There are surprisingly few people who are considered iconic in the world of conservation and ecology. Conservation of nature and biodiversity is a fairly new concept, considering humans have been using the resources on this planet for thousands of years.
The other day in my ecology class, I learned about a guy named Aldo Leopold. I was actually quite surprised I’d never been told about him before. He was one of the first to recognize that every organism in an ecosystem plays a part and, without that organism, that ecosystem may suffer, or even fail completely.
Aldo Leopold grew up in Iowa, born in 1887. He had an affinity for nature and the forest and spent many hours studying it on his own time by exploring and journaling. He went to college at Yale to study Forestry.
He became many things, including a conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator, and a writer. After school, he went to New Mexico and joined the very new U.S. Forest Service ad helped in the proposal to manage the Gila National Forest as a wilderness area.
In 1924, he moved to Madison, Wisconsin and, 9 years later, published the first textbook on wildlife management.
Now that you know who he is, let’s look at some of his best writing.
The Sand County Almanac is a compilation of the essays Leopold wrote throughout his career. They focus on his life and the environments in which he worked. One of his essays reads as this:
We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy…
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.
Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic destitute, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.
This essay was written in a time in America where we didn’t know enough about the workings of ecosystems and habitats to make proper decisions when managing wildlife. The government mandated that all predators in certain areas be shot and killed. Reasons for these rules include the preservation of cattle and the preservation of game. The thought was: “If we kill the predators, there will be more for the hunters to catch.”
While that was true, killing off the wolves in places like Yellowstone National Park was destroying the ecosystem. Many plant and animal species that were never imagined to have benefitted from wolves were declining.
Leopold, in this passage, writes about the “green fire” in the eye of the wolf he shot that only the mountain understands. This is obviously a metaphor, but I think it is a really beautiful metaphor that explains how humans, even with good intentions, cannot understand the long term effects of their behavior on the Earth. We just haven’t been here long enough and we are biased.
Earlier in the same writing, he speaks of all creatures reacting when they hear the mournful cry of a wolf. Every living thing is affected by the wolf and, while it is dangerous, it is still extremely important to the Earth and must be preserved. This goes for all the species that are threatened and endangered.
If you’d like to read the rest of this writing, go here.
If you’d like to read some other writings of his, go here.
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