Thinking Like a Mountain


Arts & Culture

How Aldo Leopold came to conservationism.


Aldo Leopold on a trip to the Rio Gavilan, ca. 1936. Photo: U.S. Forest Service

On the first day of April 1944, Aldo Leopold sat down at his desk to craft a confession. Leopold’s reputation was already growing across the country—a champion of modern wildlife management and the father of the Gila Wilderness, he was known as a good man and great teacher—but this would be something new and strange from a figure many would come to revere as the patron saint of American conservation. Leopold had recently received a letter, one in a long series of correspondence with his friend, Hans Albert Hochbaum, critiquing the essays Leopold was slowly producing for a book. Hochbaum mentioned the wolf, an animal that remained conspicuously absent from Leopold’s drafts: “I think you’ll have to admit you’ve got at least a drop of its blood on your hands.”

Hochbaum was talking generally, but the comment reminded Leopold of an incident that dated back to 1909, when he was just twenty-two.

At the start of July, with summer beginning its slow boil, he had boarded the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, leaving behind the familiar world of Fort Madison, Iowa, for a long journey down to the still-exotic Southwest. He rumbled through Marceline and Kansas City, and then out across Big Sky country, where agricultural expansion had consumed the bison and the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Osage, Pawnee, and Kiowa tribes. Along the way, the train stopped at Fred Harvey eating houses—America’s first restaurant chain—as it threaded its way to “old Santa Fe,” where “we shall hear a strange tongue,” one railway book explained, “and we may easily imagine ourselves transported beyond the confines of the United States, into Mexico or Spain.” Tourists had begun to flow into the New Mexico and Arizona territories, following the homesteaders and Texas cowboys. But Leopold, fresh out of Yale’s forestry school, was hardly a tourist, and his destination was far beyond the reach of railway tracks.

After a short stay in Albuquerque, he boarded another train west, skirting the top of modern-day Catron County before crossing the border into Arizona, where he would remain for much of the next two years. He arrived at the Navajo trading post of Holbrook and hired a horse-drawn stagecoach to ford the southern plains to Springerville, a two-day journey of some one hundred miles. Beyond Springerville, a dusty settlement of low-rise buildings and open space gave way to claustrophobic canyons and alpine forests scattered over the White Mountains. Here, Leopold would encounter deer flies and locust thorns, terrifying lightning and hailstorms, and “those unclassified mounted men of unknown origin and uncertain destination always found on frontiers.” Time concertinaed in such a way that one could plow up a dagger from Coronado’s expedition of 1540 as though it had happened yesterday.

Leopold had come in order to work for the U.S. Forest Service. One of the government’s new mandates at the time was a timber stocktake, the counting of trees on exhausting month-long reconnaissance trips. This stocktake had become particularly urgent: copper mines had opened in Clifton, and their engines were demanding to be fed. The Apache National Forest offered “millions of acres, billions of feet of timber, all vast amounts of capital,” Leopold explained in a letter to his mother. “Why it’s fun to twiddle them around your fingers, especially when you consider your very modest amount of experience.”

Gila_Wilderness,_1922Leopold was enthusiastic, dedicated, determined to escape the kind of provincialism “which affects a man spending all his time on one pursuit” and motivated by the same avid curiosity that once had him watching birds through his grandmother’s opera glasses. But he was also green, ruled by an unpredictable romantic streak. When he was promoted to chief of a reconnaissance party charged with surveying thousands of acres, the wild landscape hypnotized him to the point that he started neglecting his duties, which later led to an official review. He boasted about sleeping out, riding bareback, chasing Indians “regular Daniel Boone style,” even eating gray squirrels for breakfast. This frustrated others on the recon team, which frustrated Leopold in turn. “What do you think,” he wrote to his sister, “two of the men, lumberjacks to boot, began to grumble this morning about the ‘hard life!’ And this glorious Fall weather too! Why damn their whining souls, wait till it begins to snow. That will take some conceit out of them, or I’m a liar.”

One morning Leopold took a break to eat lunch with another forester on the rimrock of Black Canyon, which resembles a loaf of bread that’s risen so high it has split down the middle. Black River courses along the bottom, carving its path between willows and cinnamon-colored ponderosas, and the canyon walls are steep, footed with scree. Leopold gazed down at the stream. He noticed a doe, pushing her way through the cold current. When she cleared the water, beginning to shake herself dry, Leopold realized she was actually a wolf. Suddenly, a half dozen other wolves appeared nearby—grown pups, skirmishing together at the base of the rimrock. 

To Leopold, a forest with wolves felt different from a forest without them; it was more immediate, watchful, and alive, a place where meaning could be sensed in “the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces.”

