On a rainy Saturday last month in Johnston, Iowa, I gathered with a group of local folks at the Johnston Public Library to view and discuss the documentary Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. Thanks to my training as a land ethic leader through the Aldo Leopold Foundation, I have presented this film a number of times now as a member of the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau (Humanities Iowa also provided grant support to produce the film) and have shown it in a number of classes I teach. I always enjoy the film and gain new insights whenever I view it. This time, the documentary’s message about commitment and longevity really struck home with me.
Aldo Leopold is arguably the greatest conservationist of the 20th century. Born and raised on the banks of the Mississippi in Burlington, Leopold’s formative experiences with the natural world occurred right here in Iowa, providing the foundation for the revolutionary thought and influence that would mark his career. Leopold’s central concept is the land ethic, the idea that the natural world is a community of interdependent parts (the biotic community, as he called it) and that the human community is a part of this interdependence as well. When we extend the idea of community to nature, we come to the upshot of his land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Leopold’s understanding of the land ethic comes in part from his sense of the “green fire.” This phrase originates in his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.” The essay recounts an incident early in Leopold’s career as a forester in the Apache National Forest of the then-Arizona Territory. It was 1909, and Leopold was 22 years old. Eating lunch on the rimrock of a canyon, Leopold and his colleagues spotted a mother wolf and her grown cubs fording the river below. It was a time when predator extirpation was considered a good thing (and government policy), and soon the men “were pumping lead into the pack,” as Leopold says in the essay. As Leopold approaches the dying mother, he says he “reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”
The main point of “Thinking Like a Mountain” is that our understanding of the natural world — including our place in it — is something that requires the deep knowledge that comes only with time, though we are never able to fully comprehend it. As Leopold says, “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.” And indeed Leopold’s understanding of the “green fire” and the land ethic itself was a lifetime project.
Leopold’s essay appears in his masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, which was not accepted for publication until the year of Leopold’s death (1948) and published posthumously a year later. Leopold died at age 61 of a heart attack while helping a neighbor near his family’s Baraboo, Wisconsin weekend home, the Shack, fight a brush fire. While his career was still in full swing and his death could certainly be considered premature, he was still in the later stages of his life. Leopold did not apprehend the meaning of the green fire and the land ethic in a sudden flash of insight in 1909 at age 22. It took nearly 40 years for him to write “Thinking Like a Mountain,” almost four decades for him to understand what he saw in that mother wolf’s eyes when he was a young man. And that understanding was not definitive — Leopold himself says in his essay “The Land Ethic,” that the land ethic is a “product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written.’… It evolve[s] in the minds of a thinking community.” Long after his death, the land ethic continues to evolve, just as Leopold intended and understood it would.
While the land ethic, formulated late in his life, is in many ways the apotheosis of Leopold’s thought, his accomplishments throughout his career were revolutionary. While any endeavor is a team effort to varying extent, Leopold essentially founded the field of wildlife management and the concept and practice of ecological restoration, and he was a guiding light in the establishment of the Wilderness Society. And in attaining these achievements, Leopold led a life of great consistency, in both focus and place. I would argue that he could have not achieved what he did without that commitment and longevity.
Often in today’s world, we celebrate those who change careers often, move restlessly from place to place, and come up with innovative ideas and move on to something new. We also worship youth and valorize the young genius or the artistic prodigy. Certainly great things come from people like that. But often the most important, most profound ideas and achievements come from those who have enacted a more sustained commitment to a profession and place — and have come later in that person’s life. Times were certainly different in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, but Leopold grew up in one place in Iowa, went to school out East at Yale, spent 15 years in the first part of his career in Arizona and New Mexico and spent the remainder of his life and work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Shack near Baraboo. He was not what you would call a world traveler. He took one trip to Germany and two to Mexico. Although he focused on different aspects of wildlife, wilderness and conservation in his career, his entire life was devoted to understanding our relationship with what he would call “the land.”
In this column, I have long advocated that proper care of land and community comes about through both commitment and longevity (an idea shared by the likes of Wendell Berry and Scott Russell Sanders). Aldo Leopold lived those principles, and the groundbreaking ideas and accomplishments that resulted are without peer. It took nearly 40 years for Leopold to even begin to think like a mountain, to understand what the green fire was that he saw in the dying wolf’s eyes — true wilderness. And yet, even for Leopold, only the mountain can entirely comprehend the wolf, and the mountain lives fully as part of the natural world itself for thousands, even millions, of years and stays in one place. As Leopold says at the end of his essay, “Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”
Thomas Dean is an Aldo Leopold Foundation Land Ethic Leader and member of the Humanities Iowa Speakers Bureau and Board of Directors. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 231.