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Saturday, May 25, 2024
Aldo Leopold

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Leopold’s Legacy: Inspiring or exclusive?

As we honor one of Madison’s favorite conservation giants this March, let’s use his story to look at equity in the environmental field


Most aspiring conservationists and University of Wisconsin-Madison students have heard the name Aldo Leopold. Whether you’ve encountered him while flipping through the pages of “A Sand County Almanac” or heard of him while sitting in lecture, his presence is felt on campus even after he’s gone. 

Leopold is often called the “father of wildlife ecology.” He began teaching in this field at UW-Madison in 1933. 

In 2013, the university built a brand-new sustainable dormitory named after Leopold, equipped with a greenhouse, solar panels and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold-level certified technology. These examples hint at Leopold’s legacy, but before we continue carrying on his torch, we need to ask ourselves, “Who was Leopold, truly?” And, more importantly, in a sea of influential environmental figures, why is it his name our campus so clearly remembers? 

Long before molding minds in the classroom, Leopold was making a name for himself in the world of conservation. He studied forestry at Yale University, and shortly after graduating he joined the U.S. Forest Service. During his time there, he pioneered preservation of wild areas and worked his way to a leadership position. 

After years of service, Leopold’s path to Madison began in 1924 upon accepting a position at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory.

While working as a professor, his love for learning began to blossom, and he soon found himself pursuing a faculty position at UW-Madison in 1933. Two years into teaching — in 1935 — Leopold and his family purchased their famous “shack,” situated on a piece of land they seeked to transform. The tiny home in Baraboo, Wisconsin would go on to become a driving force for Leopold’s story.

During his time restoring the shack and its surroundings, Leopold began to compose environmental writings. Between long days planting pine trees and encouraging students to get outdoors, Leopold reflected on the relationship between humans and nature. He questioned our responsibility to one another, creating countless essays that would later be compiled into his most notable book, “A Sand County Almanac.” 

One of the most moving pieces from this book was an essay titled “The Land Ethic,” which spawned an idea that shaped the modern conservation movement. Using inspirational language, Leopold said, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively, the land.” This sense of unity would later spread to planet protectors everywhere. 

Unfortunately, Leopold did not live to see the aftermath of his words, which were published in 1949. He passed away in 1948 due to a heart attack he suffered while fighting a grass fire on nearby land.  

Years after his death, Leopold’s name lives on — every year during the first week of March, people across the United States come together to celebrate “Leopold Week.” For the past 15 years, the UW Arboretum has hosted “Madison Reads Leopold,” an event involving community reading and nature walks. Across campus and beyond, his essays are read by a diverse group of people, brought together by their love of the land. 

However, many readers have started to question if Leopold’s vision of community includes people who don’t look like him. 

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A renowned storyteller, Leopold knew the importance of his words. Unfortunately, he failed to use them to highlight the experiences and erasure of minorities in the American environmental movement, particularly Indigenous groups. Instead, he touches on tales of slavery with the ancient Odysseus at the start of the land ethic, presuming issues of human ethics have since been dealt with. 

But racism still exists, even thousands of years after this cited historical time of moral turmoil. For example, Leopold and those in his circle feared immigrants would “overrun the country.” He also used derogatory terms to describe people of Asian descent in his writing, and at times referenced outdated Anglo Saxon views.  

Leopold biographer and UW-Madison alum Curt D. Meine contends that “labeling Leopold racist oversimplifies his wilderness advocacy.” He added that Leopold’s ideas contributed to a better understanding of human ecology, and the land ethic is inherently for everyone. While it’s true Leopold didn’t define who qualified as a member of this collective community, is this a good thing? In a world that historically discriminates, what makes silence inclusive and not complacent? Does everyone have the privilege of simplifying Leopold to a beloved figure, separating his work from his unclear beliefs? 

Writer Lauret Savoy tackles these issues in “The Alien Land Ethic,” a response essay in which Savoy asks, “Did Aldo Leopold consider me?” She dives into the realities of living as a woman with African American, Euro-American and Native American roots — identities she can’t hide or choose to stay silent about. Savoy notes that while Leopold’s ideas of becoming one with the land are noble, they are not entirely new. 

Land has long been tied to humans, especially Indigenous communities. For Savoy, the land was a safe haven from bias and backlash. It did not judge or assume. It just was. If we truly want to commune with nature, we need to integrate these values. 

Additionally, we need to recognize that we, like varying landscapes, are not monolithic. The story of the environmental movement should see and support our differences. Savoy emphasizes this sentiment, calling for “Alien Land Ethic” and “The Land Ethic” to “meet and answer to each other.” 

But is this possible in a post-Leopold environment? How are future conservationists being taught to consider their fields' origin stories? At UW-Madison, Leopold is still a large part of the environmental education tale. Students living in the Leopold residence hall, specifically in the Greenhouse Learning Community, are naturally introduced to his work early on. However, these students recognize he is only one character in a larger story. 

UW freshman Jon Morrell recalls learning about Leopold and his writing during a first semester seminar. 

“I thought Leopold had a lot of forward thinking ideas about sustainability that not many people from his time did, like the land ethic,” Morell said. “But of course there were issues with some beliefs from his time, and it’s important to listen to other voices now too.”

Alexandra Blondin, another first-year Greenhouse member, emphasized these points. 

“As an environmental science student, I think it’s nice that there is a figure here to look up to,” Blondin said. “But I think we need to work on diversifying the people that we appreciate in that field. I don’t think he represents everything that conservation is today. Women and people of color have had to work even harder to make a difference, and representation for that matters.” 

Environmental stewardship is burning bright at UW-Madison, in Leopold and beyond. There is no one building, student or faculty member carrying on the land ethic’s torch, but an entire community. 

As we continue to make change and blaze the path for conservation during Leopold week and beyond, let us remember to brighten the stories that are not always told. After all, the sun doesn’t shine on just one person. 

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