Conservation Biology

Tributes to Aldo Leopold

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This article is part of the Aldo Leopold Collection.


In Appreciation of Aldo Leopold

Obituary by Paul L. Errington from The Journal of Wildlife Management. Vol. 12, No. 4 (Oct., 1948) pp. 341-350. Reprinted with permission.

Paul L. Errington (1902-1962) studied at UW-Madison from 1929-1932, earning a PhD through research on northern bobwhite quail populations coordinated by Aldo Leopold. Errington went on to join the faculty at Iowa State University, where he continued to collaborate with Leopold on research on quail population ecology.

caption Aldo Leopold. (Used with permission of the Aldo Leopold Foundation Archives)

Professor Aldo Leopold, chairman of the Department of Wildlife Management at the University of Wisconsin and a Past-President of The Wildlife Society, died of a heart attack near his summer home at Baraboo, Wisconsin, April 21, 1948, after two hours of fighting a bad grass fire on a neighbor’s land.

I shall not here write of his personal life except in relation to his career in the professional field of wildlife management.

It is proper that he be singled out for the attention of the profession’s members. Without belittling in any way his numerous contemporaries, it may be said that he, more than anyone else, has been responsible for the expansion and refinement of wildlife management as such is known today. As a measure of this, we need only consider the strategic positions that he held, the astounding amount of work that he did on committees, the insight and diligence with which he pioneered in the field, his honesty of purpose, and his inspiring and leading of youngsters and the mature alike. At a conference a couple of years ago, he was introduced as a speaker with the words, “Dean of Deans” of the profession, which might have sounded trite if applied to another, yet for him seemed wholly appropriate.

I met Aldo in the spring of 1929, when he was conducting a game survey of the north-central United States for the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute. He was likewise the Institute’s representative for a series of graduate research fellowships on game birds that it was financing at land-grant universities. I held one of these fellowships for three years, beginning July, 1929, and it happened to be with the University of Wisconsin at Madison – also the city of the Leopold home and office. As Aldo was not appointed to the University of Wisconsin staff until 1933 (a year after I had left the campus), I was never formally his student.

Informally, I moved in on him, his home, and his library for hours at a stretch, talking “shop” or anything else. I wasn’t a restful satellite and sometimes argued in an evening until neither of us could sleep long after going to bed, but he was gracious toward me and patient with my ex-trapper’s social deficiencies. And he was kindly insistent that, as concerned complex natural phenomena like animal fluctuations, one should first gather an abundance of facts to study rather than to put forth opinions based chiefly or solely upon outdoor experience.

He appreciated the ability and scientific outlook of H.L. Stoddard and W.L. McAtee (notably as manifested by the southeastern researches on bobwhites and associated species), of Charles Elton, the British ecologist, of the late P.S. Lovejoy of Michigan, and of creative thinkers wherever he found them, in person or through their publications. He was one of the first in the field really to see the exceptional virtues and promise of the untalkative young Franklin J.W. Schmidt, who died in a fire just as his work on central Wisconsin prairie chickens was becoming recognized.

Aldo’s own alertness and powers of synthesis were very evident from the beginning of my relations with him. Even when beset by great fatigue, he could somehow continue to think effectively. To me, one of his most impressive intellectual performances was during hospitalization for an unrecalled ailment; under stimulus of an impending deadline, he dictated whole chapters of his “Report of a Game Survey of the North Central States,’ published by the Institute in 1931. Later, he was characteristically dissatisfied with its loose ends, but, irrespective of these, it stands as a remarkable achievement.

In retrospect, I think not only of his personal qualities, as of the time when I knew him best, but also of his virtually undertaking, at middle age, a new profession and making this his distinguished life work after what are commonly a man’s most plastic and productive years.

Aldo was born on January 11, 1886, at Burlington, Iowa, and became interested in ornithology and hunting during boyhood and youth along the Mississippi River. He was trained in forestry at Yale, receiving the degree of Master of Forestry in 1909. Thereupon, he entered the U.S. Forest Service as a Forest Assistant and worked with that organization in southwestern United States until 1924, meanwhile rising through several grades to that of Chief of Operations.

If we look over the first dozen titles (1916-1919) in the Leopold bibliography complied by J.J. Hickey (University of Wisconsin Wildlife Research News Letter, No. 35, May 3, 1948), we may see that his earlier publications were much like those any able young field naturalists might write. They were mostly notes in The Condor and a couple of papers on game in the Journal of Forestry. One of the latter dealt with the National Forests as the last free hunting grounds of the nation. In the second dozen titles, we may see more ornithological notes and articles on game and game refuges but the future crusader against politics in conservation and misuse of resources is showing up more clearly.

The listed titles from 1920 through most of 1925 are predominantly of short articles on ornithology, hunting and game management, forestry in relation to game management, erosion control, ecological consequences of forest fires, and wilderness values. Included is the one that I regard as his first great paper: “Wilderness as a form of land use,” Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics, 1:398-404, 1925.

The latter was not his first expression of views on wilderness protection. He had published “The wilderness and its place in forest recreational policy,” Journal of Forestry, 19:718-721, 1921, and it is plain from other of his previous writings that he was becoming much aware of the pricelessness of unexploited outdoor areas. The paper on wilderness as a form of land use was more than a statement or plea; it was both solidly informative and a literary contribution. I cannot say how influential it proved to be, of itself; but to it, among the others, surely should be credited some of the prominence Aldo attained as an early protagonist of wilderness areas in National Forests. I read in a University of Wisconsin memorial resolution that the U.S. forest Service subsequently designated at total of 14,000,000 acres of such areas, which are considered to “represent the most visible evidence of his [Aldo’s] influence on the American scene.” The Leopold writings on wilderness of around a quarter-century ago are certainly in the historical picture. They still nourish movements for the preservation of wilderness, not alone in the United States or in North America, but over those parts of the rest of the world where men try to retain irreplaceable natural remnants.

The years, 1924-28, with a transfer to Madison, Wisconsin, to become Associate Director of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, comprised something of an interlude. He wrote relatively little for publication in this period, and what he did write usually dealt with forestry techniques and utilization or may be classed as carryover from his life in the Southwest.

Without knowledge of the details behind the selection of Aldo Leopold by the Sporting Arms and Manufacturers’ Institute for its game surveys in 1928, one may perceive how he qualified for the job. He was experienced in administration and public contacts, his interests in game and hunting had long been demonstrated, and he had a record of constructive accomplishment in what was then known as game management. Considering the stage of development of management as a field, he was singularly informed. Already, he had contributed to the reversal of the trends toward artificial propagation or tightened legal protection as panaceas for conservation ills; he did not seek complete abandonment of either propagation or protection but rather a judicious balance for them in an incomparably more promising system based upon the ecology of the species concerned. He differentiated between passive conservation and active management and identified management with a desirable type of husbandry of the earth and its mineral and biotic resources. He was an ecologists and a specialist in his own branch of ecology.

Despite his background, the transition from his old profession to his new one had its abrupt aspects. During the 20 years that he lived as a full-time practitioner of the new profession (and particularly during the first few years), he changed emphasis in several fairly distinct ways.

The changes did not occur in sudden steps. They reflected his accelerating professional growth and the growth of the new field in applied ecology in which he was a “key” worker, the impacts of the man and of the field, of one upon the other.

His game surveys had left him with friends among game administrators, sportsmen, and conservation workers of differing creeds and purposes over the continent. As a man of reason, he kept building on the factual foundations that he had at hand – constantly trying to uncover pertinent researches that had been done or were in progress, encouraging further research, and doing what he could by himself. He did a tremendous amount of reading on conservation history and methods, on the long-established systems of game management of the Old World. Always comparing systems, he tried critically to separate the desirable from the objectionable features of each, to dissociate sound fact from traditional assumption, to understand more of the workings of natural mechanisms.

As chairman of a large committee, he did much of the work preparing the “Report to the American Game Conference on an American Game Policy,” Transactions of the American Game Conference, 17:284-309,1931, which mentioned the incompatibility of the English and American systems of game management. “Game methods; the American way,” American Game, 20: 20, 29-31, 1931, was written “to express a personal view of what the policy means in its references to the European practices.” In this, the theorem was advanced that “to supply any given proportion of the population with any given amount of game, Europe must raise a denser stand of game per acre, and hence practice a more intensive form of game management than America.” Quoting further: “The recreational value of a head of game is inverse to the artificiality of its origin, and hence in a broad way to the intensiveness of the system of game management which produced it… A game policy should seek…between the evident necessity of some management and the aesthetic desideratum of not too much… There is nothing to prevent us from adopting the European technique for producing a game crop, and at the same time rejecting the European customs governing the intensity of the operation and the European system for its harvesting and distribution. The game policy, by and large, proposes just this…”

He went on in the same article to challenge “the ruthless suppression of predators which goes with game management in most European countries. W.T. Hudson has voiced his protest over the disappearance of one predatory species after another, and his resulting contempt for the aesthetic horizon of sportsmen and sportsmanship… American protectionists mortally hate and fear the impending (?) American counterpart of this sacrifice…

“I am no prophet. I would point out, however, that stringent predator control is usually unnecessary save in the upper scale of intensive game management… we do not need that kind of management …This is not to say that no predator control is needed. It does mean that extensive or low-grade management – enough, let us say, to quintuple our crop – can best be achieved by light, local, seasonal, and selective handling of the predator-factor…It is too much to hope, then, that the group-cooperative wild life enterprise advocated by the game policy may ultimately evolve an American attitude toward predators, based on the new biology, and recognizing the nature-lover and farmer, as well as the sportsman, as joint partner?”

In what could almost be called a companion piece – “Game and wildlife conservation,” Condor, 34:103-106, 1932 – he drew other important distinctions that the reader could afford to study. Very significant is that between the “schools” of “hardened sportsmen” in this country, exemplified by moderate and extreme factions.

But perhaps nowhere so well as in the concluding paragraphs of the celebrated textbook, “Game Management” (Scribners, 1933), does he clarify his reasoning. From his pages 420-423:

“The game manager manipulates animals and vegetation to produce a game crop. This, however, is only a superficial indication of his social significance. What he really labors for is to bring about a new attitude toward the land.

