Naturally Speaking: Green Fire – Leopold and his land ethic
I took a break in the process of packing for a long-awaited trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in order to write the column this week. A recent column began with a quote from Aldo Leopold about keeping all the pieces. His quotes could provide the basis for weekly columns for months without running out of new material. It’s not just Leopold’s famous quotes that make him relevant for us yet today. Without him and his contemporary, Sigurd Olson (another favorite author), I’d have no beloved wilderness area to return to. It would all have been logged off, mined out and much of it privatized and “improved” for more comfortable tourist developments long ago.
How did a boy who grew up in turn-of-the-century Burlington come to be known as the Father of Modern Conservation? The story is a fascinating one, and is told in a recently released film called “Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and A Land Ethic For Our Time.” It was first shown in Iowa back in April on IPBS, but may be shown again in the future. Many experiences prepared Aldo for the role he was to play. Perhaps the most important formative factor was parents who encouraged his natural curiosity in the outdoors. His father, Carl, was a successful businessman and dedicated outdoorsman, who taught his son to fish and hunt at a young age. His mother, Estella, was from one of the oldest ranching families in the Southwest and loved the arts. It was her opera glasses that Aldo first used to pursue his interest in birds. His parents understood how important it was for him to have time and their blessing to roam on his own through the hills and valleys along the Mississippi as a boy.
In 1909, Aldo was a young forester recently graduated from the Yale School of Forestry on his first assignment in the Southwest District, which encompassed New Mexico and Arizona. He was among the first U.S. Forest Service people to expand his work into wildlife management. He understood that wildlife was a renewable resource that could bring nearly as much income into local economies as did timber. Common thinking of the day was that fewer predators meant more game. Eliminating predators was seen as bringing on a hunter’s paradise. Aldo’s party once came upon a mother wolf and her litter of pups and promptly shot them all. He wrote years later of the event: “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.” He observed how the removal of predators allowed elk and deer populations to spiral out of balance with the land’s ability to support them and helplessly watched them starve by the hundreds.
The dying wolf incident is seen today as a major turning point in Aldo’s thinking. From then on he began to see the forest as more than potential board feet of lumber. It was the beginning of what’s now known as Leopold’s “land ethic.” He began to understand that the land was a living organism made up of many parts. No one part could be managed without affecting all the others. Each part had an important role to play. What’s more, he saw immense value in the wild, natural parts of that whole; even if they couldn’t be sold for monetary profit. His writing, lectures and work with new organizations like the Wilderness Society, which he helped to found, awoke the nation to what they were about to lose if protections and new management philosophies weren’t put into place.
Aldo Leopold died fighting a grass fire in 1948, but not before he saw his life’s work beginning to bear fruit. It still is. You can see and hear the fascinating story of this humble and thoughtful man by picking up a $25 collector’s copy two-disk set of Green Fire from the book store section of the Leopold Foundation’s web site at www.aldoleopold.org. , or watch and hope that IPBS will air it again.
(Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.)