Wisconsin Magazine of History

Reading the Landscape

Twenty centuries of “progress” have brought the average citizen a vote, a national anthem, a Ford, a bank account, and a high opinion of himself, but not the capacity to live in high density without befouling and denuding his environment.
—Aldo Leopold, Game Management (1933)1

Aldo Leopold was a forester, a professor of wildlife management, and an advocate for wilderness preservation who achieved national standing in each endeavor. Generations of readers have admired the lyrical quality of Leopold’s writing. The author of three hundred publications, Leopold conveyed complex scientific ideas in a succinct and accessible style. A Sand County Almanac, posthumously published in 1949, eventually emerged as a touchstone of the environmental movement and sold more than two million copies. “The Land Ethic,” the book’s capstone essay, extended the ethics of the human community to include “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”2 The essay established Leopold as a major twentieth-century philosopher.

Despite a wealth of scholarship about A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s study and use of history has garnered modest attention. In the decades between the world wars, when astonishing advances were made in scientific laboratories, Leopold gravitated to interdisciplinary methods that consistently included historical analysis. This approach was particularly important in shaping the emerging discipline of wildlife ecology. Almost half of the essays featured in A Sand County Almanac are steeped in history, including the beloved “Good Oak,” “Marshland Elegy,” and “Bur Oak.” Leopold turned to history for a variety of reasons: to create baseline studies for land management, to argue for the preservation of wilderness, and to train a new generation of professional conservationists. Ultimately, he used the craft of history to shape his writing for the public, using stories about the past to help readers understand the importance of conserving the land for tomorrow.

Born in 1887 in Burlington, Iowa, Leopold witnessed profound changes occurring throughout the environs of his youth. The Mississippi River and surrounding prairies served as a backyard classroom. Carl Leopold, Aldo’s father, patiently taught ethical hunting practices to his son as market hunters plied their trade along the migratory flyway, habitat for a quarter of North America’s bird population. Historian Michael Edmonds estimates that commercial gunners and “sportsmen” killed 250 million game birds on the great flyway between 1878 and 1918.3 During Leopold’s youth, mechanized agriculture altered vast amounts of prairies and wetlands. Writer David Hunter surmised that “Leopold’s vision was not a pleasant or optimistic one” and suggested that “the clarity of his insight was sharpened by what his particular generation witnessed.”4

Clara Leopold, Aldo’s mother, introduced her son to German literature, poetry, and philosophy. Aldo also gravitated to the stories of Daniel Boone and Hiawatha, and, later, the works of Jack London, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ernest Thomas Seton.5 He excelled in Burlington’s public schools, sketching handsome maps about historical events spanning from the ancient Greeks to white settlement in the Missouri Territory. At age sixteen he ventured east, enrolling in Lawrenceville Preparatory School in New Jersey, readying himself for Yale University. Although he appreciated the financial sacrifice his parents were making, Aldo confided that “instruction in English and History is much inferior to that of the [Burlington] High School.” In the school library, however, he devoured Charles Darwin’s A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World.6 The naturalist’s interdisciplinary methods—including geology, zoology, and botany—while on the HMS Beagle’s five-year journey served as the gold-standard approach for generations of natural scientists.

After spending four years at Yale University, and on the verge of completing a master’s degree in forestry, twenty-two-year-old Leopold vented to his parents that But forestry in the early twentieth century was an emerging discipline, and the coursework was mostly technical in nature, concerning such topics as timber testing, rangeland regulations, and the engineering properties of wood. Leopold was particularly bored with plant morphology, complaining to his mother: “You sit for a week squinting through a microscope at a little drop of mud all full of wiggly bugs and things, and then draw pictures of them and label [them] with ungodly Latin names.” Although the academic program offered one summer of intensive fieldwork, the forestry curriculum was poorly suited to Leopold’s broad outlook.

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