“The economic determinist regards the land as a food-factory. Though he sings “America” with patriotic gusto, he concedes any factory the right to be as ugly as need be, provided only that it be efficient.

“There is another faction which regards economic productivity as an unpleasant necessity, to be kept, like a kitchen, out of sight. Any encroachment on the ‘parlor’ of scenic beauty is quickly resented, sometimes in the name of conservation.

“There is a third, and still smaller, minority with which game management by its very essence, is inevitably aligned. It denies that kitchens or factories need be ugly, or farms lifeless, in order to be efficient.

“That ugliness which the first faction welcomes as the inevitable concomitant of progress, and which the second regretfully accepts as a necessary compromise, the third rejects as the clumsy result of poor technique, bunglingly applied by a human community which is morally and intellectually unequal to the consequences of its own success…

“Herein lies the social significance of game management. It promulgates no doctrine, it simply asks for land and the chance to show that farm, forest and wild life products can be grown on it, to the mutual advantage of each other, the landowner, and of the public. It proposes a motivation -- the love of sport – narrow enough actually to get action from human beings as now constituted, but nevertheless capable of expanding with time into that new social concept toward which conservation is groping.

“In short, 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, nor a conviction that such capacity, rather than such density, is the true test of wheather he is civilized. The practice of game management may be one of the means of developing a culture which will meet this test.”

His other writings for this period contain other syntheses of complex subject matter, other pace-setting thought, other excellent composition; and two “heavy” essays, “The conservation ethic,” Journal of Forestry, 31:634-643, 1933 and “Conservation economics,” Ibid., 32:537-544, 1934 – two of his greatest papers. Among the major changes in professional emphasis to be detected in his publications, 1929-1935, is one from the survey to the intensive method of research and another from game management for shooting to far broader versions of management involving native prairie flowers and songbirds as well as game and game habitats. These changes doubtless may be ascribed partly to changed conditions of employment, notwithstanding which there is plenty of evidence that Aldo’s own inclinations led him into them.

In 1935, he studied German game and forest management under a Carl Schurz Travelling Fellowship, publishing his comparisons and conclusions chiefly during the next year: the two-part paper “Deer and Dauerwald in Germany,” Journal of Forestry, 34:366-375, 460-466, and semipopular articles in Bird-Lore and American Wildlife. This trip, by its contrasts, intensified his concern for threatened outdoor values – see, for example, the introduction to the Bird-Lore article, “Naturschutz in Germany,” in which he depicted the “nostalgia of the German for wildness, as distinguished from mere forests or mere game…We Americans yearn for more deer and more pines, and we shall probably get them. But do we realize that to get them, as the Germans have, at the expense of their wild environment and their wild enemies, is to get very little indeed?”

We have in 1937 the appearance of superbly written short essays, combining ecology and management and a philosophy of esthetics. “Conservationist in Mexico” and “Marshland elegy,” both appearing in American Forests (43:118-120, 146, and 472-474) are, I feel, among the first of the fully mature Leopoldian essays of this type. More came out in subsequent years, such as: “Conservation esthetic,” Bird-Lore, 40: 101-109, 1938, “A biotic view of land,” Journal of Forestry, 37:727-730, 1939, “Escudilla” American Forests, 46:539-540, 1940, “Song of th e Gavilan” Journal of Wildlife Management, 4:329-331, 1940, “Cheat takes over,” The Land, 1:310-313, 1941, “The Last Stand,” Outdoor America, 7(7): 8 -9, 1942, “The Flambeau,” American Forests, 49: 12-14, 47 , 1943, “Wildlife in American culture,” Journal of Wildlife Management, 7:1-6, 1943, “The green lagoons,” American Forests 51:376-377, 414,1945, and “The ecological conscience,” Bulletin of the Garden Club of America, September 46-53, 1947. A book of his essays, including his revisions of some of the above, is to be published in 1949 by Oxford University Press, N.Y.

To some degree, his later publications reflect changed emphasis, as from advocating monetary or other economic incentives for management to attempting to inculcate appreciation for cultural values. They also indicate a change in emphasis from training of specialists to liberal education as a means to management ends. Aldo worked for long-term “deep-digging” research up to the time of his death, but he saw long before then that the problems of sane land use required more than the attention of professionals. There had to be better motivated, better directed, and better sustained participating by the public if what was good in management was to become a living practice.

As scientist or educator, he was anything but jealous of professional prerogatives. From “Wildlife in American Culture” (his page 5):

“Wildlife research started as a professional priestcraft. The more difficult or laborious problems must remain in professional hands, but there are plenty of problems suitable for all grades of amateurs…Ornithology, mammalogy, and botany, as now known to most amateurs, are but kindergarten games compared with researches in these fields. The real game is decoding the messages written on the face of the land…

“Few people can become enthusiastic about research as a sport because the whole structure of biological education is aimed to perpetuate the professional research monopoly. To the amateur is allotted only make-believe voyages of discovery, the chance to verify what professional authority already knows. This is false; the case of Margaret Nice proves what a really enterprising amateur can do…” (He delighted in the ornithological investigations of Mrs. Nice, which in volume and quality surpassed so much of the work of the professionals.)

Long ago, he had likened the titles of academic courses to labels on bottles having highly variable contents; and, coming from him as a teacher of academic coursework, his paper “The role of wildlife in a liberal education” (Transactions of the North American Wildlife Conference, 7:485-489, 1942) has quotable paragraphs:

“Liberal education in wildlife is not merely a dilute dosage of technical education. It calls for somewhat different teaching materials and sometimes even different teachers. The objective is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands. I say land rat her than wildlife, because wildlife cannot be understood without understanding the landscape as a whole. Such teaching could well be called land ecology rather than wildlife, and could serve very broad educational purposes.

“Perhaps the most important of these purposes is to teach the student how to put the sciences together in order to use them. All the sciences and arts are taught as if they were separate. They are separate only in the classroom. Step out on the campus and they are immediately fused. Land ecology is putting the sciences and arts together for the purpose of understanding our environment…

“There is no need to persuade the student of land ecology that machines to dominate the land are useful only while there is a healthy land to use them on, and that land-health is possibly dependent upon land-membership, that is that a flora and fauna too severely simplified or modified might not tick as well as the original. He can see for himself that there is no such thing as good or bad species; a species may get out of hand, but to terminate its membership in the land by human fiat is the last word in anthropomorphic arrogance.”

From the paper, “Wildlife in American culture”: “Ecology is now teaching us to search in animal populations for analogies to our own problems. The ability to perceive these, and to appraise them critically, is the woodcraft of the future.”

Aldo’s personal contacts with students were quite evidently similar to what they had been with me during his game survey years. I learned from the “grapevine” that he exhorted them to write carefully, to revise their manuscripts over and over until organized and smooth, to strive for the maximum simplicity consistent with the subjects written upon. The summer after leaving Wisconsin, I brought back to him a medium-length manuscript on the different versions of which I had labored for four months and which I considered ready for the editor; we worked for two days at high pressure, and it took six weeks more of revision to incorporate his suggestions – and that wasn’t any too long!

His students, too, could hardly have missed his fairness in what Elton (letter of May 4, 1948) called a “special sort of integrity.” My data were always mine, and I have no doubt that his students were assured that their data were theirs and that they could as a matter of course expect a reasonable amount of professorial guidance in handling the same – actually, he was generous with his time to the extent that it frequently meant hardship to him. Nor do I doubt that at least his more mature students respected his intellectual humility.

I remember other things about him from the earlier years. I remember him as a man in the personal crisis of being without income for months during 1932 and 1933 in the worst of the Depression. He took this punishment most creditably, kept up the standard of living of his family as well as circumstances allowed, worked on the manuscript of “Game Management,” and made plans with courage and realism. He was offered desirable positions, including a professorship at a prominent state college, but these would have entailed moving his home from Madison, which he was reluctant to do. The, the University of Wisconsin established its first Chair of Game Management, later becoming the Department of Wildlife Management.

In appraising Aldo’s accomplishment, I would rate the literary essays as the greatest. They reflect him and his thoughts, what McAtee (letter of May 3, 1948 to R.A. McCabe) referred to as “his lucid and stimulating discussion in the conservation field…his ever growing power as a writer.” In this, his own field of excellence, I don’t think that anyone else may be compared with him.

His scientific best is, I think, illustrated by his papers on forest game and land use. These have appeared in widely scattered journals, but the Journal of Forestry drew the larger proportion.

His personal inspiration of others is hard to do justice to, whether this was in routine dealing with students or public, or in strategic committee work. As regards his committee work alone, one must consider not only the dozens of committees of scientific societies and conservation organization to which he was appoints but also those of extraordinary prestige and importance, such as his chairmanship of the committee on wildlife studies of the National Research Council. Shortly before his death he had been asked by Secretary of State Marshall to be a discussion chairman at the Inter-American Conference on Conservation of Renewable Natural Resources and by Secretary of the Interior Krug to serve on the Advisory Committee on American Participation at the United Nations Scientific Conference on Conservation and Utilization of Resources.

* * *

In order to write this memorial as reflectively as I could, I waited until my vacation to do it, to do the writing in a simple log dwelling house near one of the National Forests.

A porcupine-girdled pine top may be seen through the front windows, and just out of sight hand the remaining sticks of a goshawk nest that had young in it twelve summers ago. Three species of grouse live along the creek that comes down out of the canyon. If one looks, one may easily find deer and bear “sign” and, in the hours of darkness, coyotes howl. The air smells richly of pine and sage.

The property on which the log house is situated contributes to the livelihood of people. Along with the “sign” of native animals is some of horses and cattle. Some land is tilled and some yields hay. Yet, the tract surrounding the house is wild and it is intentionally kept so. We are getting rid of the old stumps and other axe-marked wood; our two boys bring it in to burn in the box stove. A large yellow pine with weakened base that we once had to take down to protect the house is an exception: its trunk will be left where it fell, axe and saw cuts and all, ungrudgingly. For a ruffed grouse has accepted it as a drumming log, and, in the twilight of evening or early morning, if careful, the family may watch and hear the muffled beating of wings – that “numenon” of northern woodlands. This, I am sure, Aldo would have approved as husbandry.

