Some men of science have towered in their time, and fewer women because of fewer opportunities. Some scientists traveled far ahead and the world had to catch up. Such was Isaac Newton in math and physics, Alexander von Humboldt in earth’s geographical and ecological relations, Albert Einstein in the relativity of matter and energy. But a scientist and much more, who may not be at the tip of the tongue of a good high school student, was Aldo Leopold. He was the father of the modern conservation movement. He pioneered the field of wildlife management and advanced the field so far that the textbook he published in 1933, Game Management, was still the main text for the course forty years later.
Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa in 1887 and grew up along the Mississippi River. Son of a furniture manufacturer, his life went in many directions after leaving his Burlington home but health of the land was always his main attention. Educated at Yale, he first practiced the new field of forestry as forest assistant at the Apache National Forest in the Arizona Territory.
Then his interest went to the ecology of wildlife. He became so much more than a wildlife biologist. He was a husband, father, hunter, wildlife manager, naturalist, wilderness advocate, poet, philosopher, skilled author, teacher and visionary.
In 1935 he was the leader of The Audubon Society and with some peers founded The Wilderness Society. But he is best known for a book that was slow to be discovered. His “A Sand County Almanac,” published after his death in 1949, was Leopold at his best. In a 1990 poll of the membership by the American Nature Study Society, A Sand County Almanac and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring stand alone as the two most venerated and significant environmental books of the 20th century. Though little noticed when published, during the environmental awakening of the 1970s, a paperback edition turned into a surprise bestseller. It still sells about 40,000 copies a year. Beautifully written, it is a book of nature, philosophy and science. Aldo Leopold died fighting a forest fire on a neighbor’s farm at the young age of 61. His son Luna published the book.
His teachings are carried on by conservationists everywhere but especially by The Leopold Foundation. In the late 1990s I attended a foundation workshop near Cheyenne. From the workshop I took the activity, “What would Aldo Leopold say?” for the secondary teacher’s manual of activities my associate, David Rizor, and I were assembling for Wyoming teachers. The secondary manual and the elementary teacher’s manual are called “Wild Wonderful Wyoming: Choices for the Future.” They went to three thousand teachers in Wyoming and Nebraska.
In the activity, the instructor tapes to a wall many profound quotes from “A Sand County Almanac.” Students read the quotes, pick a favorite and read it to the class. They tell why they picked the quote and a discussion results. Following are a few of my favorites.
“Like winds and sunsets wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television and the chance to find a pasque flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”
Speaking of the plover, Leopold said, “He has just flown 4,000 miles (from the Argentine) to reassert the title he got from the Indians, and until the young plovers are a-wing, this pasture is his, and none may trespass without his protest. August nights you can hear the whistled signals as they set wing for the pampas, to prove again the age-old unity of the Americas. Hemisphere solidarity is new among statesmen, but not among the feathered navies of the sky.”
“My dog, by the way, thinks I have much to learn about partridges, and, being a professional naturalist, I agree. He persists in tutoring me, with the calm patience of a professor of logic, in the art of drawing deductions from an educated nose. I delight in seeing him deduce conclusions, in the form of a point, from data that are obvious to him, but speculative to my unaided eye. Perhaps he hopes his dull pupil will one day learn to smell.”
This was Leopold’s thought after he shot a wolf in Arizona. “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.”
“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.”
Leopold’s teachings are even more important today than when he lived.