Aldo Leopold's Odyssey

By Rothlisberger, John D. | The American Midland Naturalist, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Aldo Leopold's Odyssey


Rothlisberger, John D., The American Midland Naturalist


Aldo Leopold's Odyssey, Newton, Julia, L., Island Press, 2006, Washington, Covelo London ISBN 1-59726-045-2

I discovered A Sand County Almanac as an undergraduate trying to select a major. Aldo Leopold's elegant prose and vivid imagery captivated me. Leopold's persuasive arguments for wise stewardship over natural resources also motivated me to pursue a degree in Conservation Biology. Despite the important influence of A Sand County Almanac on my life, at the time, I knew little about Leopold and how he came to espouse the ideas so powerfully expressed in Almanac. For those, like me, desiring a more complete understanding of the Almanac's author and its context, Aldo Leopold's Odyssey, a recently published book by Julia Lutz Newton, provides a welcome window into the intellectual journey of the father of the modern conservation movement.

Not a typical biography, in that it mentions few of the personal details of Leopold's life, and those only in passing, Odyssey is an intellectual biography. The reader participates in a guided exploration of the evolving landscape of Leopold's thinking on the roles of the government, private landholders, and the public-at-large in conserving natural resources. The journey is well worth the investment of time and attention, and the author is an able guide.

Newton skillfully places Leopold's work and thoughts in their appropriate historical context. This helps the reader appreciate the very real environmental challenges the United States faced during the years concurrent with Leopold's development of his land ethic. One ecological disaster, prominent in Leopold's mind, was the erosion in the Southwest associated with careless agricultural and husbandry practices. In a dramatic example, rapid erosion ate the land out from under a farming community in Blue River, Arizona, turning it into a ghost town. The Dust Bowl years also affected Leopold's thinking, but more than that, they made the importance of soil and water conservation readily apparent to the entire nation. Newton's descriptions of the dust blizzards, which arose from the parched Midwest and settled several centimeters thick on eastern cities, are a thought-provoking reminder of how far-reaching and damaging the effects of neglectful land management can be. Also concerned with game management, indeed as one of the first professors of game management in the country, Leopold was dismayed by the astonishing declines in wildlife populations during the early 20th Century.

The book recounts Leopold's professional endeavors, each of which shaped his thinking in a unique way. Leopold worked in various positions including as a district forester in the Carson National Forest, an employee of the Albuquerque, New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, a contracted researcher for the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute (SAAMI), and finally a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The SAAMI hired Leopold to conduct a survey of game exploitation and conservation practices in the US. To focus his study, Leopold chose to work first in the Midwestern states, marking his connection with the American Midlands.

The portrait of Leopold that emerges from this text is one of a man that cared deeply for the land and the living things that inhabit it, particularly humans. Newton portrays Leopold as a thoughtful individual who worked with great devotion to develop a practical and scientifically informed approach to natural resource conservation. …

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