Sunday, September 02, 2012

A Fierce Green Fire ...

Aldo Leopold

Books develop legs and walk away here, including that battered paperback version of Aldo Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac," good reading in any season of drought, in nature or internal. So I ordered another copy Saturday, this one "deluxe," meaning hard cover, larger format and "illustrations." Maybe it'll stick around.

In the meantime, I'm reading Marybeth Lorbiecki's "A Fierce Green Fire," the lesser of two major biographies (look to Curt D. Meine's weighty "Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work" for the full treatment). But Lorbiecki's version is sufficient for those more interested in reading Leopold than in reading about him.

The "Green Fire" title is taken from a section of the Almanac in which he recalls a time in the mountains of the Southwest when, then a fledgling forester, he shot a mother wolf and watched her die: "We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes --- something known only to her and to the mountain."

I'm not sure how many Iowans are aware that Leopold, generally considered to be the father of modern wildlife management and the U.S. wilderness system, was an Iowa boy. We had him coming --- and have him going. Born at Burlingon on the banks of the Mississippi during 1887, where he lived until going east to attend school in his late teens, he was brought home for burial in Aspen Grove Cemetery with his parents and grandparents after untimely death at age 61 during 1948 while fighting a grass fire near the "shack" in Wisconsin. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University is named in his honor.

Published posthumously, "A Sand County Almanac," generally is recognized as the foundational document for modern conservation and conservation ethics with a power similar to that of Thoreau's "Walden."

It contains the fullest expression of Leopold's wholistic "land ethic," which encompasses everything that lives on or within the earth and the earth itself: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

That's a useful thing to think about in Iowa, perhaps among the united states the most changed since the arrival of EuroAmerican settlers. Once the only state fully blanketed by tallgrass prairie, only fragments and tatters remain.

The shape of the land and much of the soil once sealed safely beneath sod is still with us, however, and there's some comfort to be derived from the thought than if in our folly humanity manages to reduce itself to frangements and tatters, too, the prairie will reassert itself and perhaps heal those who remain. Of course it would be preferable if we began to heal ourselves.

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