A new documentary about Aldo Leopold should serve as a primer for how all the elements of the natural environment support each other--and the human race.
Documenting an ethic
A few years ago at a book festival in Edgerton, beloved Wisconsin author Ben Logan was asked about Aldo Leopold, who Logan had as a professor in the 1940s. Logan replied that Leopold was a major figure in history, but despite being known in conservation circles around the world, too few people know or heed his teachings now.
Fortunately, we’ve had the chance to renew acquaintances with Leopold through the straightforward and engaging documentary, Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. It has been shown to audiences across the country and beyond. Green Fire debuted on Wisconsin Public TV recently and WPT’s website has the times for other showings.
On the program with Logan in Edgerton that day was a good friend, Curt Meine, who calls rural Sauk County home. Meine is a conservationist, historian and Leopold biographer who narrated and helped create the film, partnering with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, the Center for Humans and Nature, and the U.S. Forest Service. He has criss-crossed the country to show the documentary and lead engaging discussions. He’s the perfect guy for the job, a warm person, gifted teacher and splendid scholar who connects well with people from many walks of life and is able to apply Leopold’s teachings from the mid-20th century to our world today.
Leopold’s land ethic is pretty simple: The land ethic enlarges the boundaries of what we commonly know as “community” to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. But it runs headlong into some powerful forces at work in the 21st century.
Almost daily we read of efforts to weaken environmental gains America achieved at least in part because enough people got what Leopold was talking about. The examples are many. Some Wisconsin groups are calling for an end to state funding for purchases of land that has special ecological attributes, as though biological diversity is nothing more than two dirty words.
Powerful interests influencing the new farm bill being put together in Congress want to do away with any requirements to practice good conservation in return for generous crop subsidies. Some lawmakers would kill the Environmental Protection Agency and trash clean air and water laws if they were able.
Fortunately, a lot of people who take the time to think about these matters want nothing to do with slashing and burning the land ethic. They include farmers and hunters and fishers and a lot of other people who see land stewardship as a responsibility.
It’s interesting that Green Fire debuts on TV just weeks after the Wisconsin Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill approving a wolf hunt. "Green Fire," of course, refers to a moving sentence in Leopold’s essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in which Leopold tells of shooting a female wolf on a mountain in the southwest. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he wrote.
OK, we need to control wolves when they threaten livestock, although the new law goes well beyond that. So be it. Maybe enough of the few hundred wolves will survive as a viable population. As a former hunter, I can’t criticize too much, although just as with bear-hunting rules in Wisconsin, wolf hunters will be eligible for state reimbursements if their dogs are killed while stalking wolves. That’s called a government giveaway.
In the bigger picture, Leopold came to realize that predators are an important part of healthy ecosystems. One has to wonder whether the governor or the lawmakers who approved the wolf hunt have ever picked up a copy of Wisconsin’s most famous book, A Sand County Almanac, or will bother to watch Green Fire to learn a thing or two.
May 6, 2012
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Bill Berry is a FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Stevens Point and writes columns for the Capital Times and other publications.