- Historic Sites
A Signature On The Land
The naturalist ALDO LEOPOLD not only gave the wilderness idea its most persuasive articulation; he offered a way of thinking that turned the entire history of land use on its head
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
After several months of recuperation back in Burlington, Leopold returned to work in October 1914 —though at a desk in Albuquerque now, not in the field. His health was still not good, and he spent the next nine months working in the district grazing office for a man who, Leopold felt, was entirely too accommodating to the desires of local stockmen. He chafed in the job but kept his mouth shut and was more than ready for a change when District Supervisor Arthur Ringland reassigned him in 1915 to an amalgam of duties that included recreation, fish and wildlife, and publicity. Armed with his newfound interest in wildlife, Leopold took to his new responsibility with considerable enthusiasm, and except for a nineteen-month leave during World War I, when he served as secretary of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, he spent the next nine years sharpening protean skills as a selftaught wildlife ecologist, soil and erosion-control analyst, fire-management technician, and, especially, game manager. He wrote the Game and Fish Handbook , a guide that proved indispensable to Forest Service rangers for many years. He persuaded hunters and hunting clubs throughout Arizona and New Mexico to form local affiliates of the American Game Protective Association and for the Albuquerque branch produced in December 1915 the first issue of The Pine Cone —the revival of a similar newsletter he had briefly edited in 1912 for Carson National Forest. This incarnation of the reasonably elegant little publication, which like the earlier version often featured his own modestly gifted artwork, was designed, as he wrote in the preface to that first issue, “to promote the protection and enjoyment of wild things. As the cone scatters the seeds of the pine and fir tree, so may it scatter the seeds of wisdom and understanding among men, to the end that every citizen many learn to hold the lives of harmless wild creatures as a public trust for human good, against the abuse of which he stands personally responsible. Thus, and only thus, will our wild life be preserved.” The Pine Cone was a great success—and not just in District 3. “My dear Mr. Leopold,” former President Roosevelt wrote in January 1917, “I have just read the Pine Cone. I think your platform simply capital. … It seems to me that your association in New Mexico is setting an example to the whole country.”
He grew to welcome the idea that too much management of land and creatures had been going on for too long.
Slowly, then, Leopold’s instincts began to turn in the direction of preservation, not use. Still, as the references to “human good” and “harmless wild creatures” in the preface to The Pine Cone ’s first issue suggested, he was not quite ready to give all of the wild equal standing with the unwild. Like most people of his time, he would have agreed that there were “good” animals—mainly the birds and ungulates that sportsmen liked to shoot—and “bad” animals—predators like hawks, eagles, owls, vultures, bears, mountain lions, wolves, and coyotes, all of which were universally described as “vermin.” Even William T. Hornaday called such critters “noxious predators” and advocated their elimination, and Leopold himself, in a 1919 essay in the Bulletin of the American Game Protective Association, declared baldly that “the advisability of controlling vermin is plain common sense, which nobody will seriously question.” After more than thirty years of steady indoctrination in the protocols of utilitarian conservation, it would take nothing less than an epiphany to change his mind, and even then it would be years before his mind would fully accept what his heart had learned.
It happened, he remembered in his 1944 essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” during a hunting trip with a few companions in the Blue Range of Apache National Forest. While sitting on a ridge eating lunch, the hunters spotted an old mother wolf and her nearly grown pups cavorting on the slopes below them. “In those days,” he wrote, “we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf.” They began firing at random into the pack. Leopold continued: “When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide rocks.
“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. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
Those sentiments were written a quarter of a century or more after the fact and, like most such memories, probably cannot be trusted to represent what Leopold truly felt at the time. But it is equally clear that the incident had set something loose in him, some- thing that made him increasingly receptive to the notion that perhaps entirely too much management of land and creatures alike had been going on for too long in the world and that sometime, somewhere, a line would have to be drawn between what human beings merely thought they needed to manage and what they truly needed to save: wildness itself.