“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the Spring.” – Aldo Leopold
Spring is long overdue here in the Northeast, and the welcome sight and sound of geese returning from the south has made my thoughts turn to one of America’s greatest environmentalists, who was also one of our great nature writers. I remember reading Aldo Leopold’s best known book, A Sand County Almanac for the first time when I was twenty years old – I was on a cross country road trip, and when we got to Wisconsin I saw its natural beauty in a new way. In fact, I began to see everything in a new way. Suddenly I was paying attention to the “weeds” that were no longer just weeds, and to the wildflowers in neglected fields and roadway ditches. Every bird, every rustle in the grass caught my attention.
Aldo Leopold, who is considered to be the father of wildlife ecology, was a gifted writer and scholar, and his reverence for nature was inspiring. Here are some passages from A Sand County Almanac:
“Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of [Passenger] pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts,that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?
It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of the species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.
Above all we should, in the century since Darwin, have come to know that man, while captain of the adventuring ship, is hardly the sole object of its quest, and that his prior assumptions to this effect arose from the simple necessity of whistling in the dark.
These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.
For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last [Passenger] pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auck thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. DuPont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.”
And one of his more poetic passages, on the rhapsody of geese flying south:
“Out of the clouds I hear a faint bark, as of a faraway dog. It is strange how the world cocks its ear to that sound, wondering. Soon it is louder: the honk of geese, invisible, but coming on.
The flock emerges from the low clouds, a tattered banner of birds, dipping and rising, blown up and blown down, blown together and blown apart, but advancing, the wind wrestling lovingly with each winnowing wing. When the flock is a blur in the far sky I hear the last honk, sounding taps for summer.
It is warm behind the driftwood now, for the wind has gone with the geese. So would I–if I were the wind.”
— Aldo Leopold
Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa on January 11, 1887. There he spent his childhood exploring the countryside and developing a love and appreciation for the natural world. As a young man he pursued a forestry degree at Yale (the first graduate school of forestry in the United States) and graduated with a Master’s degree in 1909; he then joined the U.S. Forest Service and was assigned to the Arizona Territories. In 1924, he succeeded in having the Gila National Forest in New Mexico designated as the first extensive wilderness area in the United States.
Later he was transferred to Madison, Wisconsin where he served as associate director of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory. In 1928 he joined the faculty at University of Wisconsin where he taught wildlife management and helped found the Wilderness Society. He and his family bought a worn-out farm in an area of Wisconsin known as the sand counties, near Baraboo, where he put his beliefs into action, working on restoration of the land. The place became a haven for friends, family and graduate students, and his writing place.
Leopold’s book Game Management (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1933) delineated a system for managing and restoring wildlife populations, and created a new science that meshed forestry, agriculture, biology, zoology, ecology, education and communication. Following its publication, the University of Wisconsin created a new department, the Department of Game Management, and appointed Leopold as its first chair.
Aldo Leopold died of a heart attack at age 61 April 21, 1948 near Madison, Wisconsin while helping his neighbors fight a grass fire. Excerpts from Leopold’s journals (edited by his son) was published posthumously in 1953 as Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold.
IMPORTANT FIRST EDITIONS BY ALDO LEOPOLD
Leopold, Aldo. 1933. Game Management. Charles Scribner’s Sons. (Reprinted in 1986 by University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.)
Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press, New York.
Leopold, Luna B., ed., 1953. Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold. Oxford University Press, New York.
A complete bibliography of all publications with Aldo Leopold as the principal author is available here.
Books by Aldo Leopold and other great naturalist writers are available at Old Scrolls Book Shop.