To the west, the National Forest begins. Less than ten miles away is timberline and, below that, are still-occupied retreats of those much reduced prize fur-bearers, the martens. In the canyons farther below, glacial waters pour over and between boulders, and there are bobcat or lynx tracks in the mud where a game trail leads around a beaver pond. Deep in the forest are said to be a few grizzly bears and even cougars.

The thought of Aldo in connection with this mountain wilderness seems appropriate, though I doubt that he had ever seen it. The love he felt for the out-of-doors and the things that belonged in it was not a matter of geographical boundaries, nor confined to particular settings. In his essay, “Conservation esthetic,” he wrote: “To those devoid of imagination, a blank space on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part. (Is my share in Alaska worthless to me because I shall never go there? Do I need a road to show me the Arctic prairies, the goose pastures of the Yukon, the Kodiak bear, the sheep meadows behind McKinley?)”

* * *

Very probably one so distinguished will be honored posthumously in many ways. There is talk of a memorial fellowship and there may be other movements to perpetuate his name and ideals. Assuredly, these should be encouraged and supported to the extent that they are well-conceived. We must not mock honesty with gestures. I can imagine his gentle scorn at the thought of anything like elaborate statuary in his memory while despoliation and wastage of the land and its biota continue as usual.

For, his greatness, as I regard it, lay in the fact that he loved and worked and fought for something greater than himself or any other man. He knew of the peace that outdoor value may give to receptive minds and he wanted those values safeguarded and increased for others as well as for himself. However else it may be designated, his concept of what is worth living in human life has a certain agelessness to it, a solidarity beyond the creative power of any one man. His sense of responsibility and decency is likewise much more than the byproduct of any one man’s thinking.

Let no one do him the disservice of fostering Leopoldian legends or Leopoldian dogmas. Knowing him as I have, I can say that he would not wish them to arise from his having lived. He would not wish to have imputed to him any qualities or abilities that he did not possess. He was only a mortal man, but a highly civilized and intelligent one withal, literate and – most fortunately – articulate in those ways necessary to convert intentions into leadership.

In some respects, we might look upon wild beauty, as such, whether in back yard or in remote places, a most fitting memorial to him and to his kind. As his professional colleagues, let us recognize our obligations to a philosophy of living that has goodness in it beyond selfish objectives; and moreover, that we honor him according to the way we, ourselves, live and lead.

Aldo Leopold - by Irven O. Buss

Reprinted from The Passenger Pigeon. Volume XI. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, January 1949.

The announcement of Aldo Leopold's death came suddenly, so suddenly in fact that even now many of us here in the halls of the conservation department and on the campus of the university have not yet attuned our hearts and minds to the new world in which he left us.

We appreciated him, but many of us did not realize the importance of his influence in our lives until we lost him. Since youngsters we have liked the clearness of a bobwhite's call, the smell of maple leaves drifted against a partridge log, and the scolding stones of the Flambeau, but their real value was never realized until our city work with its greasy smoke and concrete walls took us from them. Likewise, as we now look into an empty chair, a vast emptiness is born in our hearts–one who gave us these values of life has been taken from us.

Those who have followed the life and philosophies of Aldo Leopold by his pen will remember him as the father of wildlife management. From his early boyhood days spent prowling atop a bluff of the Mississippi to his final hours studying the sand-loving plants that thrive near his summer home on the Wisconsin river, wildlife grew up within him.

His writings not only are graced with eloquence, they are backed with scientific accuracy tuned to problems of the day. Since 1916 over 300 publications flowed from his ever-active pen. His pioneer text, "Game Management," lives on as the standard reference for wilderness throughout the land. It is indeed regrettable that God called a recess before his more modern, "Wildlife Ecology" was whipped into print.

To members of the Wisconsin Conservation department he will long be remembered as a friend in need, one who stood ever by his convictions, a man unmoved by the whims of emotion. For political motives he cared nothing, and his primary concern as a commissioner was ever directed at the wise utilization of our natural resources. The standards of conservation were and long will be measured by his yardstick, and his management precepts were based on factual information–bias and passion were never a part of his life. To the very end Aldo Leopold was a power and an advocate of conservation based on what is economically expedient. "A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the community, and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna, and flora, as well as people."

The several hundred students who have taken his courses will remember him as more than a professor. He was a competent commentator–a man who was able to teach from his own research, one who recognized and sifted out the important findings of other researchers, and an ecologist who pieced together the ABC's of scientific studies to spell the meanings of wildlife problems afield. The liked him because he could talk the language they understood and still retain the scientific soundness on which all his teachings were based. They respected him because his word was gospel, his lectures were linked to the land, and whether they be farmers, foresters or fishermen the ecological lessons of his classes became a part of their lives. The painstaking diligence of his lesson planning and the hours of precious time devoted to daily outlines were not in vain, for the seeds he has sown are already well rooted. They will mature and grow other progeny to foster his way of life.

Many of us will remember him as man! Someone we were proud to call our friend, for in all his greatness he remained ever modest, kind, polite and tolerant. His manliness was reflected in his own conservation ethics as well as ethics applied to local and national wildlife problems. He shared his equity in the ringneck with our raptors, his deer with the cougar and wolf, and he would trade an extra rabbit to include the hoot of an owl in his interminable variety of wild animals. Hunter that he was, no species was "sold short" in order that he could enjoy better shooting. On his own land Aldo Leopold practiced was his conscience dictated. His tactics did not seek to achieve one kind of conservation by destroying another, and his community included the soil, waters, animals, and plants with his own membership giving equal respect to each.

To those who knew him best Aldo Leopold will be remembered as a steadfast and untiring searcher for what was right. Behind his wind-worn years was hidden a determination for truth, and there was beauty ever about him and in his work which shall live forever. With notebook and field glasses he took to the fields recording horizontal transects through the sciences of botany, forestry, ornithology, mammalogy and soils.

Each winter he looked forward to the first event that marked the beginning of spring. For as he watched he knew that "after the mid-winter blizzards, there comes a thawy night when the tinkle of dripping water is heard in the land. It brings strange stirrings, not only to creatures abed for the night, but to some who have been asleep for the winter. The hibernating skunk, curled up in his deep den, uncurls himself and ventures forth to prowl the wet world for breakfast, dragging his belly in the melting snow. His track marks one of th earliest dateable events in that cycle of beginnings and ceasings which we call a year."

Thus did he record the happenings in nature, and so was his life dedicated as a phenology in wildlife history. He is gone, but his work lives on:

For, lo, the winter is past,</dd>
The rain is over and gone;</dd>
The flowers appear on the earth;</dd>
The time of singing of birds is come</dd>
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.</dd>
Song of Solomon 2, 11-12

Aldo Leopold as a Mentor


It is relatively simple to document the rising citations of A Sand County Almanac, but far harder to quantify the ripples that spread from Leopold’s colleagues, friends, students, and children.

During his 15-year-long tenure at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Aldo Leopold advised 27 graduate students as they pursued research in game management and wildlife ecology. As a professor in the College of Agricultural Economics, he also offered a course for much wider audience of undergraduates (Game Management 118, then Wildlife Ecology 118).

Leopold’s graduate students pursued careers in the Midwest, throughout the United States, and internationally, through state and federal agencies as well as academia. In 1987, many of these students returned to Madison to present their recollections at the Aldo Leopold Centennial Symposium. The resulting proceedings were compiled by former student Robert A. McCabe and subsequently published in 1988 by the University of Wisconsin Department of Wildlife Ecology in a book titled Aldo Leopold: Mentor (edited by Robert McCabe's son Richard E. McCabe). Five essays are reprinted here from permission of the UW Department of Wildlife Ecology.

Robert A. McCabe

This tribute is reprinted with permission from: McCabe, Richard E., ed. 1989. Aldo Leopold: Mentor. Department of Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin.

Robert A. McCabe (1914-1995) enrolled as a graduate student under Aldo Leopold in 1939. Following the completion of his PhD, he served as Leopold's assistant. He became a professor of wildlife ecology following Leopold's death and later served as chair of the University of Wisconsin Department of Wildlife Ecology.

The first meaningful contact with A.L. occurred when a student first met him and presented his credentials in order to be accepted on his graduate student roster. No two such meetings were exactly alike.

Mine, as I have recorded, was a matter of chance since I knew nothing of this man or what he regarded as his academic or professional mission. As with others of his students, it took only an initial meeting to convince me that my goal and that mission were highly compatible. Over the years the professional goal to attend to the welfare of our wildlife resource, was one we all held in common has not been altered. A.L.’s desire to achieve that goal through knowledge was the cohesive force that bound students to teacher and to his teachings.

Aldo Leopold influenced those of us fortunate to be his students through teaching and research interaction; and by personal counsel, influenced our attitudes and philosophy.

The Technical and Research Influence

The basic component of the advanced degree program in A.L.’s department was a field-research study designed to aid in the understanding, appreciation and management of a wildlife resource.

Without regard to priority I list below ideas A.L. employed in teaching about research. These guideposts to successful culmination of the research effort were emphasized to varying degrees among each of the graduate students depending on his previous field experience and academic background. At no time were these points formalized, nor are they the only ones that he emphasized.

