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Grinnell “Aldo Le-upholds” tradition of conservation

By Carl Sessions

Halfway through Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time, urban conservationist Michael Howard recounts an encounter with a student visiting a nature center in inner-city Chicago. The student was arguing with Howard about where eggs come from. When Howard said that eggs come from chickens, the student became disgruntled and replied, “No, they don’t. They come from the grocery store!”

The documentary, which will be screened at the Drake Community Library this Sunday at 2 p.m., chronicles the life of conservationist and Iowa native Aldo Leopold. A key figure in mid-20th century environmentalism, Leopold foresaw a growing disconnect between humans and the natural world—the kind of disconnect that can lead people to believe eggs are manufactured in grocery stores.

Green Fire begins with a series of short interviews with contemporary conservationists, environmental philosophers and authors who speak about the effect that Leopold had on their professional and public lives. Despite passing away in 1948, Leopold’s work in conservation and his philosophy of the “land ethic” continue to resonate to this day.

“We have lost sight of so much magic in the land’s spiritual value,” said author and poet N. Scott Momaday in the documentary. “It is time to reconstruct an ethic.”

The land ethic, along with other integral parts of Leopold’s naturalist philosophy, is explained throughout the course of the documentary by Leopold’s children and the narrator, Curt Meine, who is a Senior Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation actor. Grinnell alum Peter Coyote ’64 gives voice to excerpts from Leopold’s writing.

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively ‘the land,’” reads one such passage.

Green Fire contextualizes Leopold’s ideas by chronicling his formative years as a child growing up in Burlington, Iowa. As the camera surveys the Mississippi river, the narrator explains that Leopold was encouraged by his parents to survey and record the natural world outside of their house. When he was only 11, Leopold borrowed his mother’s opera glasses in order to monitor 13 different wren nests.

Leopold grew up in a time when little attention was paid to conservation: the bison and passenger pigeon were nearing extinction and vast amounts of prairie in the Midwest were tilled to grow corn, soybeans and other cash crops. When Leopold stepped into his first job as a forester in the Apache National Forest (in Arizona before it became a state), the word “conservation” was not part of the country’s vocabulary.

An avid hunter, one of Leopold’s original environmental concerns was to increase game populations. He incorrectly thought that the best way to do this was to kill predators and, in 1914, helped to organize predator control operations that devastated the wolf population in Arizona. This would prove to be a formative learning experience when Leopold realized that by destroying the wolf population the deer had become severely overpopulated.

Green Fire presents fascinating anecdotes about how events in Leopold’s personal life informed his burgeoning conservationism. After marrying a woman from a prominent sheep-ranching family and moving to Wisconsin to teach at the University of Madison, Leopold began to recognize that environmental problems are impossible to divorce from humans.

Leopold was afforded opportunity to test this hypothesis in the 1930s. Amidst the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, Leopold, along with workers under the Public Works Administration, collaborated with landowners to create watershed protection in western Wisconsin. Regarding this partnership between the government and individual citizens, Leopold wrote, “conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”

The strength of Green Fire lies in its application of Leopold’s conservation philosophy to the present. His work—especially his emphasis on a holistic approach to conservation that considers the natural world in its totality—is timeless.

“Leopold’s writing is extensive,” said Jackie Brown, Biology. “It doesn’t only give details of land management. The land ethic essay is embedded in a lot of arguments and beliefs about why we should care about global warming or any other environmental issue.”

Following the screening on Sunday, Brown will facilitate a group discussion on the documentary.

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