Curt Meine, author of the definitive biography Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, spoke with us about the recent publication of the latest Library of America volume, Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation.
Why should people read Aldo Leopold? What’s his particular relevance today?
For decades people have read Aldo Leopold because his writing continually delights us, informs us, and challenges us. He was a gifted prose stylist, a keen thinker, a meticulous observer of the natural world, and a brilliant synthesizer of insights from literature, science, history, and philosophy. Often compared to Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Rachel Carson, Leopold was among the first to see the significance of the emerging science of ecology for our stewardship of the land. And he thought of “land” expansively. In his essay “Land-Use and Democracy” (1942), he defined it as the “soils, waters, plants, animals, and people.” He recognized that conservation was not just a technical or economic pursuit, but inherently a matter of ethics as well—of our relationships to one another, and our relationships to the natural world. In that sense he is the key figure bridging the early conservation movement and the modern environmental movement, and his comprehensive approach remains directly relevant to current debates involving sustainability, resilience, and community well-being.
What does Leopold mean by “thinking like a mountain”?
Leopold’s essay of that name is among his best known. In it he explores the “hidden meaning” that he found in his youthful killing of a mother wolf, a profound experience he recounts in A Sand County Almanac. The phrase memorably distilled Leopold’s mature understanding that if we are to achieve a healthier relationship with the land that supports us all, we need to reflect deeply and durably about the natural world, its evolutionary history and ecological complexity, and the changing roles and responsibilities of human beings within it. It was his call to be both humble and expansive as we do so.
What is the relationship between Leopold’s various activities—as a U.S. Forest Service ranger and land manager, hunter and fisherman, advocate and teacher, restorer of the land in Wisconsin’s sand counties—and his writing?
It was all of a piece. Throughout his life Leopold sought to connect his outdoor experience and actions to broader concepts and ideas—and to communicate his insights to varied audiences. But as he matured, and thought much more consciously about the role of the writer in gathering what he once called the “cultural harvest” of the land, the lyrical voice of Sand County emerged. That voice was the fully integrated expression of Leopold’s active personal and professional life, his commitment as a communicator, and his contemplative temperament.
What do the selections from Leopold’s journals included in the LOA collection say about him as man and writer?
In his journals, which Leopold kept from 1917 until his death in 1948, the reader finds the raw materials behind Leopold’s more finished prose. They show Leopold as an extraordinarily dedicated recorder of his outdoor activities and of natural phenomena. His journals were not primarily literary in character; they were his sportsman’s and naturalist’s notebooks. But it is hard to imagine Leopold the writer apart from Leopold the disciplined outdoorsman, observer, and naturalist!
Leopold is revered among environmentalists but somewhat less familiar to general readers. Why?
Leopold has long been labeled a “nature writer”—a term that can both connect and confine his writing to a particular reading audience. And as we as a society have become increasingly removed from the reality of the land and its history, his voice can seem more remote, even “old-fashioned.” Yet, for those seeking to explore and rethink our relationship to land and the Earth, that voice remains as relevant and fresh and provocative as ever. In his celebrated essay “The Land Ethic,” he calls upon his readers to become active participants in the “thinking community” through which an ethic evolves. That invitation remains open to us today.
The LOA collection includes a large selection of Leopold’s letters, almost all of them previously unpublished. How do these letters add to or alter our understanding of Leopold?
I think the letters give the reader what I as a Leopold biographer had: access to a more personal, more immediate, sense of the human being behind Sand County. They reveal in more intimate terms Leopold’s personal development and professional relationships. More than a few of them illustrate Leopold’s willingness to take controversial political positions on behalf of conservation. They enrich the reader’s appreciation of his talents and his flaws, his humor and his opinions, his passions and his commitments.
Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?
Of course that changes every time I open the cover again to read Leopold! But I have always especially appreciated a three-paragraph bit of manuscript that we have included called “Wilderness” (p. 375). Leopold wrote it in 1935 when he was visiting Germany. In it he ponders the “inevitable fusion” in our understanding of the dynamics of nature and human culture, calling it potentially “the outstanding advance of the present century.” That process of “fusion” continues, the need is as important as ever, and Leopold remains a sound and stimulating guide as we try to find our way forward.