Maybe nothing much is going on right now in your hometown, but that’s not the case in Batesland, S.D. (population 108), and in the Wisconsin towns of La Crosse, Fond du Lac and New London. They’re all marking Aldo Leopold Weekend, and we should, too.
Aldo Leopold Weekend — officially so designated in Wisconsin but informally marked elsewhere — comes only once a year, and it is a time for reflection and action, all in honor of one of the poets laureate of the conservation movement, a man much forgotten by the general public but much revered among those who believe, as he did, that there are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm — that you might think breakfast comes from the store and that you might believe heat comes from the furnace.
Pick up your copy of his classic “A Sand County Almanac” — all libraries have one, several schools do, and those who love nature writing own at least one volume — and pause for a moment on his foreword, written precisely 65 years ago Monday. There is more wisdom in those 13 paragraphs than in a dozen 300-page works that have won the National Book Award. Pause for a moment on the second paragraph:
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.
Leopold’s book is a meditation on wild things and on the cost of civilization. Long before the word “ecology” moved from the natural-history and zoology faculty in the late 19th century to the front pages of newspapers in the late 1960s, this U.S. Forest Service supervisor, University of Wisconsin professor of game management and long-selling author (2 million copies in print) preached the precepts and values of this discipline, which he viewed in moral as much as in scientific terms:
That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics ... Our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.
Can it be a coincidence that his masterwork was completed in the same year (1948) as “Northern Farm,” Henry Beston’s chronicle of a year in Maine, written from Chimney Farm in Nobleboro, where he lived with his wife, the equally sagacious Elizabeth Coatsworth, a Buffalo girl who won the Newbery Medal in 1931 for “The Cat Who Went to Heaven” but is best remembered in our house for her musings about rural New England?
Beston may be better known for “The Outermost House,” written in 1928 from Cape Cod, but I have always been drawn to “Northern Farm,” which he concludes by observing that “(w)hat has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity.”
That is the Leopold insight as well. Leopold and Rachel Carson (who once said Beston was the only writer who influenced her) are almost always cited as the founding father and mother of the modern environmental movement. Open Beston’s book at random and you’ll encounter reflections like this, on page 24 of my well-loved paperback edition, now 39 years old:
If there is one thing clear about the centuries dominated by the factory and the wheel, it is that although the machine can make everything from a spoon to a landing-craft, a natural joy in earthly living is something it never has and never will be able to manufacture.
Like Beston, Leopold was a great observer. He contemplated field sparrows, wrens, even the beautifully named prothonotary warbler, the latter very much at home in a hole carved by a woodpecker. He made friends with the wahoo, red dogwood, hazel and bittersweet, dismissed by the less discerning as mere brush. He noticed how the wild blackberries glowed along boggy streams like red lanterns. He found that the winds of November were in a hurry.
In all, the farm woodlands provided him with what he called “a liberal education,” for he concluded that “(t)his crop of wisdom never fails.” Here’s some of that wisdom, beautifully captured in a new edition published this month by the Library of America:
If you are thriftily inclined, you will find pines congenial company, for, unlike the hand-to-mouth hardwoods, they never pay current bills out of current earnings; they live solely on their savings of the year before.
In this month of March the “small-talk and neighborhood gossip among pines” told Leopold that a well-fed deer is too lazy to reach up beyond 4 feet for his feast of branches but a really famished one will reach as high as 8 feet. “Thus,” he wrote, “I learn the gastronomic status of the deer without seeing them, and I learn, without visiting his field, whether my neighbor has hauled in his cornshocks.” (Lest you think this sort of wisdom, rare in any age, has no equal in our time, let me recommend “Reading the Forested Landscape” by Tom Wessels, perhaps the best nature book of our century.) Some 65 years later, Leopold tells us that a “March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese.”
The other day I was in the country and looked skyward and saw snow-laden clouds at war with the sun. The snow won. All was right with the world, softened by the white.
Leopold, who prided himself on knowing how a mountain thinks, saw man as merely the newest animal on the prairie he came to love, intervening by depriving the land of its onetime ally, fire. He reminds us that the great John Muir felt the same thing. “Had there been no fires,” wrote Muir, “these fine prairies, so marked a feature of the country, would have been covered by the heaviest forest.”
This led Leopold to tell us that he who owns a bur oak, so prominent in southern Wisconsin, “owns a historical library, and a reserved seat in the theater of evolution.”
The amazing thing is that he saved a seat for us in that theater. Sit back and watch the action. It’s Aldo Leopold Weekend.
North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.