  1. Select a field problem, the solution to which can be translated into management. This was not a hard and fast instruction. Some projects were basic research, others were or were intended to be applied. Still other projects or part of projects dealt wit new techniques that had application for future research efforts. The key aspect was to provide insight into wildlife management for the betterment of the resource. Field research by the student was to be innovative and challenging.
  2. Collect pertinent data and avoid the esoteric. Data collecting is an art within a science. Quantifying any aspect of field research is the data base from which adequate analysis can be made and from which meaningful deductions can be drawn: so taught A.L. Any technique for data gathering that produced a clear and understandable set of field notes and reliable statistics was acceptable. Each student tailored that aspect of his training to suit his personal requirements.
  3. Develop a plan or outline at the outset of a project—and adjust it as the field program progresses. An outline always began with a clear statement of the objective. A.L. preferred sentences as opposed to words and phrases in the outline format. Student conferences with A.L. were often discussions based on the progress of the outlined project. No outline was engraved in stone-it remained for the student to use his judgment on when and how an outline would be amended to achieve the desired results.
  4. Investigate thoroughly a limited scope hypothesis (instead of a program too difficult to undertake with limited funds or personnel). This was and still is a tendency for a beginner in any field, but perhaps more common among wildlife people, to undertake more than their capabilities dictate. This counsel was a prompting to work within the physical and fiscal constraints of a project. Each student was expected to select a problem that was realistically within his capabilities. Grandiose and clever sounding projects were not in keeping with A.L.’s approach to research. In most cases field assistance was not available or affordable.
  5. Research that tests hypotheses is more important to resource management than subjective opinion. Nowhere is subjective opinion more rife than in concerns of natural resources. A.L. was acutely aware of this from his interviews while collecting information for his Game Survey of the North Central States (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’’ Institute 1929). Whenever he was able to, either alone or through his students, he used research results to support or reject “common knowledge” pronouncements (i.e. old wives’ or old hunters’ tales) concerning wildlife, thus replacing fiction with fact. The intellectual fervor with which he sought the truth about wild creatures and their habitats inspired his students to do likewise.
  6. Speculation on the meaning of research results is a healthy exercise, but speculation must be identified for what it is. Results of research in biology, and wildlife studies in particular, are not always black and white. Where results are not precise, speculation by the researcher can be helpful to understanding and usually become the basis for thought, discussion and “deeper digging.” A.L. was a skillful speculator and oftentimes his interpretation was later shown to be correct. He encouraged his students to speculate by judicious thinking and with scrupulous care to differentiate between scientific conclusion and logical speculation.
  7. Clarity is the essence of written communication. To be understood it is necessary to write clearly. It can be achieved with few words and simple language. A.L. never suggested that one exchange clarity for brevity, but his writings were clear examples of that message. He was very insistent that commentary (setting the stage) in research writing be unambiguous and complete so that the expository (explaining the results) aspects were easy to follow and readily understood. However he also cautioned that commentary alone did not constitute research or added knowledge.
  8. Read all literature that bears on your research effort. Knowing what other researchers have done with the same or similar problems is necessary in order to put one’s own efforts in perspective. For students, familiarity with what has been published made synthesis easier and a more meaningful component of a thesis. A.L. always encouraged the need to develop a personal library in the area of the individual’s specialty. Again, he set the example with this own modest library.

There are doubtless other areas of influence recognized by other students, but these are the ones I remembered from personal experience.

The Personal and Professional Influence

In the personal interaction Aldo Leopold had with his students, I never saw him impose his will on anyone. Nor was he vindictive or recriminating even with those within or outside the profession who worked against him or reviled him unjustifiably. His standards were his own and his keen sense of honesty and fair play a hallmark. If only one word was used to describe A.L.’s personal relationships, it would be “kindness.” This attribute, coupled with understanding, was the basis of his attitude toward those with whom he was associated.

His influence on his students was often subtle and enforced by example. Below are listed some of the kinds of influence he exerted.

  1. Be patient and try to understand another person’s point of view. Because he was a pioneer and innovator with progressive ideas, he was sometimes forced to deal with opposition on many of his professional positions. He did not run roughshod over those who opposed him: instead he bided his time and became familiar with the counter argument, then usually disposed of opposition with fact, logic and reason. A case in point is his position on the need to control Wisconsin’s overpopulated deer range in the 1940s by the reduction of does in the herd. He was extremely patient in the face of vitriolic diatribes, but his calm and rational defence of his prevailed—to the benefit of deer and deer hunting.
  2. Develop the art of being a good listener. Some academics are more prone to talk than listen; A.L. was not one. He listened to any student who had a problem, a new idea or who was exercising his prerogative to be inquisitive. In order to educate, to offer opposition, to plan, to comprehend, to elicit confidence and credibility requires one to listen to that with which we agree or disagree. A.L. listened and thought before he spoke, and as a result of his responses were those where wisdom produced wisdom.
  3. Be prepared, through careful planning, to confront any aspect of a field program or academic requirement. Because A.L. was a planner, he anticipated the contingencies of any project in which he was involved. His hunting trips, from local excursions to extended forays into the Mexican wilderness, were planned in great detail. His students learned this lesson of preparedness by watching his painstaking effort to anticipate problems, and when we failed to plan adequately, we learned the “hard way.” A.L. developed plans for more than a few land management programs, including one for organizing sportsmen groups in the Southwest into conservation organizations, and a wildlife management plan for the Huron Mountain (private) Club.
  4. Be self critical without being self effacing. Among students, “taking stock” of your own performance and accomplishments is not an exercise that comes easy. Understandably students who think hard and work hard assume that results are commensurate with such effort, but that is not always the case. This holds particularly for putting research into publication. In periodic meetings with A.L. one was led gently and with dignity into the ways to be self-critical both in research and in written expression. The changes he made in the construction of his own essays were clearly the result of self-assessment in the use of words to convey the thought.
  5. Humility is a major asset to a professional. Aldo Leopold was a humble person who did not seek center stage or dominate conversation, and I never heard him “blow his own horn.” Despite major accomplishments in the wildlife profession he was instrumental in creating, he always alluded to what others had done or were doing. Humility was taught by example and not by admonishment or reprimand. In some cases credibility and respect are lost when humility is wanting. He contended that you sell your ideas not by reminding colleagues how skillful you are, but by letting the result of your position speak for itself.
  6. Remain calm in the face of abuse or adversity. Nowhere is this counsel more relevant for a professional wildlife biologist than when he must deal with publicly self-styled, untrained experts in his own field. A.L. suffered at the hands of such experts simply because his ideas were, usually, on the cutting edge of an emerging profession and flew in the face of outmoded ideas. His calm demeanor and clear thinking on the Wisconsin deer problem of the 1940s was again a case in point. And as might have been expected, his program prevailed. It was an object lesson to his students.
  7. Ethical behavior is how one responds to a given situation when he/she is the sole judge of the resulting action. The premise was articulated in A.L.’s writings and stressed in many subtle ways in classroom lectures and in conservation matters. A code of proper behavior and the will to keep it intact may be a lesson learned at home, by peer compliance, or self taught. There is no doubt that A.L. learned ethics, particularly as they related to hunting and the environment, from his father. He then passed these lessons on to his children and enforced or restructured such behavior patterns among his students. For him no result justified the violation of ethical standards.

The Bottom Line

Aldo Leopold regarded book learning as important and encouraged students to work hard in the classroom. He also considered the primary achievers to be those students who were inclined to read in professional journals and contribute to that literature by writing. Book learning and advanced degrees opened career doors, but were no guarantee to success.

Each of us, his students, was influenced in slightly different ways. There can be no denying, however, that in every case the influence was positive.

His basic tenet was to train his students to think, because the thinkers stimulate thinking through intellectual contact. In this way his influence continues to live on and in recent years enhanced by a reawakening to his philosophy, articulated in A Sand County Almanac.

We who marched to his drum were fortunate, for his influence enriched our lives and allowed us to pass on some of that influence to others.

Frances Hamerstrom

This tribute is reprinted with permission from: McCabe, Richard E., ed. 1989. Aldo Leopold: Mentor. Department of Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin.

Frances Hamerstrom (1907-1988) earned her masters degree under Aldo Leopold in 1940. Together with her husband Frederick N. Hamerstrom, she was regarded as a foremost authority on the greater prairie chicken; according to the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, "Their work was the basis for the conservation effort which saved the prairie chicken from extirpation in Wisconsin." "Fran," as she was known to friends and colleagues, was Leopold's only female graduate student, and among the first women to earn a degree in the profession of wildlife ecology and management.


People ask, “What was Leopold like?”

“Inspiring – a great man” are answers that come to mind and then, again and again, years after his death I find myself saying, “Aldo has a hunch that… Aldo believes that…” There has been a persistent inability in some of us to recognize that he is dead. He still acts as a touchstone and any conscious recognition of his death would make us forget and diminish his lasting influence on our lives and attitudes.

I am in no sense a mystic. This is a matter of practicality. When I have a difficult decision to make I can always ask, “What would Aldo have done?” My mind is not cluttered with numerous, kindly, pat answers, given to a variety of people throughout the years. Ineptness in giving answers has preserved Aldo’s wisdom and spirit in my mind.

But now the time has come to give others, not just through example as we have tried to do for decades, but also by ceasing to be protective and by trying to share memories of a man we viewed worshipfully. Details of the memories, protected so long are almost forgotten. They pale compared to the greatness of Leopold the man.

Housekeeping and Food Habits

I heard some talk once, about Grace Sowls, the wife of one of Aldo’s graduate students. Aldo had said of her, “She never lowers her standards. Her table is always perfectly set, and she slices cold roast duck very thin with a silver knife.”

For a moment I was miffed at this paragon wife of a graduate student and then I recalled what Aldo has said to me, wife of another graduate student. “Necedah! Fran has spent two years [roughing it] in the Necedah country, and liked it. Adaptable!”

So Aldo praised two women – and for two diametrically opposite traits.

I never detected Aldo’s imprint in his Madison house on Van Hise Avenue. That seemed his wife, Estella’s domain: for her and the bringing up of children.

The shack was rather another matter. Aldo had both sides in his being: appreciation of appropriate indoor behavior like Grace’s thin slicing of duck, but also appropriate outdoor behavior. The shack was to remain a camp – its mood closely interlocked with outdoors. It was never to become a “cottage.” Estella had other ideas.

We took note of Aldo-Estella discussions. It was sometimes hard to tell who was indulging whom. Aldo wanted a Grade-A dirt floor. He managed to get just the right kind of clay, and when Hammy and I came to the shack, Aldo expounded, and it seemed that making a good dirt floor had some of the complexities of wine-making. My delight in the floor must have been obvious to all. It had a good feel under bare feet; it was fun to sweep; and it was handsome. Estella had not found a feminine ally to help her get rid of the floor – at least not in me. But the next time we wended out way to the shack a wide-board floor hid or replaced a very special, but maybe impractical, dirt floor.

So much for the floor. Next came the little matter of curtains. I seem to recall that Estella mentioned checked-gingham. Now on the subject of curtains I knew something about Aldo’s views because once when he had come to pay us a visit in central Wisconsin he asked, “Fran, is this a house or a camp?”

