"For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun." — Aldo Leopold

Bringing up Aldo

By Bob Hansen
Originally published April 17, 2010, in The Hawk Eye

It would be difficult to underestimate Aldo Leopold's contribution to our present relationship with the wild or to add to the extensive examination of his work as an environmentalist, but our ability to know the man himself always seems slightly out of our grasp. Perhaps one solution to understanding the forces that shaped the man would be to examine his childhood as the oldest and favorite child of a prominent and wealthy Burlington family.

Leopold -- born in 1887 and dead at age 61 in 1948 -- accomplished much in his relatively few years. But early on he gave indications that his life would be well-lived. It didn't hurt he was born with virtually all the advantageshis small river town could offer, for at the start of the 20th century, everyone in town certainly knew his grandfather and father.

Leopold's grandfather, Charles Starker, had an inordinate influence on the young boy. In 1850, Starker arrived in America from Germany intent on taking advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities existing at the edge of the western prairie. He was educated in engineering and architecture and quickly expanded his interests to include retailing, banking and politics. But he also was a passionate naturalist and the designer and prime mover in establishing today's Crapo Park.

Starker and his wife, Marie, purchased an Italianate mansion at the end of Clay Street where the bluffs fall steeply to the river, affording a view of the Mississippi and the woodlands and lakes of the Illinois shore. Here he indulged in his interest in all things horticultural while raising his two children, Arthur and Clara.
Aldo's father, Carl, was a nephew of the Starkers' who came to live with the family when he was studying at the local business college. He may have been somewhat of a free spirit, for after graduation he became a traveling salesman, traversing the American West selling barbed wire and tools but also enjoying ample opportunities to hunt and fish. That life came to an end when Carl returned to Burlington on a visit and fell in love, and married the Starkers' daughter Clara, his cousin.

At that time it was not unusual for first cousins to marry, but there was apparently some concern in Carl's mind about the wisdom of the marriage for it is reported that when his son, Aldo, was born, sound in mind and body, Carl commented: "Well, I guess we got by lucky." 

But Carl's life of wandering the west came to an end because Starker was not about to have a traveling salesman as his son-in-law. Starker and a family friend, E.D. Rand, purchased the Northwestern Cabinet Company and established Rand's son and Carl in the Rand-Leopold Desk Company. Later, this relationship was to provide Aldo with the first name of "Rand," but this was later dropped when the two families had a falling out.

The Leopolds moved in with the Starkers and soon two new additions -- Aldo and sister Mari Luize -- were added to the family mix. By the time a second son, Carl Jr., came along, grandfather Starker was finding the home becoming too crowded, so he built his daughter and her family a large stone house next door at 111 Clay St. Although the Leopolds had moved, the family connection remained strong and evenings were often spent at the Starker house, where books were read aloud and the family gathered for singing around the piano. 

Soon another son, Fred, joined the Starker-Leopold clan, and activities around the two houses at the end of Clay Street grew increasingly frenetic. The boys converted the lot between the two homes into a summer baseball field and winter skating rink. There were snow ball fights, stilt races and on one occasion, Carl and Aldo nearly disappeared over the cliff's edge while sliding on the ice.

But Aldo, as the oldest child, became his mother's favorite. The other children recognized the situation and simply accepted it as a fact of life. This caused Aldo some embarrassment, but did not stop him from taking advantage of his position. He became adept at stealing cake and when his mother locked his favorite dessert in a wood box, Aldo simply filed the lock away.

Aldo and Carl Jr., grew close and followed in their father's footsteps, becoming avid sportsmen. This trait would be repeated as the much younger Fred joined the outings. The father and sons hunted at every opportunity, but Carl Sr. insisted on a personal code of sportsmanship as they pursued waterfowl at the Crystal Lake and Lone Tree clubs in the Illinois bottomland.

Hunting was not the only outdoor interest the family enjoyed, however. Every summer, Carl Sr. would pack up his family and they would take a Great Lakes steamboat to the Le Cheneaux Islands at the north end of Lake Huron. There, the family would spend six weeks exploring the hills and lakes of the northern forest. 

It was a life style and a family creed that was to shape all the Leopold children, and it found its culmination in Aldo's career proselytizing the conservation movement that has become part of our understanding of nature.