One response from the column was a “thank you” from Buddy Huffaker, President of the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Buddy asked if I would be willing to write a review of Green Fire, a new hour-long biography of Aldo Leopold, that will be shown on PBS stations across the U.S. throughout April.
No problem. Now I must confess, however, that reviewers of TV programs and films are supposed to be objective, and truthfully I am not objective about Aldo Leopold.
My first encounter with Aldo Leopold came in the mid-1960s when I was a student at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources. I began as a wildlife biology major. I’d selected that major as I grew up on an island at the mouth of the Detroit River, Grosse Ile, Michigan, which at that time was smack dab in the middle of some of the worst air and water pollution in the U.S., and probably the world. Lake Erie was declared “dying” on the front cover of Time magazine. The Downriver Detroit area was an ecological nightmare, and spending time outdoors there made me even more aware of the problems.
After two years of classes, in one class I was assigned to read A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, where he served up a standard for evaluating environmental issues as “The Land Ethic:” A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, the stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
Combining ecology, practical resource management experience, and philosophy, Leopold, who founded the field of wildlife management, talks about how environmental problems ultimately originate in the human mind and that’s where they will ultimately need to be solved. In short order, I realized that people needed help more than the fish and wildlife, so I switched my major to conservation education, and then later in graduate school, to environmental psychology.
So, Aldo Leopold changed my life and I have always appreciated that.
Now that you know my bias, let’s focus on the film.
Green Fire is the story of Aldo Leopold’s life and works told with the help of Aldo Leopold’s biographer, Curt Meine, as well as a host of others. Some are well-known like J. Baird Caldicott, N. Scott Momaday, and Susan Flader. Three are Aldo Leopold’s children–Nina Bradley Leopold (who I knew), Estella Leopold, Jr., and Carl Leopold. Some are ordinary folks whose lives have been touched by Leopold’s writings, such as ranchers, wildlife biologists, and environmental educators. Throughout, the voice of Peter Coyote periodically reads Aldo’s words from A Sand County Almanac. These voices overlay historical photos and spectacular nature photography along with some engaging interviews, which are all blended together into a true work of art.
For outdoor sportsmen, not only will you find an accounting of Aldo Leopold’s conservation accomplishments, but you will find ample support for the importance of hunting in his life. Leopold walked his talk. And he and all the kids enjoyed hunting, fishing, and shooting. Estella, Aldo’s wife, at one time was the Wisconsin state archery champion. A special moment in the film is when Nina Leopold Bradley talks about how aside from food, whenever the family went to the shack, they took along three things–musical instruments, a dog, and a gun.
Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were political activists who launched the conservation movement. Born in 1887 in Burlington, Iowa, Aldo Leopold was more of a scholar who grew into becoming a quiet activist on behalf of wildlife conservation. Among his accomplishments were creating the first wilderness area in the U.S. in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, creating the first watershed managed to control soil erosion at Coon Creek watershed in Wisconsin, founding the field of wildlife management, and writing one of the most popular and important ecology books ever written, A Sand County Almanac, which has slowly sold millions of copies and is published in numerous languages worldwide.
While Aldo Leopold had a knack of shooting bulls-eyes with his words, he was not rigid. Over time, his thinking evolved and changed. He grew up in the era of market hunting, and saw first-hand the near destruction of the buffalo and the extinction of the passenger pigeon, as well as lived through the Dust Bowl. He once predicted that sandhill and whooping cranes would follow the passenger pigeon, but as he knew before he died in 1948, both species of cranes have recovered.
When he graduated from Yale Forestry School in 1909, his first job was with the U.S. Forest Service in the Apache National Forest of Arizona, where among his responsibilities was predator control–shooting wolves, coyotes, bears, and mountain lions to allow big game herds to increase.
One day, he and some friends were out and came upon a wolf pack–Mexican wolves. Immediately they began shooting. One wolf went down but was not dead. Approaching the wounded animal to administer the final shot, he looked at the old she-wolf and watched “a 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 to her and the mountain.”
“Green fire” has become a concept that people identify with Leopold’s works, such as the title for this film, which spends some time on the reintroduction of the Mexican wolf to New Mexico and Arizona. The film does acknowledge the Mexican wolf reintroduction is controversial, but my only criticism of the film was that it had included Aldo’s ultimate thinking about predator management.While he never changed his mind about his mistake of the policy of eliminating all predators, in 1933, Leopold, as the first professor of wildlife management in the world, wrote the following in his textbook Game Management (the first college wildlife management text that remains in use by many colleges today) in the chapter on “Predator Control:”
Predatory animals directly affect four kinds of people: (1) agriculturists, (2) game managers and sportsmen, (3) students of natural history, and (4) the fur industry. There is a certain degree of natural and inevitable conflict of interest among these groups. Each tends to assume that its interest is paramount. Some students of natural history want no predator control at all, while many hunters and farmers want as much as they can get up to complete eradication. Both extremes are biologically unsound and economically impossible. The real question is one of determining and practicing such kind and degree of control as comes nearest to the interests of all four groups in the long run.
Most importantly, decades before it became a common term in wildlife management, Aldo Leopold was saying that when people and wild animals come together, management requires two kinds of carrying capacities: a biological carrying capacity and a social carrying capacity. In terms of wildlife management, perhaps this wisdom is his most important gift to management. It surely relates to wolves today.
Aldo Leopold died in 1948, just days after he received notice from Oxford University Press that A Sand County Almanac had been accepted for publication by Oxford University Press. He passed away from a heart attack as he was helping a neighbor near the shack fight a grass fire.
The film concludes with two stories that brought tears to my eyes. The first is a beautiful story about sandhill cranes flocking to the Leopold Wetland Management District in Wisconsin.
The second is the growing movement to honor Aldo Leopold by annual public readings of A Sand County Almanac. In Wisconsin, they have been doing this in early March for eight years. And like the thousands of trees that the Leopold family planted around the shack and that are doing well today, the readings are growing in size and numbers. In a time when so much environmentalism is gloom, doom, guilt, animosity, and fear, it’s so refreshing to see that people are remembering, with Aldo Leopold’s help, that the love for nature is the most powerful force for conservation.
So, check for time and dates for PBS showings of Green Fire this month, and if you want to buy a DVD of Green Fire and/or a copies of A Sand County Almanac and many other books and items about Aldo Leopold, you can get them through the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
All images courtesy Aldo Leopold Foundation