We Should All Celebrate Aldo Leopold a Poet Laureate of the Environmental Movement, He Helped Teach Us the Cost of Civilization

By Shribman, David M | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 3, 2013 | Go to article overview

We Should All Celebrate Aldo Leopold a Poet Laureate of the Environmental Movement, He Helped Teach Us the Cost of Civilization


Shribman, David M, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Maybe nothing much is going on right now in your hometown, but that's not the case in Batesland, S.D. (population 108), and in the Wisconsin towns of La Crosse, Fond du Lac and New London. They're all marking Aldo Leopold Weekend, and we should, too.

Aldo Leopold Weekend -- officially so designated in Wisconsin but informally marked elsewhere -- comes only once a year, and it is a time for reflection and action, all in honor of one of the poets laureate of the conservation movement, a man much forgotten by the general public but much revered among those who believe, as he did, that there are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm -- that you might think breakfast comes from the store and that you might believe heat comes from the furnace.

Pick up your copy of his classic "Sand County Almanac" -- all libraries have one, several schools do, and those who love nature writing own at least one volume -- and pause for a moment on his Forward, written precisely 65 years ago Monday. There is more wisdom in those 13 paragraphs than in a dozen 300-page works that have won the National Book Prize. Pause for a moment on the second paragraph:

[Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher "standard of living" is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.

Leopold's book is a meditation on wild things and on the cost of civilization. Long before the word "ecology" moved from the natural- history and zoology faculty in the late 19th century to the front pages of newspapers in the late 1960s, this U.S. Forest Service supervisor, University of Wisconsin professor of game management and long-selling author (2 million copies in print) preached the precepts and values of this discipline, which he viewed in moral as much as in scientific terms:

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. Our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.

Can it be a coincidence that his masterwork was completed in the same year (1948) as "Northern Farm," Henry Beston's chronicle of a year in Maine, written from Chimney Farm in Nobleboro, where he lived with his wife, the equally sagacious Elizabeth Coatsworth, a Buffalo girl who won the Newbery Medal in 1931 for "The Cat Who Went to Heaven" but is best remembered in our house for her musings about rural New England?

Beston may be better known for "The Outermost House," written in 1928 from Cape Cod, but I have always been drawn to "Northern Farm," which he concludes by observing that "[w]hat has come over our age is an alienation of Nature unexampled in human history. ... It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity."

That is the Leopold insight as well. Leopold and Rachel Carson (who once said Beston was the only writer who influenced her) are almost always cited as the founding father and mother of the modern environmental movement. …

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