A January Tribute to Aldo Leopold

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We’re in January, that frigid first month of the year when the sun shines intermittently as snow pellets the already frozen ground. John and I don’t go out much at night in January, but last night we donned heavy sweaters, parkas, and ear grips to attend a small screening of the recent movie Green Fire, a beautiful evocation of the life and land ethic of the early conservationist, Aldo Leopold.

While I appreciated learning more about this important founder of The Wilderness Institute and activist for land preservation, Leopold’s passion for hunting took me aback. When I came home, I re-read some of his essays, not to excuse his killing of animals, but to try to understand his ideas in an historical light. Leopold’s environmentalism evolved from his early days as a forester who approved the killing of game predators like wolves to increase deer for hunters. As a hunter himself, he seemed to view hunters as inherent advocates of wilderness preservation. Later, when overcrowded deer populations devastated wilderness, he realized that such killing only served to unbalance natural ecosystems.Certainly the movie’s use of vintage photo after photo posing dead animals next to men with guns is meant to illustrate the wrong-headed ethic of killing animals with no regard for what their loss means to their environment.

Leopold was also critical of what he called the “artificializing” of the “mass-pursuit” of “trophies” by intensive land management practices that increase the availability of fish and game for “trophy-recreationists,” including by constructing roads into wilderness. Leopold advocated stewardship rather than dominion over the natural world by viewing ourselves as part of that world. The last lines of A Sand County Almanac echo his plea for a change in how humans view land: “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

Leopold died at age 61 in 1948 of a heart attack while fighting a fire near his family’s Wisconsin farm retreat. One can’t help but wonder how his conservation ethic would have evolved had he lived another twenty or thirty years to see the birth of an environmental movement and the earth’s increasing degradation by short-sighted human folly.

On this cold January day, with a fire in the woodstove to keep us warm, I want to honor Leopold’s passion for preserving wilderness as wilderness with an excerpt from my forthcoming book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press):

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, like other classic nature writings such as Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, combines exquisite detail of his corner of the natural world with an urgent appeal for protecting that world—if it’s not already too late. First published in 1949, Sand County is arranged by months; the February chapter is particularly apt for Stonebridge: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.

To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the week end in town astride a radiator.”

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Here on the Front Range, winter eventually catches up with us. New Year’s Eve is cold and snowy and snowstorms come in waves, diminishing in power but keeping the landscape softly blanketed in white. The nights are frigid, but in the house, we’re warmed by a wood fire, one provided by nature and by John with his chainsaw and his willingness to go outside first thing in the morning for wood. Many years ago, our hot water heating system went on the blink. We were using the woodstove pretty regularly already because we liked the warmth it gave, reaching further into corners than less powerful heat. When the furnace went out, we decided to go all the way with wood.

Or almost all the way. The ceiling-high windows on the south side of the farmhouse provide passive solar heat and we have a couple space heaters for our offices or to warm the cast-iron tub in the bathroom. Primarily, though, the woodstove does the job.

Each year since we let the furnace go, we’ve made some improvements. Because the farmhouse is 100 years old, we had extra insulation blown into the walls. What a difference that made, mostly to keep in the heat from the woodstove rather than lose it out the wood walls. Next we built a wood hut to keep the logs dry and handy outside the back door. Designed by Jon Bell with a scavenged satellite dish for a roof, it makes trips to the woodpile much more pleasant, even in the snow. We’ve lined and improved the old chimney and have it cleaned periodically by a chimney sweep. We also bought, at our friend Peter’s advice, a colored temperature gauge so we could monitor the optimum flame. Yellow is too low; red is too high. We like to keep it “in the mustard,” we say, where the wood burns most efficiently.

The biggest improvement is the wood itself from the trees growing along the three irrigation ditches. For years we burned cottonwood, since it was the most common, but that wood burns like toilet paper—lots of ash, not much heat. Now we’re burning willow, apple, and Russian olive, the latter a weed tree that John has sworn to rid from our land.

I’m glad John doesn’t mind swinging an axe as he’s “let[ting] his mind work the while.” And I’m glad to hear the “thump” in the woodbox in the morning as he drops a load of dry logs for the first fire of the day. It’s good to know where our heat comes from, as well as our food. Leopold would approve.

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4 Comments

Filed under ecobiography, memoir, sustainable agriculture

4 responses to “A January Tribute to Aldo Leopold

  1. Thank you Kayann. Mary

  2. Stewardship is a radical change from ‘dominion over’, and clearly Leopold was a leader for my Smiley family’s view of their relation to Mohonk land.

    By the bye, I’m told that ash is far better than oak for burning…leaves less creosote .

    Lots happening here farm wise and finally, just handed off the Consultations newsletter to the graphic designer. Phew. love to you both. Patty

  3. Love the shot of the frozen creek. Colorado has such lovely waterways. I enjoyed A Sand County Almanac. Nice remembering Leopold. Thanks.

  4. johnmmartin

    Yeah, that root of ecological thinking in hunting complexifies the history of the whole movement. Maybe usefully.

    An oak forest would be nice – and that Wisconson soil.

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