"Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree—and there will be one." — Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold: In Burlington and beyond.

By Jerry Rigdon
co-chair, Leopold Heritage Group 

    Much has been written about Aldo Leopold’s youth in Burlington, Iowa. The influence of his father Carl, an avid hunter, on Aldo’s developmental years in regard to the wild and the natural world — the influence his grandfather, Charles Starker had on young Aldo in regard to how the human mind can interact with nature — and the influence his mother, Clara Starker Leopold, had on developing his writing skills. The young Leopold became an astute observer, a recorder of the natural world. He kept a journal, a bird list, drew maps of his “tramps” in and around Burlington. His later writings were much influenced by these early disciplines. I often wonder what books his parents and grandparents had on their shelves? The family probably had an extensive private collection of books in which the very curious young Aldo undoubtedly read.  Did young Aldo read Schopenhauer, Goethe, his grandfather’s collection of books about landscape architecture, botany and biology?

    I believe, in his mature adult years, Aldo Leopold reconnected to what he had learned from experiences and disciplines as a child growing up in Burlington, Iowa, and coupled those experienced memories and disciplines with an inner soul and an aptitude to write his observations eloquently and persuasively. Those writings, and that soul created and helped launch the Land Ethic and Wildlife Ecology movement.  All the books written about Leopold, his philosophies…all the activity centers…all the contemporary interests are the result of those writings, which grew out of those early experiences. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture is one such activity.

     Leopold, like John Muir, Rachel Carson, Sigurd Olson, wrote out of a sense of loss. All preservation thinking is founded on holding onto what is threatened, juxtaposed against the possibility of loss. Those possibilities are grounded in realities of loss, both witnessed and experienced.

    Aldo Leopold experienced such loss in the places he “tramped.” The physical growth of Burlington intruded into many of the natural places, especially in the ravines, the secret places where young Leopold collected plant samples and observed birds in the wild, where he drew his pictures, and recorded in his journal those early observations. A barn and a more modern house were built in the Starr’s Cave area, which were interruptions in a cherished landscape, an intrusion into the natural world of Leopold. Upon returning home to visit on or after 1913, Leopold would have seen the effects or possibly witnessed the cutting of all the river oaks and hardwoods and the draining of the land, in the Mississippi river bottoms directly across from Burlington, in Illinois. A miles long, five-mile wide, wooded landscape gave way to farm land as a result of the hydroelectric dam at Keokuk and the levee system constructed to hold Lake Cooper, the largest of all the man made lakes on the Mississippi. The route to his favorite Crystal Lake, in Illinois, would have been affected by this construction and instead of a great river fed bayou, the lake became a land locked pond, albeit a large one. Another of his favorite “tramping” places, Flint Creek was straightened; the north bottoms drained and cleared of trees, to make way for industrial development 

    The abundance of waterfowl and game birds in Leopold’s youth is well documented. Hunts where hundreds of birds were taken in one day became simply a memory for Leopold as an adult and now exists for us only in old sepia photos, and in the stories of such hunts.

    Leopold’s urgent message for recovery of the land grows out of this memory, a revisiting of an interior landscape formed in his earliest years, shaped by his experiences in ornithology, botany, journaling, reinforced by the praises and encouragement he received from his mother for his writing, and his father on his hunting skills and his grandfather on his astute and studied observations, coupled with the stark reality of the loss of the abundance of things wild. The Sand County Almanac contains surprises and excitement over newly experienced discoveries of the wild but also contains the echoes of the voices of Leopold’s mother, father and grandfather and an eloquent anguish for wild abundance, forever gone.

    Leopold’s writings in the Almanac connect us to those loved experiences about the Silphium, the Good Oak, the chickadee, and in the essay “Great Possessions,” but we are also reconnected to what we have experienced, to our own things remembered. I think all of us who love the wild and wild things bond to them out of similar interior yearnings. Interiors formed in many different ways, from direct and personal experience, or by the experience of others in the stories they can tell us. We might experience a kind of quiet envy, wishing we had been there.  Aldo Leopold, whose influence we celebrate this week, is a teller of such stories in words used just so. 

    What have we lost and what can be gained?  Our losses are many and mounting, not just from the natural landscape, the prairies, fens and the sloughs, or from the disappearing growing things; dames rocket, silphium, and who looks for draba today? Diminished birdsong, the disappearing yellow headed blackbird and the meadow lark, the striped gopher, and now they say, the honey bee… but also words from our language, like “fence row” and “sitting hens,” “wire check” and “laying by,” “pitch fork and hay mow,” fading into a potential memory collapse at the end of an era, with the passing of another generation. The compass plant lingers in abandoned railroad right of ways and old unkempt cemeteries,  in back yard gardens, or in the botanic zoos of restored prairie patches, or roadside prairie offerings where we can get a fleeting glimpse as we speed past at 65 miles an hour.  

    A 1940’s aerial photo taken of the Flint Creek region of Des Moines County shows a landscape almost devoid of trees except at the water’s edge. The photo shows hilltops and hillsides of cornrows and hayfields beyond the narrow black ribbon of the Flint, farm ground captured and held captive away from the white oak forest that young Leopold knew.  Today a young inquisitive mind visiting the park will see and admire large oak trees, hill and bluff line once more covered by hickory and walnut, reclaimed by conservation efforts, and feel that it has been that way forever, but huge moss covered white oak stumps tell a different story. To understand the meaning of the stump, this inquisitive mind will have to listen to other stories, study witness’s accounts of what once was there.

    Leopold’s provides us a stump, a questioning witness of what once was and what possibly might be, by persuasive writng and teaching with a hope of those other possibilities.  This hope is about recovery, recovery is about allowing the land to be what in can become in an earth memory of which we are part and partner. Leopold continues to ask us to make our memory consistant with that earth memory. The human mind, shaped by what it desires, feels, senses and thinks it knows, has imposed and intruded and reshaped every landscape that it has entered, asserting itself for its own purposes, Leopold notwithstanding. What Leopold offers us is a way to reshape our interior yearnings to correspond to the land, imposing our self in a sensitive, ethical way that includes  land purposes, earth memory.

    We are told you cannot go home again but we can head in that direction, away from the effects of the builders of those super effective great machines that must eat a mountain top, devour a slough, digest forever a forest, or feed on the fertility of the soil, and I think, the nutrients of the soul.  We must head away from unsustainable genetic manipulation, an engineered gene must be engineered forever, and the social engineers who create the economic siren song that Wendell Berry names, “from the ground up and away from the soil” to charm and entice the people away from the land into the city for the “good life.” Small scale agriculture, the heart of sustainability then gives way to agribusiness, corporate sytle. The term “family farm” slides towards another memory. 

    All of Leopold’s writing and teaching, as I have tried to establish, rides on top of and out of a sense of loss aimed at urgency towards recovery. Recovery is hope and hopefulness. Leopold suggests the land can recover and we can recover with it. We, as human inhabitants of the land, can help it sustain us. Sustain is a wonderful word for our use today. It has three broad meanings, all verbs; to maintain, to nourish and to suffer. Sustainability is about maintaining that which nourishes us, physically and spiritually, while we suffer through loss and work to rediscover other possibilities in harmony with the land. This is our hoped for gain. A worked for, cherished reality found in the successes of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

    Some day you might come to Burlington to take a  “tramp” in Leopold’s prairie, wood and river.  We hope this too will lend to our sustainability, our own reconnection to things we treasure, teaching us to live with the land, nurtured, as one of its great possessions.