A Signature On The Land

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The trouble began at midmorning on Wednesday, April 21, 1948, when a neighboring farm’s trash fire got out of control. Flames skittered across the grassy farmyard and began chewing swiftly through a marsh toward the “plantation” of white and red pines that the professor and his family had been nurturing diligently on their 120-acre patch of worn-out Wisconsin farmland since 1935. He, his wife, Estella, and their daughter “Estella Jr.” had driven up from Madison four days earlier, settling in at the renovated chicken coop they called “the shack” and preparing for the annual spring planting of even more trees in the family’s ongoing effort to recreate the land as it had been before farmers and loggers had stripped it clean of its original forests.

The three of them had managed to get a couple of hundred trees in the ground by Wednesday morning. The professor had also done some serious bird counting; that morning alone, he noted in his journal, he had been pleased to tick off 871 geese streaming across the quickening sky, even though these were but a sorry remnant of the successive waves of migrating birds that three generations before had blocked the sun through much of the Mississippi River Valley. “A man can’t find any but remnants of wildlife nowadays,” he had remarked to his daughter Monday night.

It was about ten-thirty in the morning when the family spotted the pall of smoke rising from the east. They loaded the car with an assortment of firefighting equipment, including gunnysacks, a shovel, a sprinkling can, and a small hand-held fire pump, then raced off to meet the flames being driven across the marsh by the wind. Leaving his wife near the car with the instructions to wet a gunnysack in the marsh and try to keep the flames from jumping the road into the young trees- and if that failed, to get in the car and escape—the professor and his daughter moved down the road to measure the dimensions of the threat. Finally, telling his daughter to run to a neighbor’s farm and telephone for help, he took the fire pump and disappeared into the smoke.

 

There was no one to witness Aldo Leopold’s last moments. He was not found until early in the afternoon, when the last of the flames were beginning to diminish and the gray, still-smoking landscape slowly began to reveal itself. At some point as he walked along the edge of the fire, he apparently had suffered a heart attack. It had not killed him immediately. He had been given enough time to put down the fire pump, stretch out on his back, fold his arms across his chest, and die with some measure of dignity just before a branch of the fire flickered across his body and moved on. The dignity would have been important to him.

Sixteen years later, on the sunny afternoon of September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson took pen in fist at a little table in the Rose Garden outside the White House and scrawled his name across the Wilderness Act, passed by Congress a few days before. The men and women who had gathered on the steps behind the President to watch him do this knew that they were witnessing history. Like the Omnibus Civil Rights Act that preceded it and the Voting Rights Act that would follow it, the Wilderness Act of 1964 validated an important idea in the evolution of human behavior. It was the wish of Congress, the act says, “to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness,” and in a moment of sudden poetry it defines wilderness to be “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain …”

A moment worth celebrating. But the witnesses also had to be conscious of a pervasive irony in this otherwise triumphant afternoon: Not one of the four men who had given the greatest substance to the dream of a National Wilderness Preservation System was alive to stand there with them—not Robert Marshall, the government Forester who had actually surveyed and hiked through most of the biggest primitive areas left in the national forests, who had prodded the Wilderness Society into being in 1935, and who had died in 1939 at the age of thirty-eight; not Olaus M’fbrie, the great wildlife biologist who had served as the Wilderness Society’s president from 1946 until his own death in 1963, most of the time administering the tiny Washington, D.C.-based organization out of a log cabin in Moose, Wyoming, with his wife, Margaret; not Howard Zahniser, the bespectacled erstwhile poet who had left his job as an editor with Rachel Carson at the U.S. Biological Survey in 1946 to become executive secretary of the society, principal author of the Wilderness Act, and its most indefatigable Washington lobbyist before exhaustion killed him just a few months before the legislation was passed.