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Remembering Aldo Leopold, Visionary Conservationist And Writer

"There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot. Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now, we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free." — A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays and observations, was written decades ago by Aldo Leopold, the father of the American conservation movement.

The original book was published in 1949, a year after Leopold's death. Leopold pioneered the science of ecology using only binoculars and a notebook to observe wildlife and seasonal patterns in his southwestern Wisconsin home. Even now, 64 years later, Leopold's work is on the cutting edge of his field, and his groundbreaking writings on conservation and ecology become more relevant with each passing year.

Three generations of conservation scientists have been inspired by Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. Stan Temple read the book as a teenager, and was captivated. Now, he is professor emeritus in conservation at the University of Wisconsin, the same position Leopold held during his tenure at the university in the 1930s.

"It's like he was so far ahead of his contemporaries that the things he was writing about before his death really didn't find an audience until 25 years later," Temple says.

Temple would know. He recently used Leopold's journals to gain insight on climate change, though Leopold himself never lived to hear about global warming.

Every single day, Leopold would sit outside on his hand-built bench on his land and write about what he saw, leaving behind a meticulous daily record of the changing seasons and natural patterns of the 1930s and '40s.

By comparing Leopold's meticulous observations of springtime in his day to springtime in 2012, Temple could clearly see the speed of climate change, and that our winters are getting increasingly warm.

But even when Leopold was writing, the wild lands of America were in a sorry state.

"It was really a time of incredible change in the entire landscape," says biographer Curt Meine. "The great forests of the upper Great Lakes were being leveled, the wetlands of the Mississippi River Basin were being drained, waterfowl and wildlife were being depleted, the prairies of the Midwest were being converted over to agriculture."

In Leopold's youth, Teddy Roosevelt was president, and environmental preservation was a national discussion for the first time. Leopold's father taught him how to hunt and respect the land. Leopold would later graduate from the Yale School of Forestry, and join the Forest Service as a ranger in the mountains of Arizona.

It was on that job that Leopold had an experience that shaped his thinking for the rest of his life. While hunting one day, he and his friends came upon a pack of wolves and opened fire on the animals. Leopold killed an old wolf, and wrote about it 35 years later in one of his most famous essays, "Thinking Like a Mountain."

He wrote: "We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain."

Thinking about this event, Leopold realized that preserving land wasn't enough — we had to actively protect it. So he and his family bought a piece of ravaged land near Baraboo, Wis., and set about rejuvenating it. There were hardly any living plants on the property, and the dry, dusty soil was vulnerable to wind erosion. So Leopold started by planting pine trees. Every spring, he would drag his family up to the tiny shack on the property, and eventually, they had 50,000 planted pine trees bringing life back to the desolated area.

There, inside the bare-bones shack, Leopold wrote his second-most-famous essay, "Land Ethic." The essay argues for the responsible, ethical treatment of nature, which became the core of modern conservationism.

"In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land community, to plain member and citizen of it," he wrote. "It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such."

Leopold's "Land Ethic" is still relevant today, especially given the new challenges of global climate change, and the public debate surrounding the issue.

But Leopold would say that these challenges are what his "Land Ethic" is for.

"It's inconceivable to me" he wrote, "that an ethical relationship to the land can exist without love, respect and admiration, and a high regard for its value."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.

LYDEN: These are the opening pages of "A Sand County Almanac," a collection of essays and observations, written decades ago by the father of the American conservation movement, Aldo Leopold.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher, quote, "standard of living" is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.

LYDEN: The original was published in 1949, a year after Leopold's death, but his groundbreaking writings on conservation and ecology become more relevant with each passing year. This month, the Library of America will publish a special edition of "A Sand County Almanac" and inspire yet another generation of conservationists.

As a teenager, Stan Temple was captivated by Leopold's writing. Now, Temple is professor emeritus in conservation at the University of Wisconsin.

STAN TEMPLE: It's like - he was so far ahead of his contemporaries, so the things he was writing about just before his death really didn't find an audience until 25 years later.

