Living Out Aldo Leopold’s Legacy

  • Aldo Leopold found fame by writing "A Sand County Almanac"... but even sixty years after his death, scholars say his theories about living in harmony with nature are influencing conservation practices today. (Photo courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation Archives)

If you feel you just cannot live without wild things, you have something in common with a conservationist who’s still influencing conservation practices almost sixty years after his death. Scholars say the theories of Aldo Leopold continue to help shape wildlife management and land preservation, especially in the Upper Midwest. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:

Transcript

If you feel you just cannot live without wild things, you have something in
common with a conservationist who’s still influencing conservation practices almost
sixty years after his death. Scholars say the theories of Aldo Leopold continue to help shape wildlife management and land preservation, especially in the Upper Midwest. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach reports:


Aldo Leopold is probably best known for writing A Sand
County Almanac. That’s a collection of essays about finding harmony
with nature. His ideas about preservation changed while working for the
Forest
Service in the southwestern U.S. Rick Stel of the Aldo Leopold
Foundation
says one day in the early 1900’s Leopold shot a wolf thought to be a threat
to
cattle. The female had pups with her.


“And he says he got there in time to see the
fierce green fire die in her eyes… and it was at this time he realized
we’re going about this in the wrong way… we really need to look at all
creatures and everything as a community.”


Leopold’s epiphany led to writings that won him national attention. he
eventually moved to Madison, Wisconsin – first to work in forest
research and later at the University of Wisconsin. There, he taught the
nation’s
first course in game management.


In 1935, he bought an abandoned farm in the sandy floodplain of the
Wisconsin River. It became the inspiration for many of the essays in A Sand County
Almanac.


(sound of unlocking door)


Most tours of the site start at an old chicken coop that was the only
building left when Leopold bought the place and is the only structure
now. The shack, as Leopold called it, has no electricity or furnace.


(sound of fire)


On chilly days tour guides light a fire in the fireplace and talk about
the ideas Leopold developed while visiting the shack with his family.
The Leopold Foundation’s Buddy Huffaker says Leopold worried about
becoming disconnected from nature.


“His February essay talks about the two spiritual dangers of
not owning a farm. One is to assume food comes from a grocery store, and the second is that heat comes from a furnace.”


Outside the shack Leopold and his family worked to return the land to its
pre-agricultural state. They planted thousands of pine trees. The also undertook
one of
the first prairie restorations. The Leopold family spent a lot of time
discussing how
people were damaging the environment.


(sound of brushing)


About one hundred yards from the shack Buddy Huffaker brushes off
a plaque that’s set in the ground. at this spot, Leopold sawed apart a
lightning-damaged oak tree that he called the good oak. He wrote
about the experience in a famous essay that Huffaker says is really
about natural history.


“As he and his family saw through the growth rings of the oak, he
goes back in time to see how people have disregarded other natural
elements in the landscape – the decimation of turkeys and other
species that we hunted into extinction locally or entirely.”


But turkeys, sandhill cranes and a few others species have come
back–in part because of Leopold’s conservation ethic. Now his
followers are trying to protect more things.


To spread Leopold’s message some groups have started sponsoring
readings of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. At a library in Lake
Geneva
Wisconsin Jim Celano reads from the essay about the good oak.


“Now our saw bites into the 1920’s the Babbittian
decade when everything grew bigger and better in heedlessness and
arrogance – until 1929 when stock markets crumpled. If the oak heard them
fall, its
wood gives no sign.”


Celano is a former commerical real estate developer who now heads
a land conservancy group. He says he’s trying to convey Leopold’s
ideas to other developers.


“That we’re not here to say no to development… but to ask
they be sensitive to what they’re developing. And when you step on
their parcel, after their development is done, that the first thing you
notice is what they’re preserved and protected.”


(sound of woodpecker and traffic)


But even Aldo Leopold’s famous land around the shack is not immune
from modern threats. As a woodpecker hammers overhead, the noise
from a nearby interstate highway intrudes into the scenery. The
Leopold foundation’s Buddy Huffaker says Aldo Leopold knew the future
would bring new threats to the natural world.


“But I think that’s Leopold’s challenge to us. He
understood progress was going to continue. He just wanted us to
contemplate what we wanted that progress to be. And how far it
should go.”


And with sales of A Sand County Almanac bigger now than when it was
published in 1949, it ‘s a future Aldo Leopold might be helping to
shape.


For the GLRC, I’m Chuck Quirmbach.

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