My answer was, “I hope that I shall never have to distinguish between the two.”

Aldo chuckled, and said, “Anyway, you’re not one of those women who has to have curtains everywhere-including on those little windows on the door.”

It wasn’t until now that I realized that I took sides. I spoke against curtains, but if Aldo had indicated that he wanted pink curtains, imported from Austria and covered with scenes of a wild boar hunt, loyalty would have superceded taste and I would have voted for them. To the best of my knowledge, the shack has never had curtains.

It began to look as though the décor of the shack was settled with simplicity, authority, and authenticity. We were not prepared for the Great Shock, namely a large stuffed head of a buck deer. We gasped.

Hammy asked, “Who shot it?”

Aldo’s answer was curiously evasive.

Next I tackled Aldo, “I thought you liked antlers mounted on those little shields?”

“I do.”

“Then why the stuffed deer head?” I persisted.

It turned out that Ed Ochsner, a taxidermist friend, had given The Professor that head to “dress up that little shanty of his.” It remained there many, many years. Aldo couldn’t offend Ed by taking it down.

Now as to food habits. Aldo did the cooking at the shack-outdoors if possible. Two forked sticks, driven into the ground, supported a horizontal pole above an open fire. I certainly never saw any aluminum foil near that cookery, nor any charcoal briquettes. Pots hung over real wood.

One evening, as Aldo ladled kidney stew out of a Dutch over, I remembered that Hammy had once stated to me, “Knowing about the physiological function of kidney, I will have no part of a kidney.”

“Kidney,” I said, “is an inexpensive source of food – braised kidney, fried kidney.” But when I pinned Hammy down, “What’s wrong with the physiology of a kidney?” he had replied, “It’s a sewer. I’m certainly not going to eat anything like that.”

But now when Aldo lifted the lid off the Dutch over, although he repeated the hated word, kidneys, Hammy didn’t protest.

I asked him later, “Why did you eat those kidneys?”

“I couldn’t say no.”

“Why not?”

“They came from Aldo.”

Small Bonuses

Aldo delighted in seizing quick opportunities for enjoyment. One hot day, he and I walked across the Madison campus together. A big puddle partially barred our way. I sploshed through its depths with my shoes on like a little child. Aldo gave me the startled appreciative look that an engaging puppy gets when it has done something unexpected.

Once when we were taking Aldo all the way up to Delta, Manitoba, our car broke down in some major city, and there was to be the long dull wait to get it fixed. Aldo wandered about and found me not reading magazines in the waiting room but in vacant lot examining weeds, prairie relicts and insects. My occupation – at the moment he found me – made me feel that I had just presented him with a million dollar gift: “Fran found a whole laboratory in an old vacant lot deep in the city!”

Girl Graduate Student

Aldo Leopold was the first professor I ever heard of to accept a girl graduate student. (Nowadays, they are referred to as “women.”) The very thought of a female wildlifer was so bizarre that it hardly bore consideration. (I believe I am one of four females who made it in the wildlife profession before Women’s Lib and perhaps the only living female charter member of The Wildlife Society.)

We have had many conversations with Leopold trying to figure out “What makes a wildlifer?” “How do you pick one?” How did I get picked in spite of my poor grades?

I looked at animals – I mean I really looked, and watched. Birds and mammals and plants and insects were such a strong part of my being that it was – and still is – overwhelming. I believe Aldo evaluated people – and was way ahead of his time in saying Nay to sex discrimination.

It was a subject neither of us was aware of!

I missed out on a normal – and probably delightful – experience: namely spending untold hours with Leopold polishing my thesis. It was my governess who was at fault – and I applaud her. She insisted, “Frances, if you have to rewrite, it means you were not properly prepared in the first place.” To say that I did not have to rewrite my thesis sounds like brag, but it isn’t. Throughout my life I have striven not to start writing until I was properly prepared. I gave Aldo my best. And it seems that the high standards set by my governess must usually have met his.

By contrast, Leopold polished his writing – over and over again – working with a sharp-pointed pencil on yellow, lined paper. It is a tribute to an extraordinarily perceptive person that he had the generosity and wit to perceive that his was not the only way.

Most of my memories of Aldo are of hunting trips in central Wisconsin. (It seemed we always had a date to go hunting even when autumn was many months away.) And then, too, there were all those early, early mornings at the shack. I don’t remember anyone else who always wanted to slip out before dawn and meet the new day with its chorus of sound, its changing patterns of light, and its new tell-tale tracks on the sandblow. There was little need to talk. I remember once Aldo gave a young pine, plated by the sandblow, a small kick with his boot. Words were not needed: we both knew that the sandblow, with its early morning tracks – was not forever.

Frederick N. Hamerstrom

This tribute is reprinted with permission from: McCabe, Richard E., ed. 1989. Aldo Leopold: Mentor. Department of Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin.

Frederick N. Hamerstrom (1909-1990) earned his PhD with Aldo Leopold in 1941. Working with his wife Frances Hamerstrom in central Wisconsin, they became authorities on the greater prairie chicken and other wildlife. According to the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, "Their work was the basis for the conservation effort which saved the prairie chicken from extirpation in Wisconsin."

One of the most exciting and profound learning experiences a Leopold student had was to prepare a piece of writing, be it a thesis, scientific paper or popular article for The Professor’s inspection. “Preparing” is the correct word. Since it was generally technical material, complete with tables, figures and bibliography, there was more to it than just the text. Nevertheless, the writing itself got his primary attention. Tables, figures and bibliographies generally follow a fairly well-established pattern, without a great deal of leeway. The real art, according to The Professor, lay in putting the data or the ideas into words—the right words.

Because of my undergraduate major, I was familiar with good writing—not my own, but examples of the best that our language and others have to offer (I believe that to read and hear good English is one of the most important steps toward good writing). Fine literature and scientific writing, of course, are not the same, but they could and should be closer than they are, as The Professor pointed out. His own writing was perfect demonstration of the fact that complex and difficult material could be presented clearly and simply, even—wonder of wonders—enjoyably.

We all felt that if we could meet his standards the rest would be clear sailing. And so, manuscript in hand, I went into his inner office and sat beside him at the lefthand corner of his desk. “Frederick”, he said, “you have a good first draft here.” Or even, “…an excellent first draft.” That was heady praise. But first draft? This manuscript that I had slaved over, choosing each word with such care? But I knew, as we all did, that he was right and that he was about to show me, gently but precisely, why.

It was The Professor’s custom to have a supply of six or eight sharply pointed yellow (always yellow) wooden pencils ready on his desk. The first step was for him to choose one, like a Crusader selecting a lance with which to impale infidels. Pencil in hand, he read rapidly, occasionally nodding, sometimes saying, “Good.” He was always generous with his praise where he could be, and never tried to impress by putting us down.

Suddenly, the rapid reading stopped. Pencil poised, he said, “What do you say we try…” He lightly crossed out the offending word or phrase and above it, between the lines, he wrote in his solution. Of course! I could see at once where I had bumbled, and that his wording expressed much more clearly what I had wanted to say. He never proposed changes simply to substitute his words for mine (budding referees take note); it was always immediately plain that the change was needed. Or he might say only, “Frederick, the active voice is stronger than the passive,” leaving it to me to make the change. He had an uncanny knack for spotting missing transitions, unnecessary words, awkward constructions, faulty organization. A wavy vertical line in the margin struck terror in all our hearts: “Wormy.”

Mostly by example, showing us how to improve our own manuscripts, but also by direct exposition when needed, The Professor taught us his criteria for good writing: to be clear, direct and concise; to write not only to be understood, but also in such a way that one could not be misunderstood. He agrees with Frank Fraser Darling’s dictum: “There is no point in writing if not to be remembered.”

Forty-five years ago that point of view virtually amounted to heresy in the sciences. Most campuses taught, and most government agencies required, a style of scientific writing that was strictly impersonal, couched in the passive, laden with polysyllabic words in long and heavy sentences—deadly dull. Thesis writing was even worse. Everyone understood that theses would of course have to be rewritten for publication (and many never were published). Not so in The Professor’s shop. The theses of his students were expected to be virtually camera-ready—another heresy.

The Professor took impish delight in poking fun at pretentious writing. He called it “College English,” and we collected and traded examples of it much as boys once traded baseball cards. A prize example that I still cherish is, “The author is of the opinion that…” rather than, “I think…” This collection of horrors, too, was a teaching aid.

The “old boys” were given chances to read—and asked to comment on—manuscripts that The Professor himself was writing. These manuscripts were always in pencil on lined yellow paper, written in his fine and precise hand, complete with his interlined corrections. What a learning experience! These chances came about because of one of The Professor’s writing habits, which he passed along to us: the cooling period. It was his custom to write out a first draft, perhaps with a first quick revision, and then to put it in a desk drawer for some days or weeks. During this time, he thought about and worked on other things, so that he returned to the manuscript with a fresh eye (I find that the cooling period often works wonders).

Each time I took a manuscript to him, the procedure was the same. “This time he won’t find a word to change.” Hardly. Fewer changes as time went on, and less extensive, but always some and always to the point. He had such magic that sitting beside him with the “perfect” manuscript in front of us, I came to be able to recognize the trouble spots often at the moment he did, even before he spoke.

I cannot sit at the corner of his desk again, but even now, when I chop out a bit of residual College English from a manuscript in preparation, I say, “Right, Aldo.”

Joseph J. Hickey

This tribute is reprinted with permission from: McCabe, Richard E., ed. 1989. Aldo Leopold: Mentor. Department of Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin.

Joseph J. Hickey (1907-1993) completed his masters thesis with Leopold in 1943. He returned to UW-Madison in 1947 to become the second faculty member in the wildlife ecology program. Upon Leopold's death in 1948, he served as chair of the department.

One’s first impression upon meeting Aldo Leopold was of a very courteous, pleasant and intelligent gentleman. Rubbing elbows with him day after day did nothing to tarnish that image.

