE: Leopold died near his “Shack” in Wisconsin on April 21, 1948. Just one week before, he had received notice from Oxford University Press that they would publish his collection of essays. It had been rejected several times before by other publishers. With that good news in mind, he and his family took their usual spring break trip to the Shack. That was the annual time for planting pine trees.
Leopold was with his wife Estella and his daughter, also named Estella, when they noticed smoke rising to the east, beyond their restored prairie and adjacent wetlands. A fire had escaped from the neighboring farmer’s yard and appeared to be moving toward the Shack. Leopold went into action, and while helping to suppress the fire he suffered a heart attack. He fell down to the grass and the flames swept over him. It is hard to resist the symbolism of the circumstances: that Leopold died while assisting a neighbor and protecting his young pines and his place.
Wilkinson: Being only 61, can you guess where he would have gone with his writing and reflection?
MEINE: It is always hard to answer such “what if” questions, but I think we can fairly surmise where Leopold was headed. In those last few, post-World War II years, Leopold was increasingly addressing the broader questions of our human reality in a vastly altered world. Along with a few others at the time, Leopold was at the forefront of global conservation thought, and was compelled to speak out not only about the material reality of accelerating social and environmental change, but about the ethical implications of such change—most especially the consequences of new technologies unleashed without any ecological understanding and untethered by ethical constraints. He was also beginning to explore more deeply the social and cultural dimensions of these existential dilemmas, seeing that ethics had to be engaged. We had to come to terms, as a larger “thinking community,” with the questions of what is right, and appropriate and just in our relations with the natural world and with one another, knowing that those cannot be separated.
Wilkinson: “A Sand County Almanac” withstands the test of time. Why?
MEINE: First and foremost, Leopold is a fine story-teller. Even though some of Leopold’s references are a bit dated, he still captivates receptive readers in his intimate tales of sky-dancing woodcock, or the rings of an old oak tree, or the bugling of cranes. Through his eyes we become witness to the dramas he sees in the land. I was about to say that his prose is timeless, but maybe it is just the opposite. Leopold embeds his stories in personal experience and in history. There is a deep sense of layered time in his writing, and perhaps in these time of rapid change we find ourselves getting better oriented through his writing. Leopold is also asking the large questions that we still ask about our proper relationship with “things natural, wild, and free,” even as we challenge the very definitions of those qualities. And finally, there is just the pure beauty of his prose. In his most powerful passages, he reaches us in that ineffable way that music and poetry and art reach us.
Wilkinson: We live now in a time of rapid social and ecological change. What does Aldo Leopold have to say to us in our quickly-changing politically- and socially-charged world. There are some critical theorists who claim he was a racist.
MEINE: Let’s say it bluntly: the core ideas, texts and figures from the past that we have looked to for inspiration seem less and less helpful. We live in an unprecedented time of tragic and synergistic change. The historic reference points can seem distant at best, suspect at worst. But history doesn’t work by providing simple assurance or confirmation. For me, history has always been essential in tracing the trajectory of change and framing the modern challenge. Leopold did not, and could not, fully anticipate the systemic solutions that we must come up with to address our deeply interrelated social and ecological problems. But I have found his example and insights to be always helpful in getting grounded. He understood that, at its foundations, it was all about human values.
Wilkinson: What do you mean by that?
MEINE: I seem always to come around these days to a couple statements Leopold made. In an unpublished manuscript, he mused: “There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” In connecting those realms, Leopold helped lay the foundations for the kind of coherent thinking we must achieve if we are to address effectively issues of climate change, biodiversity loss, water protection, agriculture and food systems, economic and environmental justice.
Another point by Leopold, mentioned earlier, is that, “Conservation, viewed in its entirety, is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and land.” When I am in a cynical mood, I will comment, “Well, Aldo, we had better start getting fast and easy about it!” I am also quick to add that it’s not just a new relationship we need. Conservation in fact is finally coming to value ancient and proven relationships between people and land. We see this in the increasing appreciation of indigenous worldviews and traditional ecological knowledge in conservation and beyond.
Put it together, then, and it is all about adjusting the values that guide relations between people, and between people and land. We do live in times of profound change and need. And we are all tasked with the work of expanding and fortifying our ethical foundations in response. Leopold was one among many who contributed to that work. And going into the future we will need every helpful source of wisdom that we can muster.