Walking in Leopold’s Footsteps

Aldo Leopold at the Arboretum in 1936

Aldo Leopold at the Arboretum in 1936


Finding Leopold’s footsteps in the mud was no difficult task this Sunday as warm winds quickly melted the remaining snow before 35 of us departed from the Visitor Center over wet, mushy ground. As a capstone to a weekend full of Leopold events, our tour aimed to see the Arboretum as one of the great experiments in ecology and ethics that Mr. Leopold carried out as he put a wealth of experiences and research to work toward healing the land.

We ventured first into Curtis Prairie, (most of us) enjoying the feel of the mud under our feet and the breeze in our hair. Stopping along the old fencerow oaks, we took a moment to hear from the man himself and listened to “The Geese Return” from the March entry in A Sand County Almanac. Writing of the glory of the raucous arrival of these favorite birds, Leopold seems to shout from the page: “It is at this moment of each year that I wish I were a muskrat, eye-deep in the marsh.” We wondered for a while about Leopold’s later life as professor of game management and his interest in a dizzying number of experiments in forestry, wildlife, and botany research on the land under our feet.

Moving across Curtis Prairie to the east, we first sighted a lone red-tailed hawk soaring on the warm updrafts. Turning onto the old fire lane we noticed two more hawks nearby, and the three began swirling together in what looked at first to be a coordinated dance, but soon turned into two of the hawks intimidating the third. Thinking it to be an issue of jealousy at first, a later conservationist brought to light the idea that in fact two parent hawks were likely “encouraging” their one-year-old child to leave the territory. A sort of “get out of the house and go find a job” message, if you will.

At the dock above Teal Pond we noticed small patches of liquid along the shoreline. No signs of migratory ducks or reptiles or amphibians yet, and the pond was relaxingly quiet. Here we considered that at the age of 38, Aldo Leopold left his position as second in command of the U.S. Forest Service 3rd district to come to the Forest Products Lab in Madison. He had worked extensively in Arizona and New Mexico, first as a ranger surveying the boundaries of new forest tracts, then managing grazing permits, then in game management organizing game protection associations with local hunt clubs to regulate hunting, and finally as Chief of Operations for the District, inspecting all of the forests within. After 15 years in the Southwest, Leopold was open to starting a new chapter and left New Mexico with Estella and their first four children for Madison. Here, Leopold became the first professor of game management at the UW–Madison and the first Arboretum research director, and later he applied his land ethic to a forgotten farm along the Wisconsin River in Sauk County.

We left Teal Pond and squished through the mud under Gallistel Woods. The afternoon birds were quiet as the sun shone down through bare maples. The group emerged into the evergreens in Longenecker Gardens, and at our last stop we talked about Leopold’s meticulous record keeping. Through his hunting journals and his ten-year phonological record of the Arboretum and his Sauk County farm, Leopold left behind a wonderfully detailed portrait of patterns of natural events from most of the places he worked and many of those he visited for fun.

Finally, we heard once more from Leopold, this time regarding his idea that humans need to adopt a new concept of community that includes “soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” He sums up his message nicely: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.”

With these words, we said goodbye to the pines and walked into the sunshine up the Longenecker alley towards the Visitor Center.

—Tom Pearce