What soon became apparent was that The Professor had a young man’s mind. He would be thrilled and excited with brand new ideas encountered in the scientific literature, in papers given at scientific meetings or in conversations with his students and friends. His respect for ecology was close to a religious devotion. On the right subject and with the right audience, The Professor could be gently egged-on to talk at length with brilliance and enthusiasm. This latter trait automatically surfaced in the classroom. I would like here to relate what he was like as a teacher.

Undergraduate Teaching

The Professor was a most interesting speaker who worked hard to keep his course lectures fresh and up-to-date. His formal undergraduate teaching at the University of Wisconsin originally centered on Game Management (118), which eventually changed in breadth of coverage and title to Wildlife Ecology 118. In the second stage of this course evolution, The Professor proposed “…to develop the ability to interpret land-use problems in terms of ecological forces.” The course was for laboratory biologists seeking to develop field skills, agriculturists wanting to understand wildlife, naturalists desiring to extend their knowledge beyond species identification, and prospective teachers of conservation. Largely restricted to juniors and seniors, it consisted of two lectures per week, occasional Saturday field trips, and individual assignments in fieldwork and reading. The assignments ranged from banding projects and bird or mammal censuses to compilations of the ecological history of a locality (usually one’s home area) to bibliographies on a species or ecological subject to food and cover tallies. The lecture outline changed slowly over the 15-year period that The Professor taught this course. As of 1947, it ran as follows:

(A) Plants, Animals, Soils, and Land Use: the Introductory lectures
1. History of a large area: southwest Wisconsin
2. History of a small area: a roadside fencerow 1920-1940
3. Plant succession, flora, and fauna: habitat
4. Key plants, key formations, food habits
5. Reading the landscape
6. Test on readings</dd>

(B) Population Behavior, General
7. Biographies of population units
8. Annual behavior, territory, home range, social organization, intolerance
9. Movements: local migratory, irruptive
10. Distribution: spread and shrinkage
11. Fluctuation: cycles, irruptions, extinctions
12. Test on readings</dd>

(C) Wisconsin Ecological Studies
13. Deer
14. Bobwhite, pheasant
15. Rabbits, hares, grouse
16. Songbirds studies
17. Phenology</dd>

(D) Community Organization
18. Food chains and pyramids
19. Stability of communities: pest behavior, exotics, equilibria
20. Ecology and conservation
21. Test on readings</dd>

(E) Regional Ecology
22. The Canadian prairies
23. Chihuahua, Arizona, New Mexico
24. Central Europe</dd>

I have some notes on a lecture The Professor gave in February 1942, on ring-necked pheasants and bobwhite in Wisconsin. There were about 36 minutes of lantern slides on the winter range of these birds in the state. (A few pictures were thrown in just for fun, such as one of the tracks of a pheasant which, in crossing some ice, almost fell through.) There were plenty of mimeographed tables and graphs handed out to the class, a number of oral questions thrown at the students (all queries were written into The Professor’s lecture notes, with the student “targets” selected in advance), and eight or nine minutes for the class to ask questions. Some of his statements in this lecture follow:

“Manure spreading on farm fields in winter does more to save the Hungarian partridge and the pheasant in Wisconsin than [do] all the game farms put together.”

“Bobwhite have no instinctive reaction which permits them to thresh [tear open] corn when they first encounter it; they must learn the process from older birds.”

‘Black locust seeds help bobwhite and pheasants through the winter because they are unpalatable [to other species]. Winds blow the seeds onto the snow when drifts are bad and times critical. Birds will frequently be seen picking up the seeds on the lee side of such trees.”

“Standing corn far exceeds the efficiency of the most expertly designed artificial winter feeder. It cannot be covered by snow, and—as winter progresses—it gradually folds over, making corn available as the winter progresses.”

I do not have the questions that The Professor posed to the students during the course of that lecture, but here are examples of a few he asked during a Farm Short Course on game management.

“How might the practice of wildlife management on Wisconsin farms affects the amount of silt carried down the Mississippi River?”

“How does the kind of forestry practiced in farm woodlots affect the abundance of horned owls?”

“How does the grazing of a woodlot in 1920 affect the cash expense of running the farm in 1940?”

“How did [woodlot grazing] affect the southern boundary of ruffed grouse in 1940?”

“Is there any connection between the amount of game on a farm and the amount of moisture in the soil during a dry spring?”

“After a region is stocked with pheasants, is it economical to plant more pheasants or to plant pines for cover? What evidence have we?”

The Professor was a master at reading the landscape, and he tried to impart this art to his students and thus increase their joy of being in the field and their knowledge of what forces and or circumstances shape a given landscape. “Reading” to him meant indentifying mammalian tracks, noting what plants mammals had been eating, analyzing why a plant species was located in a certain place, why another plant species was here missing, and so on. (Going through May T. Watts’ grand book, Reading the Landscape [1957], was to me almost like meeting The Professor again in life.) My impression of the field trips that were part of The Professor’s 118 course is that they were somewhat marred by the high ratio of students per prof. He was a thrilling teacher to accompany in the field when the party was rather small (say only four).

Among the handouts for 118 was a series of case histories on such subjects as prairie coulee, a ragweed patch at Faville Grove (30 miles east of Madison), the central Wisconsin marshes, and northern Wisconsin. Prepared by The Professor, these case histories summarized the great changes in vegetation and wildlife that had taken place in less than a century, and they always included a series of questions. For northern Wisconsin, for example, the questions included: What plants account for the reinvasion of beaver by 1938? If fire follows hardwood logging, what deer food is decreased rather than increased? What game species benefit by the introduction of white clover? What harm and what benefit would result from the reestablishment of a limited number of wolves in this terrain? This barrage of questions typified the 118 learning experience. It was a course in thinking.

When, in the 1930s, 118 focused on game management, The Professor’s exam questions were naturally more restricted than they were later when the course was broadened to wildlife ecology. In 1935, the course’s final exam questions included the following (10 were given):

“Draw type maps of two pieces of game range to show effect of interspersion on carrying capacity. Discuss briefly in terms of a given species.”

“Rate the following in order of length of daily radius or mobility: cottontail, ruffed grouse, pheasant, quail, Canadian goose, white-tailed deer, Cooper’s hawk.”

“Construct a ‘palatability sequence’ of winter foods for a given species.”

“List the approximate succession of vegetative types for a given soil. Name a force that tends to retard the succession, and a ‘tool’ that may be used to control that force.”

By 1940, when 118 was on wildlife ecology, The Professor’s exam was broader and down to five questions. “Answers,” he said, “will be graded for quality and for ecological thought as well as for factual correctness. Thus, an answer for question 1 or 5 may be factually correct but display little or no ecological thought.” Here are the questions:

“Select a wildlife problem important in your home county or some other specified place. Discuss.”

“List the class field trips you have taken. Describe for each trip one thing that you learned.”

“Select one plant or animal which you saw on the campus today and discuss its role in Wisconsin history.”

“What do you think of when somebody says: roost, forb, aspen, isotherm, acron, niche, climax, calcium, rabbit, tamarack, Thure Kumlien, Martha’s Vineyard, glaciation, gland, territory, Charles Elton. (Please cover at least 5 items, but use not over one page.)”

“Select two species and diagram their ecological relationships.”

A few years after The Professor’s death, when I was teaching 118, I adopted the third of these questions for a final exam of my own: “Name a species of tree you saw on your way to class this morning, and discuss its place in Wisconsin’s history.” One shocked student from southeastern Wisconsin began her answer: “Are you kidding?” (She succeeded, however, in getting an A.) In The Professor’s 118, such a question was routine stuff. The course was one of the best I ever took as a student. It was all strictly Leopold.

Near the end of his teaching this course, The Professor did adopt E. H. Graham’s book, Natural Principles of Land Use (1944), as the text for 118. Other required readings, included papers by A. W. Schorger, John B. Marks, I. O. Buss and A. S. Hawkins, R. A. McCabe and Hawkins, and himself, book chapters by Steward H. Holbrook, Charles Elton, E. T. Seton, Buss and Durward L. Allen, plus books by J. N. Darling, David Lack and H. Albert Hochbaum. He also had a list of suggested readings for students who were selecting specific projects.

Graduate Program

I was never involved in The Professor’s selection of new graduate students. I have the feeling that he was not especially impressed by grades, that he preferred prospective grad students with good field experience, and that he wanted people who could and would think.

His course on wildlife management techniques was officially described in the Ag College catalogue as follows: “There is no formal instruction…The student takes the initiative in selecting and executing the work, with consultation from the instructor.” In many graduate programs, experienced students “break-in” the newcomers. Indeed, since their major professor may have time to confer with them only once a year, they may be the primary source of advice and counsel. (I know of one case in Zoology where about 19 grad students struggled in such a system.) The Professor was much more available; he wanted to see his students about once every two weeks. With his students off campus on various Wisconsin study areas, they were expected to turn up for regular conferences. In my own case, my study area in LaCrosse County was about 130 miles from Madison, and The Professor visited it twice in 1942-43 for periods of two or three days (which were enough to get my questions settled). In student conferences, he was a good listener but also could be quite critical.

Getting out in the field with The Professor was a thrilling experience. He was, of course, continually reading the landscape. In transit from Madison to Sauk City, for example, he would point out that the white birches were on slopes to the left because they faced the cool north, and bur oaks were on slopes to the right because they faced the warm sun to the southwest.

I feel certain that The Professor gained a great deal from all his own contacts on the University of Wisconsin campus. He benefited, I am sure, from knowing Norman L. Fassett, particularly since both shared a deep interest in the need to preserve natural areas. Once, I mentioned to The Professor how fortunate Wisconsin was to have Dr. Wehrwein in its Agricultural Economics Department. He had an ethical feeling for the land and was much admired by Leopold. “George Wehrwein,” he replied thoughtfully, “has a Christ-like mentality.”

There were, from time to time, animal census undertakings in the Madison area in which The Professor participated along with all his graduate students and various friends of the department. One of these, in January 1942, was an annual pheasant drive on the U.W. Arboretum, headed up by John Catenhusen, then the “Arb” biologist. The crew consisted of The Professor, McCabe and me from the wildlife department, Irv Buss, Fred Zimmerman, and Elton Bussewitz from the Wisconsin Conservation Department, Professor William Longenecker from the U.W. Department of Horticulture, Catenhusen and Tom Butzen from the Arb, two wildlife undergraduate students, and a youngster named Frank. We dozen managed to flush 317 pheasants from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., as well as four to six short-eared owls, four long-eared owls, a great horned owl and nine gray foxes. Lunch at the Arb consisted of coffee and hot dogs. I remember wolfing down five of the latter.