LYDEN: Leopold pioneered the science of ecology using only binoculars and a notebook. He invented wildlife management, and his work is still on the cutting edge of the field even 64 years later. Leopold didn't live to hear the phrase climate change, but his journals are now used by researchers like Temple to gain insight on global warming.

TEMPLE: We could use these historical records to put 2012 into context.

LYDEN: Temple realized that by comparing Leopold's observations of springtime in the 1940s to springtime in 2012, researchers could show the speed of climate change.

TEMPLE: Flowers had never bloomed so early in all the Leopold's data and in Henry David Thoreau's data and indeed in all the subsequent data.

LYDEN: Leopold kept meticulous journals. He'd sit outside on his hand-built bench on his land in southwestern Wisconsin and write about what he saw. Here's one such passage:

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The skunk track enters the woods and crosses a glade where the rabbits have packed down the snow. Newly exposed oak seedlings have paid for the thaw with their newly barked stems.

LYDEN: His writings are extremely detailed.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

LYDEN: What you're listening to now is a recreation Temple made of Leopold's morning soundtrack just by following his journal descriptions bird by bird.

CURT MEINE: Leopold is revered for the way he wrote about this place, this wonderful lyrical prose that evokes the dramas that are going on in this landscape that he knew so intimately.

LYDEN: Curt Meine is Aldo Leopold's biographer. Leopold's words are as relevant as if he'd written them yesterday, yet he was writing for his own lifetime, which spanned the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the nuclear bombing of Japan.

MEINE: There's a time of incredible change in the entire landscape. The great forests of the upper Great Lakes were being leveled. The wetlands of the Mississippi River Basin were being drained. Water fowl and other wildlife were being depleted. The prairies of the Midwest, of course, were being converted over into agriculture.

LYDEN: In Leopold's youth, Teddy Roosevelt was president, and environmental preservation was a national discussion for the first time. Leopold's father taught him how to hunt and respect the land, and later, Aldo Leopold would graduate from the Yale School of Forestry and join the Forest Service as a ranger.

And on that job, in the mountains of southeastern Arizona, Leopold had an experience that shaped his thinking for the next 30 years. Again, biographer, Curt Meine.

MEINE: One of the most significant episodes occurs right at the outside of his career when he shoots a wolf.

LYDEN: Leopold wrote about this in one of his most famous essays.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce, green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain.

LYDEN: Killing the wolf triggered Leopold's introspective mind. He realized that preserving land wasn't enough. We had to work to actively protect it. In the 1930s, Leopold witnessed the destruction of agriculture and overdevelopment. The Dust Bowl devastated the land and deepened the Great Depression. He turned his thoughts now to the idea of restoration.

So the Leopold family bought a piece of ravaged land in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and set about rejuvenating it. Curt Meine and Stan Temple took me out on the Leopold land on a snowy, subzero day to see the landscape from Leopold's old cabin.

We are coming up to the shack.

TEMPLE: Well, let's pause for a moment, because what you see, anything that's living here, any plants living were not here in Leopold's day, pretty much. So we just walked through little woods, mixture of pines and oaks. All the pines you see were planted, but right out in front of us here is one of the earliest experiments in ecological restoration we have.

LYDEN: Hmm. Leopold's experiment started by planting his beloved pine trees, 50,000 over his lifetime. Every spring, he dragged family to this little shack, and they'd plant trees and write journals to record the evolution of the land.

MEINE: The lock is frozen. There we go.

LYDEN: And here, inside this tiny bare-boned shack, a converted chicken coop, Leopold wrote his Land Ethic. The essay argues for responsible, ethical treatment of nature, which became the core of modern conservation.

TEMPLE: In short, a land ethic changes the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members and also respect for the community as such.

LYDEN: If Aldo Leopold could participate today in the public debate over hydrofracking, mountaintop removal or carbon emissions, he would say that these challenges are what the Land Ethic is for. It's inconceivable to me, he wrote, that an ethical relationship to the land can exist without love, respect and admiration and a high regard for its value. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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