A Passion For Nature As Great As Thoreau's

In July, 1909, a 22-year-old U.S. Forest Service recruit stepped off a train in the Arizona Territory bound for his first assignment. A cocksure graduate of what was then called the Yale Forest School, he soon found himself leading a team of veteran lumbermen through the mountains on a reconnaissance mission. Eager and a little foolhardy, he made surveying mistakes and ignored the lumbermen's advice. He even insisted that they cook without a stove and eat on the ground--because that was more natural. When the work was done, and the lumbermen wandered off to grumble about the new kid, Aldo Leopold took time to write.

Leopold, who died in 1949, wrote all his life, leaving a record of the transformation of an unfledged young forester into a passionate conservationist. His crowning work is A Sand County Almanac, published 50 years ago, after his death. It is one of the most influential and important pieces of nature writing since Thoreau's Walden--and one of the few to approach Thoreau in originality and literary value. Environmentalists consider it a bible: It played a major role in shaping the American environmental movement in the 1960s. And it is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the movement's intellectual foundation.

POET'S HEART. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Sand County Almanac, two new Leopold books have recently been published. Island Press published a compilation of Leopold's unpublished and uncollected work, For the Health of the Land, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle. And the University of Wisconsin Press has issued The Essential Aldo Leopold, a collection of Leopold quotations and commentaries edited by Curt Meine and Richard L. Knight. For readers new to Leopold, the books provide a good introduction to the kind of thinking that went into A Sand County Almanac.

When A Sand County Almanac appeared, in the fall of 1949, The New York Times Book Review called Leopold "a philosopher and poet at heart." It described the book as "full of beauty and vigor and bite." The book didn't become widely known, however, until the 1960s, when the environmental movement latched on to it as a sort of founding document. "Many people were affected by his book, not just because he had ideas that were translated into the beginnings and bases of the environmental movement, but because they were attracted to his writing--which I was," says the New Yorker writer John A. McPhee.

William Least Heat-Moon, the author of the classic travel book Blue Highways, keeps a first edition of A Sand County Almanac on his "shelf of honor," with Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. "He needs a far wider audience than he has," Heat-Moon says. "I see him and Rachel Carson as souls in the same boat. He paved the way for Silent Spring." The naturalist and author Terry Tempest Williams calls Leopold "an American writer with deeply American ideas of a bedrock democracy born out of the land," who "deserves a rereading by Americans, now more than ever."

The capstone of A Sand County Almanac is an essay called The Land Ethic, a mere 25 pages in the paperback edition. In those pages, Leopold proposed the notion that the land--all of it, with its plants and animals and human inhabitants--ought to be thought of as one community. And we ought to treat other members of the community with all the care and tenderness we show toward each other. "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity," he wrote. "When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."

It's a radical idea. Under the terms of Leopold's ethic, land no longer has a price tag. "The existence of obligations over and above self-interest is taken for granted in such rural community enterprises as the betterment of roads, schools, churches, and baseball teams," Leopold wrote. But "land-use ethics are still governed wholly by economic self-interest, just as social ethics were a century ago." The problem, he continued, is that "most members of the land community have no economic value." Trees might have economic value, but the rest of the greenery in a forest, the animals and even the microbes in the soil, have none. Yet all are members of the land community. The environmental historian Donald Worster calls this "the single most important new idea about land we have had since we created the institution of private property."

Like Walden, A Sand County Almanac proceeds by following the seasons. Leopold's Walden Pond was a depleted farm he bought for himself and his family in central Wisconsin's sand country (there is no Sand County). Like Thoreau, he assembled his larger themes from the small things he observed doing chores and making his daily rounds. The language is plain and the images are grounded in the soil, the trees, and the flash of a bird's wing or a deer's tail. But the incantatory power of Leopold's prose is undeniable.

When Leopold has to fell a venerable oak after it is struck by lightning, he uses the event to tell the history of the farm and of Wisconsin, as the saw cuts into the tree rings and back in time. "It took only a few pulls of the saw to transect the few years of our ownership, during which we had learned to love and cherish this farm," he writes. "Abruptly we began to cut the years of our predecessor the bootlegger, who hated this farm, skinned it of residual fertility, burned its farmhouse...and then disappeared....Yet the oak had laid down good wood for him; his sawdust was as fragrant, as sound, and as pink as our own."

EVENTIDE. Leopold describes a morning so fresh that "a hundred whitethroats had forgotten it would ever again be anything but sweet and cool." He tells of the crepuscular dance of the male woodcock, who "flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter," until, "without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane."

Leopold's interest in nature appeared early. When he was 11, he counted 13 wrens' nests in his yard in Iowa, noted that 120 wrens hatched, and listed 39 species he had identified, according to Curt Meine, one of the editors of The Essential Aldo Leopold and the author of Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work.

After graduating from Yale and joining the Forest Service, Leopold pursued his professional duties and writing and became an environmental activist. Recognizing that road building was a threat to the national forests, he fought for the establishment in 1924 of the Gila Wilderness Area in New Mexico, the first designation of a roadless wilderness. There should be "some logical reconciliation between getting back to nature and preserving a little nature to get back to," he said. To pursue that aim, Leopold joined others in 1935 to establish The Wilderness Society, which remains dedicated to preservation of wild lands.

ALL BEAUTY. In 1933, Leopold was appointed professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin, where he helped establish wildlife management as a science. Two years later, he bought the sand county farm. There, in "the shack," as he called the farm's converted chicken coop, he began work on A Sand County Almanac.

When Leopold finished the book in 1948, the first few publishers who saw it rejected it. In early April, Oxford University Press decided to publish the book in the fall of 1949. When it was reprinted in paperback in the 1960s, it went on to sell more than a million copies.

Leopold did not live to see the book's publication. On Apr. 21, 1948, at 10:30 in the morning, he was at the shack when he spotted smoke in the direction of a neighbor's farm. A fire was moving toward Leopold's pines. He sent his daughter fsor help and joined other neighbors fighting the fire. Later that morning, Leopold, separated from the group, suffered a fatal heart attack. He fell, and his body lay on the land as the fire swept lightly over him.