A few weeks later, The Professor was at Prairie du Sac where Harold Hanson was attempting to construct the ecological pyramid of numbers on Errington’s old study area. McCabe, Catenhusen and I joined in, along with a local farmer, Albert Gastrow, who had been censusing the quail there for The Professor for some years. It was a count-every-bird census. Gastrow was one of those formally uneducated men who are completely honest intellectually and make such reliable field assistants. I remember him saying that you could always tell a red fox odor from a gray fox’s because the former was “sweetish.”

About that time, Irv Buss was running a rope census for songbirds nesting on a virgin wet prairie at Faville Grove. That effort required only a small crew (and was much harder work than I expected), so The Professor was not a participant. This was in keeping with his practice of having his grad students assume the major responsibility for research—both conceptually and logistically—and for encouraging a sharing of workload and experiences among his graduate students.

One of the nice things about being a Leopold student in the early 1940s was the presence of older Leopold grad students in the state who were always willing to share their field experiences with you.

I had three to lean on:

  • R. A. McCabe was certainly the world authority on Hungarian partridges.

  • The Hamerstroms in those days were employed by the University of Michigan, but they vacationed each spring in Wisconsin’s prairie chicken country where they lived in abandoned farm houses. That was a rich experience to share:

You arose long before predawn and were dropped off at a blind to count the booming birds.

The one debit for me in ’42 (or was it ’43?) was that after the count the first person back at the farm house was to diaper the baby. (I made darn sure I was the last!)

It was on such an occasion that the Hamers and I once agreed that there were three types of letters a student got from Prof. Leopold:

  1. A formally typed communication on official UW Departmental stationery. This was always the first one got.
  2. A typed communication on Leopold’s personal stationery with his address 2222 Van Hise Ave. printed at the top. When you got this, you were really in the Inner Circle.
  3. A hand-written letter in pencil on lined yellow-scratch pad paper. When you got this you knew you had really arrived!

Of all the rites of spring, nothing seemed to give The Professor more satisfaction than planting young pine trees, especially white pines. Those at “The Shack” were a source of immeasurable joy, and their planting was a family ritual which he did not often share with students.

We gained some insight into his feeling for tree planting in 1948 just before he died. On a Saturday morning in April, scores of U.W. fraternity and sorority members voluntarily turned up in the Arb to help in the planting of seedling pines. Each male student was given a shovel to dig shallow holes for seedlings, while the coeds did the actual planting. Late that afternoon, Bob McCabe—who was in charge of the activity—and I appeared back at the Department where The Professor was awaiting our report. All the trees ordered had been planted.

“I have just one question,” said AL at the conclusion of our report. “Were the shovels sharp?”

“No, not particularly,” we replied.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said The Professor. “I wish those youngsters could have had the satisfaction of feeling a sharp shovel cut cleanly through the sod.”

He was quite a guy!

Antoon de Vos

This tribute is reprinted with permission from: McCabe, Richard E., ed. 1989. Aldo Leopold: Mentor. Department of Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin.

Antoon de Vos enrolled as a graduate student with Leopold in 1946. He went on to serve as chief biologist for the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization. De Vos was Leopold's only international student.

It may interest readers how I—a Dutch-born and raised foreigner—ever found my way to The Professor and the University of Wisconsin. In the ‘40s, those interested in or working in the field of wildlife biology were relatively few and far between. As a Dutch Air Force officer in training in the States during World War II, I happened to meet Joe and Peggy Hickey, who encouraged me to come back to the States after the war for further study. Eventually I obtained a fellowship to work at the Natural History Museum in Chicago, through the help of Karl P. Schmidt, then Chief Curator of Zoology. This fellowship enabled me to take courses at the University of Chicago. When I had nearly finished two semesters at that university, Karl asked me how I liked my studies there. I responded that, although satisfied, I would prefer to be at a university where there was more emphasis on ecology and on observing and working with animals in the wild. He immediately made reference to Aldo Leopold, no doubt because Karl’s late brother Franklin had had such a high opinion of him. Karl suggested that I go and see him. So, one fine spring morning in 1946, I hopped on a bus to Madison for an interview with The Professor.

I was immediately impressed with The Professor’s personality and looked forward to the possibility of moving into a new scientific field that would allow me to study animals in their natural ecosystem. After our discussion, I decided to take up studies at the University of Wisconsin in then the Department of Wildlife Management, leading toward a Masters’ degree. This decision has proven to be one of the most important steps I have taken in my life.

During the war, I was fortunate to have traveled widely through southeast Asia and also Australia. During these travels, it became obvious to me that many natural habitats were dwindling rapidly and with them many species of plants and animals. Being mainly interested in mammals and birds, I read as much as possible about species that were threatened with extinction or, in fact, already extinct. I also tried to obtain firsthand information, either on my own or by writing to others. I mentioned this interest to The Professor and he immediately agreed to let me write my thesis on this subject. As a result, in 1947, he accepted my thesis, entitled “A Survey of the Vanishing Mammals and Birds of the Old World and North America.”

Nowadays, there is a widespread interest in vanishing species, but at that time, it was restricted to relatively few people. In retrospect, therefore, I consider The Professor’s decision to accept this subject for a graduate thesis as having been farsighted and perceptive. Much of the data I collected was used later in a book jointly authored with C. H. J. Maliepaard entitled Animals, Become Extinct (1961). During my further studies, no doubt stimulated by The Professor’s earlier interest, I maintained an interest in threatened and endangered species including the fisher, woodland caribou, trumpeter swan and the crocodile of India.

Although the historical record will likely refer to Aldo Leopold as the principal founder of the science of wildlife biology, to my mind his contributions to land-use ethics are of equal importance. Also, I was particularly impressed by his cultural and philosophical interests—interests I have found to be relatively rare among American wildlife biologists.

Of course, all his former graduate students have benefited greatly from his personal interest in every one of us. From the very beginning, he made me feel very much at home. The building in which the Department was located at the time—a converted house—helped considerably to give this “at home” feeling. Being used to the then generally adopted European approach, namely that professors keep students out of their offices as much as possible, I was also delighted to know that The Professor allowed us free access to books and reprints in his own office. His meticulous working habits were also an example to us all.

If one would ask me where and how did The Professor make the deepest impression on me, I would answer without further thought that it was not in the confines of the departmental office, but in the field or in his home. Although I visited his “Shack” near the Wisconsin Dells only twice, I have a vivid recollection of these visits and how impressed I was with his observational ability and careful note-taking. He obviously loved that place and obtained deep satisfaction from getting to understand the ecological conditions there. His enthusiasm was contagious to all of us present.

The parties The Professor and Mrs. Leopold gave in their lovely home in Madison were also highlights of my stay there! It not only gave us, his students, the opportunity to get to know him and his family better, but it also helped in consolidating friendships among each other. Not that the latter was a problem; we students had cordial relationships and helped one another in many respects. At any rate, I didn’t feel like being treated as a “foreign” student.

The close feeling among Leopold students was not restricted only to those who were enrolled at the University at the same time. “Older” (former) students showed considerable professional and personal interest in the “young ones.” In my case, Al Hochbaum encouraged me to undertake waterfowl studies and, in fact, I worked for two successive summers at the Delta Waterfowl Research Station, of which Al was the director.

The Professor also made a point of getting us in touch with those faculty members in the Department of Zoology, who had shown much interest in wildlife—in particular John Emlen and Art Hasler. Thanks to him, I had a close relationship with John, from which I have benefited very much.

One might also ask whether The Professor played a role in my life after I left the University. Without any question he did, although I may not always have been conscious of it. For example, after I was appointed in charge of the wildlife program of the Ontario Agricultural College (later the University of Guelph), I bought a 100-acre submarginal farm and spent a great deal of my spare time studying wildlife on that property, resulting in publications on the population dynamics of woodchucks and territorial behavior of the white-tailed deer. I also built my own shack and took students out on field trips to that farm. As had been the case with The Professor, my students always seemed to be impressed with my knowledge of that place. And on my many journeys through the wilderness areas in northern Ontario, I often thought about how The Professor would have enjoyed those experiences.

The Professor was very careful in his selection of graduate students (the writer excepted, of course!), and obviously this paid off in the long run, because nearly all have played prominent roles in the wildlife field. What has often bothered me, though, is that so few of us have, at our age, attained a similar level of wisdom or philosophy. Did we get blinders put on ourselves because we were forced to work in the narrow confines of our field? Is it another symptom of the ills of our time that no more people with the broad vision and outlook of The Professor of C. H. D. Clarke have appeared on the horizon? I just wonder.

If Aldo Leopold were alive today, he no doubt would happily acknowledge that there is such increased interest in wildlife conservation and, in particular, the need for protection of endangered and vanishing species! Conversely, I’m sure he would be saddened by the lack of land-use ethics. Despite all the emphasis on ecological planning and environmental impact statements, I am afraid that the majority of the people nowadays look at land as a commodity to be exploited, rather than something to be cherished and protected with care. My 14 years of worldwide travel and work with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations certainly convinced me that, at least in the developing world, we are still fighting a losing battle with regard to environmental protection. Let us hope that, with Herculean effort and Leopoldian insight, the tide will turn while there still is time.

I still give a prominent place to Game Management and A Sand County Almanac in my home library. When I once in a while reread selected passages from them, I think back with fond memory to the days when I had the privilege to study under The Professor’s influence.


A Voice in the Wilderness

This essay was written by William Cronon in 1998 and was published originally by The Wilderness Society at its website. For reuse, The Wilderness Society copyright provisions and permissions apply. Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the author of several essays and books on environmental history.

William Cronon pays tribute to a remarkable man and his book that altered forever the landscape of the environmental movement.

