Aldo Leopold: A Sage for All Seasons

Aldo Leopold articulated a new way to look at the land and its creatures

Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold (left) and Olaus Muire sitting together outdoors, annual meeting of The Wilderness Society Council, Old Rag, Virginia, 1946 Wikimedia Commons

A little more than 50 years ago, the manuscript of a book by a relatively unknown University of Wisconsin professor named Aldo Leopold was accepted for publication. A Sand County Almanac has long since been enshrined as one of the nation's environmental masterpieces. When it first appeared, the themes that underlay Leopold's keenly observed and elegantly written nature essays had scarcely penetrated America's consciousness.

Today, wilderness preservation, biodiversity and game management are pretty much taken for granted. The idea that undergirded Leopold's pioneering approach to conservation was his land ethic. "A thing is right," he reasoned, "when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Leopold himself was a somewhat contrary Midwesterner, self-contained and independent, who could build a fireplace as well as write a book. He was a hunter and a bird-watcher, a forester and a teacher, an organizer and a thinker, a philosopher and a poet. He was an indulgent father, a patient mentor, a chronic notetaker. He restored an old farm on the Wisconsin River and his later writing centered more and more on the cycle of life at that beloved family retreat. When he died of a heart attack while helping to fight a brushfire nearby, he had no way of knowing that his soon-to-be-published book would one day make him famous.

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