A Signature On The Land

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And not Aldo Leopold, the lanky, bald, hound-faced ex-forest ranger and renowned wildlife ecologist in whose supremely rational mind the romantic dream had first bubbled up more than forty years before. Until he lay down to die in the smoke and flames at the edge of his tiny imitation wilderness in 1948, his scholarly authority and graceful diction had given the wilderness idea its most persuasive and memorable philosophical articulation. The concept, he had written in September 1935, demonstrated, among other things, “an intelligent humility toward man’s place in nature.” He was himself not unaware of the importance of his work and his place in his field and could defend both with some acerbity, but he did not assume that they were of any particular interest to the cosmos.

In his greatest and most lasting work, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There , he offered a definition of what conservation meant. “It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop,” he mused. “A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”

Leopold’s own evolution toward this humble state had taken a while. He was born Rand Aldo Leopold (though his first name was never used) in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, to Carl Leopold, a Midwestern drummer who specialized in selling roller skates and who was a skilled and avid hunter, and Carl’s first cousin Clara Starker, a genteel middle-class woman of tender sentiments. From his father young Aldo learned to love the arts of outdoorsmanship, including hunting, in the semiwild country around Burlington, while with varying degrees of success his mother exposed him to more refined interests, including classical literature. The mix would prove significant.

He was immediately seduced by the Southwest’s clarity of light and generosity of space.

By the time Aldo was ready to enter college, his father had moved up the economic scale, becoming head of his own furniture-manufacturing business, the Leopold Desk Company. Carl invited his son to take a position with the company upon graduation from college; Aldo gently rejected the offer. More than ten years of hunting, fishing, bird watching, amateur botanizing, specimen collection, and general wandering in the woods had given him a permanent infatuation with the great outdoors and all its parts. He developed an especially intense passion for pine trees, which he could never explain satisfactorily. “The only conclusion I have ever reached,” he would later write, “is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.”

Most of his adolescent reading was in the new science of forestry, only then beginning to take on some semblance of academic respectability after fifteen years of promotion and proselytization by the wellborn German-trained Pennsylvania forester and sometime governor Gifford Pinchot, whose family had provided Yale with the money to establish the Yale Forest School in 1900. And it was at this school—after a year at the Lawrenceville preparatory school in New Jersey and two freshman semesters at Yale—that Leopold began the study that would inform the rest of his life.

The year was 1905, the very year, as it happened, that Pinchot persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to establish the U.S. Forest Service, put Pinchot in as the agency’s first chief forester, and begin the process of delineating and establishing 148 million acres of national forests across the country (see “Father of the Forests,” February 1991). These forests, Pinchot ordained, were to be managed, not preserved in the natural state. Like the rest of the natural world, the forests had been put in place, Pinchot argued, for the wise use of mankind; to manage them so as to preserve their utility was nothing less than plain common sense.

Young Leopold, who was the son of a furniture maker, after all, had no difficulty accepting this eminently practical dogma. Indeed, he had embraced it even before the Yale Forest School began to hammer it into him with classroom study and fieldwork. “It has become a generally recognized fact,” he had written in a school paper at Lawrenceville in November 1904, “that wood is, and will continue to be, one of the necessities of life. … Furthermore we know that the lumber supply of our country, once believed to be inexhaustible, is now almost used up; two decades, it is estimated, will see its end. This present supply is confined mainly to the northern and western states, and even there an average of only about ten percent remains of the original stand of valuable lumber. … Lumbering a region ought to mean ‘gathering its forest crop,’ but only too truly it generally does mean ‘destruction of the forest crop.’ This is the modern method which has caused the squandering of our timber resources, and which is everywhere employed.”