The final two years of the 20th century mark a vital pair of anniversaries for anyone committed to wilderness and to the struggle to help human beings live more gently and sustainably on this precious planet. One of these anniversaries, even 50 years after the event it commemorates, remains an occasion for mourning; the other, an undiminished cause for celebration. Together, they signal an end and a beginning for the extraordinary career of one of America's greatest ecologists, conservationists, and nature writers - and a founder of The Wilderness Society: Aldo Leopold.

A Fire and a Phoenix

On the morning of April 21, 1948, Aldo Leopold and his family learned that a trash fire on their neighbor's property was burning out of control. When they went to investigate, they were disturbed to discover that the fire was heading downhill toward their own land, the once worn-out and abandoned farm property surrounding the old chicken shed they called "The Shack."

For the past 13 years, they had made this weekend retreat by the side of the Wisconsin River into a pioneering experiment in ecological restoration, one of the first in the United States. Now, a careless fire threatened a grove of pines they had planted as part of that project.

Leopold grabbed a water pump and disappeared into the marsh to wet down the back edges of the burn. No one ever saw him alive again. He suffered a massive heart attack while fighting the fire, lay down on the ground with his head resting on a clump of grass, and died as the fire swept lightly over his body. He was 61 years old, and at the peak of his creative powers. We mark the 50th anniversary of his death in 1998.

Fortunately, Leopold left behind the almost-completed manuscript for a book-originally entitled Great Possessions, which Oxford University Press had already accepted for publication. Modestly revised and copy-edited by Aldo's son Luna, it finally arrived in bookstores in the fall of 1949. Responding to Oxford's fear that the original title sounded too much like Charles Dickens, Luna chose another: A Sand County Almanac.

It will see its 50th anniversary in 1999, and in the book's 226 pages its author cheated death by leaving a legacy that would carry on his conservationist work literally for generations. Although the book enjoyed only modest sales in the years immediately following Leopold's death, a new Ballantine Books paperback edition two decades later catapulted it to bestseller status and made it a bible of the new environmental movement. There is little reason to doubt that we will still be celebrating and learning from its wisdom a hundred years hence.

A Quiet Catalyst

A Sand County Almanac is by any estimation one of the three most important and influential books in the history of American conservation. Only two other volumes can be said to have had comparable impacts: George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature in 1864, which helped spur forest - and watershed - protection efforts in the decades following the Civil War, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, which launched the modern environmental movement with its attack on DDT and other pesticides. All three books literally made history by defining environmental agendas for generations of Americans committed to protecting the natural resources and ecosystems of their native land.

But Sand County is surely the most unlikely of these three as a history-making tome. Few reading it in 1949 could have anticipated that it would play such a pivotal role in the political and intellectual history of the 20th century. Man and Nature and Silent Spring were intended by their authors very explicitly as political broadsides, books crafted as polemical interventions and meant to make controversial claims on behalf of the causes they defended. They have the feel of books whose authors' ambition was to change the course of history in their own time, and for that very reason they feel a little dated when we read them today.

Sand County is very different, which is probably why it feels as fresh today as it did when it was written-the mark of a true classic. To the first-time reader, it presents itself as an unprepossessing collection of nature writings, brief essays offering reminiscences of landscapes and encounters in natural places, all cast in a spare, lucid prose that is far more elegant and literary than polemical.

Only as one reads more deeply into the book does one begin to recognize the arguments and insights that lie almost between the lines, or appreciate the quiet passion that informs its call for a new human sense of moral responsibility toward the natural world. The voice is that of a first-rate scientist and naturalist, a cool-eyed observer not just of nature but of the human condition, and the tone is far more meditative and ironic than polemical or belligerent. One gets the sense that the author would be much happier getting out into the woods with his dog than finding himself mounting the barricades on behalf of a political cause.

And yet these little essays bespeak nothing less than a revolution in ways of thinking about the human place in nature - a revolution as yet unfinished, but very near the heart of environmental politics in the second half of the 20th century and beyond. By putting into words the deep questions and concerns that would persuade millions of Americans to join the environmental movement in the years after its author's death, A Sand County Almanac earned itself an indelible place in history.

Celebrating Wilderness

What are the lessons of this profound little book? Among the most compelling are the powerful arguments it mounts on behalf of wilderness. No one has ever written more movingly about the value of protecting wild land and the creatures that inhabit it-including people. The book is both a lament for the world we have lost, and a plea to preserve its remnants.

"Man always kills the thing he loves," Leopold wrote in one of his most famous and beautifully crafted passages, "and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are 40 freedoms without a blank spot on the map?"

Piece by piece, Leopold assembled in A Sand County Almanac the collection of arguments on behalf of protecting wild nature that would eventually culminate in the great Wilderness Act of 1964. They have continued to serve as the mainstay for all subsequent wilderness preservation efforts in the United States, and activists have been relying on them ever since.

Why protect wilderness? Leopold leaves no doubt that, for him, the most compelling reason, wholly sufficient in and of itself, is aesthetic and spiritual: Wild lands are the places he most loves and that have touched his life most deeply, stretching all the way back to the small pothole lake in an Iowa field where he shot his first duck.

Sand County's most powerful prose more often than not narrates the very particular places and moments that best express the feelings of one who cannot "live without wild things." The experience of being in the presence of such places is so fundamental to Leopold's being that he does not even try to defend its value. "Either you know it in your bones," he says, "or you are very, very old."

Those who would fight for wilderness today on seemingly more scientific grounds like "biological diversity" would do well to ask whether that phrase can ever evoke the same passion that makes A Sand County Almanac feel so full of love for the land.

Persuading the Pragmatists

Not that biological diversity is absent from this prescient book. Knowing that "mere" aesthetics could hardly offer an adequate defense for the wild things he loved, Leopold mapped out arguments that might be persuasive to those of a more "practical" bent. Wilderness, he said, was a repository for wildlife and other resources that would not survive without its protection, and these had clear value, economic and otherwise, that more than justified their protection. Efforts to preserve individual species that ignored the larger natural context in which such species prospered or died would be doomed to failure.

On the human side, wilderness would increasingly be needed as a recreational resource in a world that was ever more urban and industrial, offering at least a remembrance of those 40 freedoms that had been such an important part of his own life. Finally, Leopold argued that wilderness was a necessary baseline against which ecologists and other scientists could measure the dynamics of ecological change in other systems: Without some sense of how nature functioned in the absence of human beings, it would be difficult to manage any ecosystems intelligently and responsibly.

In one way or another, virtually every argument that has been used to defend wild land in the United States over the past half-century is developed or at least anticipated somewhere in the pages of A Sand County Almanac. It remains a veritable handbook of the wilderness preservation movement.

A New Paradigm

But there is more. Leopold couples his love of wild nature with two other crucial qualities that set his book apart from run-of-the-mill nature writing: a deep sense of history on the one hand, and, on the other, a richly ironic and chastened sense of how difficult it is to live on and use the land in responsible ways. Having spent his entire life as a manager of land and wildlife, he knew all too well that wild nature will not long remain in the modern world without an active commitment on the part of human beings to manage it responsibly...and he knew that this task was far from easy.

Knowing that he himself was manipulating wildness in the very act of protecting it gave him a powerful sense of the paradoxes such work entailed, and he was clear-eyed and unblinking in acknowledging these paradoxes. "All conservation of wildness," he wrote, "is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish."

But Leopold refused to despair in the face of such insights; instead, he argued for radically new ways of thinking about wildness and its place in human culture. Always pragmatic, he had no illusions that the land we inhabit could ever fail to carry our signature. Instead, he urged us to think very carefully about the kinds of signatures we prefer to leave.

A Sand County Almanac is filled with stories about wild places that nonetheless bear the mark of human history, whether for good or for ill. As such, the book helps lay a foundation for the new field of environmental history, which would not fully emerge as a discipline in its own right for another quarter century.

It is because Leopold cared as much for human history as he did for wild nature that he ultimately sought to describe a new "land ethic" that would enlarge the boundaries of human moral responsibility to include not just other people, but "soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land."

He knew better than most that wildness would survive on the land only if people cared about it enough to reorganize and re-imagine their own lives to make a place for it in their midst. "We can be ethical," he wrote, "only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in."

His dream was for a world where large tracts of wilderness would be protected, but where wild things would thrive and be honored in many other places as well: in rural wood lots, in humble wetlands, in restored prairies, even in urban parks. Only so would people be reminded, regularly and in the most ordinary ways, of the larger community to which they belonged and on which their own lives depended.

These are the "Great Possessions" that A Sand County Almanac celebrates, great because we belong to them as much as they belong to us. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of its publication and mourn the 50th anniversary of its author's death, we could hardly do better than to revisit the pages of this remarkable book.


Aldo Leopold Weekend

Many conservation and education professionals have read the classic work A Sand County Almanac, but its message is not just for people that work in natural resources. Aldo Leopold Weekend is an event designed to make Aldo Leopold and his ideas more familiar to the general public.

Aldo Leopold weekend celebrations are spreading like a prairie fire across the land thanks to a small community in central Wisconsin. On March 4, 2000, the citizens of Lodi congregated to read A Sand County Almanac aloud, cover to cover. The Friends of Scenic Lodi Valley (event organizers) dubbed the gathering “Lodi Reads Leopold.” Reading started at noon and ended at 10 that night. The session spanned two locations, involved 35 readers and was so inspiring that they decided it should be an annual experience.

During the 4th annual Lodi Reads Leopold, George Meyer, former Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and a “celebrity reader” wondered aloud why every community in the state wasn’t reading Leopold that weekend. State Legislator Mark Miller shouted from the audience, “I’ll introduce that legislation.” That spark caught on, burning bright with bi-partisan support throughout the Legislature to recognize Wisconsin’s most noted conservationist. One year later, in March of 2004, Governor James Doyle signed legislation designating the first weekend in March Aldo Leopold Weekend across Wisconsin.

Now communities across the state are coming together with a variety of activities and festivals to celebrate Leopold’s ideas and demonstrate their individual and combined commitment to Leopold’s vision of a Land Ethic as part of their community.

Leopold Weekend will always have its roots in public readings, but event schedules have blossomed and expanded to include activities that involve the whole community.



Society, T., Ornithology, W., & Society, T. (2014). Tributes to Aldo Leopold. Retrieved from


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