Aldo Leopold: The Bicyclist’s Guide to the Desert Southwest

MeineAldo Leopold (1887-1948) devoted his career to working with the U.S. Forest Service. He quickly became one of the most perceptive and articulate spokespersons for the conservation of forests, streams, range land, and wilderness throughout the United States.

My interest in Leopold’s life and work was enlivened soon after my first bicycle excursion through the southeastern region of Arizona, a portion of the state drained by the San Pedro River and featuring several mountainous uplifts sometimes called “the sky islands.”

After completing the ride, I discovered that in 1936 Leopold had written a poetic description of this region, declaring that “these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near being the cream of creation.”

In preparation for another bicycling expedition in the sky islands, I turned to Curt Meine’s comprehensive biography of Leopold. It is a formidable book: 33 pages of front matter, 529 pages of text, and 100 pages of notes and index, all printed in small type with narrow line spacing. In order to be ready for my 2016 Arizona tour, I focused on Part III in which Meine writes about the beginning years of Leopold’s career, from 1909 through 1924.

He was twenty-two years old and a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry when he began his work as an apprentice with the Forest Service. After a week’s training in Albuquerque, he was assigned to the Apache National Forest in Arizona. He devoted fifteen years to his work in Arizona and New Mexico and then moved back to his native Wisconsin, working first in the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison and later as a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

During his years in the Southwest, Leopold gained a thorough knowledge of the geographical facts and ecological history of this fragile land. Leopold worked very hard, both in his official capacities and as a private citizen to overcome existing abusive practices and to develop better ways of managing the natural resources in this world that he came to love. Even if he had done no more than this, Leopold would be a person whose legacy deserves to be remembered and respected.

More important, however, is the fact that Leopold thought about what he experienced and developed keen skills as speaker and writer. Throughout his career he wrote a long string of important essays about the well-being of the land and how individuals, local communities, and national agencies such as the Forest Service should act. Over the years, he revised his ideas on the basis of further field study, debates with colleagues, and his own intuitions about the larger patterns at work in the world.

I have made only a cursory reading of the 144 pages of Meine’s discussion of Leopold’s Arizona-New Mexico years. Even this has convinced me that as I continue bicycling through the West that I love Aldo Leopold will be my guide. More than any current conservationist, he will help me understand the issues now facing all of us in this fragile environment.

Right now, I’m on the lookout for a book of Leopold’s essays with an intriguing title: The River of the Mother of God. I can hardly wait!

Afterword: While reading Meine’s biography, I have also been reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality. Although Leonard was highly skeptical about religion, there are places in his writings where he and the pope express remarkably similar ideas about nature and how we human beings should live in relationship with this world.

“Possibly, in our intuitive perceptions, which may be truer than our science and less impeded by words than our philosophies, we realize the indivisibility of the earth—its soil, mountains, rivers, forests, climate, plants, and animals and respect it collectively not only as a useful servant but as a living being, vastly less alive than ourselves in degree, but vastly greater than ourselves in time and space—a being that was old when the morning stars sang together, and when the last of us has been gathered unto his fathers, will still be young” (quoted in Meine, p. 214).

Sources: Leopold, Aldo. The River of the Mother of God: And Other Essays by Aldo Leopold. J. Baird Callicott and Susan L. Flader, eds. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991). Leopold, Aldo. For the Health of the Land: Previously Unpublished Essays and Other Writings. J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle, eds. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999). Meine, Curt. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988, 2010).


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