One of Wisconsin’s own, Aldo Leopold is considered a giant in the field of wildlife ecology. Over two million copies of his famous book A Sand Count Almanac have been printed in 12 languages, and he is still widely admired by readers almost 70 years later. But Leopold never knew just how influential his writing would become, and despite his success, he never autographed a single book.
Steve Swenson, director of conservation of the 12,000 acre Aldo Leopold Foundation, shared stories of Leopold with the audience of the final lecture in the Blue Mounds Area Project’s (BMAP) winter lecture series this March.
Swenson compared Leopold’s philosophy with BMAP’s mission. He quoted Leopold saying, ‘“A land ethic then reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects the conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and serve this capacity.”
“That,” said Swenson, “is also the work of the Blue Mounds Area Project.”
Leopold was born in 1887 in Burlington, Iowa, and grew up along the bank of the Mississippi, a major flyway for migrating birds. As a boy, he would go down to the water’s edge to watch wildlife, encouraged by his mother, who loved nature, and his father, who was an outdoorsman.
His family owned a desk-making factory that depended on lumber floated down the Mississippi in huge rafts. Over time Leopold watched the lumber rafts become smaller and smaller, and he decided to attend the new Yale Forest School to gain a better understanding of what was happening.
“His first job was working for the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwest,” Swenson said. “At 22, he was in charge of a crew mapping the forest for the lumber industry. He liked it but he kept coming back to game management.”
Leopold proposed that the forest management should include game animals, but the answer was always ‘no’. He kept clashing with his supervisor over the idea that foresters should study everything in the forest – not just the trees. His boss finally suggested he go back to the Midwest to take a job at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison in 1924.
(When Doug and I moved back to Madison a number of years ago, the house where Aldo Leopold and his family lived in Madison was on the market. It would have been such an honor to live in his home.)
Four years later, he left the Forest Products Lab to do a survey of game animals in the Midwest for the Sporting Arms and Ammunitions Manufacturers Institute. (They were smart enough to realize there would be no market for their bullets when every last goose, grouse and groundhog was gone.)
When the survey was complete, Leopold was being consulted at the highest levels nation-wide about game management, but he was jobless and depleting his savings in order to support his wife and five children.
In 1932-33 he wrote a book that is still used to teach game management. Finally in 1933 he got his dream job – teaching game management and agricultural economics at UW-Madison. It was the first position of its kind in the country.
Always seeing the bigger picture, Leopold was called in to help farmers in Coon Valley, near La Crosse, deal with cascading erosion that was washing their farmland away. He was quoted in 1939 saying, “When the land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land – when both end up better by reason of their partnership – then we have conservation.”
Leopold became a land owner himself. He wanted a get-away and found a fixer-upper. “He wanted a 57 Chevy with some rust on it that he could buff out,” said Swenson. He bought some very degraded land with a shack on it along the Wisconsin River and began working with family and friends to bring it back to natural balance.
They planted 40,000 pines by hand, along with oaks, dogwoods and prairie plants. Leopold wanted to put back the pieces of nature that were being lost.
He started keeping notes about what they were doing and his thoughts about it. That was the beginning of what would become A Sand County Almanac.
“This was his masterpiece,” said Swenson. By 1944 Leopold had a collection of essays that he was extremely proud of. “He was trying to take all he knew and loved and put it into something anyone could pick up and appreciate.”
His book was rejected four times by publishers. Then in 1948, Oxford University Press called to say they would take it.
Leopold went up to his land the following weekend with his wife and daughter. “They were hanging out at the shack when a grass fire broke out down the road,” said Swenson. They drove down with buckets in the trunk. Aldo went out to fight the fire, his wife stayed by the car to make sure the fire didn’t cross the road, and his daughter went to the neighbors to call the fire department.
She returned to find something much worse than a fire had occurred. Leopold had had a heart attack, laid down, put his hands on his chest and the fire grazed over him. “That was the end. He was 61,” said Swenson.
Leopold was gone, but his work has lived on. After Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in the early 1970s, Leopold was rediscovered, and book sales soared.
Leopold’s family started a foundation in the early 1980s. “In the early 90s, they hired their first year-round staff person,” said Swenson. He looked at his BMAP audience and continued, “Now I hear you are considering hiring your first year-round staff person at Blue Mounds Area Project. The excitement of that, the potential of that. That’s where we were in 1993.”
A new headquarters has been built at the Aldo Leopold Foundation a mile from the carefully preserved shack where Leopold worked and wrote. It’s situated very near the spot where Leopold died fighting that grass fire almost 70 years ago. Today visitors come from around the world to visit the center to be inspired, learn and carry on his work.
Leopold wrote, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
What is your favorite Sand County Almanac essay? Please share it.