Aldo Leopold Foundation is asking people to talk about their encounters with Leopold’s ideas in 500 words or less. This is my contribution.
My high school biology teacher introduced me to Aldo Leopold. I don’t recall that it made much an impression on me. I went to college in Stevens Point & Madison, Wisconsin and spent a lot of time in Leopold landscapes. His influence on me was subliminal and indirect, drawn from the places he lived and worked (Leopold designed parts of the Wisconsin Arboretum) and from people who knew him, likely some people who knew him personally. After all, I was at the University of Wisconsin less than thirty years after the publication of “Sand County Almanac,” but I didn’t think much about Aldo Leopold specifically.
It turns about that Leopold’s effect on my personal and spiritual ecology needed time to manifest, decades as it turned out. In my work as a U.S. diplomat, I always made a special effort to get to know local environments and meet conservation leaders. We designed public diplomacy programs about environment in Brazil, Norway and Poland, where I was assigned, and my contributions always had elements of Leopold’s thought, but – sorry to repeat again – w/o a conscious component.
I always wanted to have my own forest land and finally got the opportunity in 2005. I now have 435 acres of land in southern Virginia. Owning that much forest land is not common for guys like me, ones that do not inherit land or have other background in land management. I was a professional in the Foreign Service, not the Forest Service. When people asked me why I did what I was doing, I found myself talking about Aldo Leopold’s land ethic.
It had been decades since I had read “Sand County Almanac,” and I had long since lost track of my old copy. Was I was getting it right? I bought a new copy and got reacquainted with Aldo Leopold and with my younger self. The reunion was good.
Leopold’s “land ethic” is both simple and profound. We all live in the natural world and should be mindful of our choices, action and inaction. Things tend to improve the biotic communities on the land are good and those that harm are bad.
I apply Leopold’s wisdom on my own land every time I set foot on it. His “Axe in Hand” essay is my special favorite. As president of the Virginia Tree Farm Foundation and board member of the Forest History Society, I spread the word to others. In Virginia, we are developing a landscape management program to encompass our tree farms on the ecosystem level. I had a lot of input into that, and Leopold had a lot of input into me.
As Aldo Leopold says, land ethics are written on the land and informed by what the land tells us. I have been developing, continually developing, my own specific land ethic. I integrate the biotic and human communities related to my land.Most of all, I use the Leopold method: observe – participate – reflect – observe … It works.