But as a young hunter, he had no fondness for lobos. To him, all predators were vermin, interfering with natural resources, harming game populations and the profits of stock herders. He supported efforts to eradicate wolves because fewer wolves would mean more deer, and more deer would be a “hunter’s paradise.” This would take patience, time, and money, “but the last one must be caught before the job can be called fully successful.”

Leopold grabbed his Winchester—a trapper design, lightweight, short barrel—aimed into the canyon, and opened fire. His companion dropped his lunch and followed suit. Shot after shot echoed through the hardwoods until their rifle barrels were empty. By then the adult wolf was down, and one of her pups was dragging its shattered leg toward the rocky talus.    

The two men descended into the canyon. Leopold had a strong code of sportsmanship he’d learned from his father on childhood hunts: neither was the kind of man to abandon injured animals. When he reached the wolf, bleeding where she’d fallen by the current, he moved closer. Then he froze. Something was different. Something about the wolf he’d never seen before: “a fierce green fire, dying in her eyes.” The fire flared and flickered out, leaving silence, but not before it burned a hole through Leopold’s prejudice.

“I realized then,” he wrote at the desk years later, filling page after page of a yellow-ruled pad, “that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.”

A member of the early Forest Service crossing Buffalo Fork, Black River, below Three Forks on the Apache National Forest, 1921. Photo: C. K. Cooperrider

That green fire radicalized Leopold, the story goes. It was a moment of epiphany, a hard slap. But it’s also not true, or not exactly as Leopold tells it. When he writes “My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die,” he is conflating decades of evolving thought, in the same way somebody might summarize a turbulent courtship as “love at first sight.”

In truth, Leopold’s conversion was gradual. Between the day he was “pumping lead into the pack” and the day he wrote about it thirty-five years later, he studied watersheds and erosion caused by human exploitation. He visited forests in Germany where wolves had been deliberately exterminated—wälder now bursting with deer (a “hunter’s paradise”), and yet shockingly degraded and overgrazed. He hiked in the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico, near the Río Gavilán, where wolves had been left alone in what appeared to Leopold as pristine wilderness. He matured from a young man “full of trigger-itch” into a careful professor who listened to others and to the land, a man who wanted to change the ethos of his country.

America at this time was still adjusting to life after the shock of World War II. Conservation was an afterthought, if people thought of it at all—something that would happen automatically if one would only “vote right, obey the law, join some organizations.” There was no personal commitment, Leopold complained, just “letterhead pieties.” By then he was living in Madison, a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin. He wrote impassioned articles, grumbled in private correspondence, gave call-to-arms addresses at important public conferences. But he knew that for conservation to work in any meaningful sense, it needed to affect people deeply, in the realm of “philosophy, ethics, and religion”—to affect the way they understood the world around them. And so he’d begun writing stories that read like parables, drawing on “episodes in my life that taught me, gradually and sometimes painfully, that the company is out of step.” Gently, he would educate his readers. The wolf shooting would become an exemplar. He titled the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.”

For most Americans, nature was valuable insofar as it could turn a profit. Leopold termed this attitude Abrahamic: “Abraham knew exactly what the land was for: it was to drip milk and honey into Abraham’s mouth.” Man was the end and purpose of all creation, the conqueror of a kingdom that was waiting like a stocked pantry. Anything that grew too slowly, or could not be rationalized as a useful resource, was up for disposal—white cedar, hemlock, bog marshes, gray wolves. “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us,” Leopold argued. There was a sense of entitlement but not obligation.

Black River East Fork in the White Mountains. Photo: Alan Stark

Of course, that once had been his perspective, too, out in the Apache tallying pine. But not long after those reconnaissance trips Leopold had started to intuit “a closer and deeper relation” between man and the earth. It took many years to articulate it clearly: “a biota so complex, so conditioned by interwoven cooperations and competitions, that no man can say where utility begins or ends. No species can be ‘rated’ without the tongue in the cheek; the old categories of ‘useful’ and ‘harmful’ have validity only as conditioned by time, place, and circumstance.”

The mature Leopold had come to understand the land as a towering biotic pyramid, with predators like wolves at the very apex. The integrity of this pyramid depended on each layer maintained in appropriate balance; removing layers would cause the structure to crumble. Once Homo sapiens adopted this model, Leopold believed, they went “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” Humility and respect became paramount. To believe that man could control something so unfathomably complex was hubris. The best a person could aim for was intelligent stewardship.

Today, the biotic model means ecosystems, food chains, and trophic cascade, concepts so familiar they almost seem obvious. In Leopold’s time, though, ecology was a nascent field, proposing a rethink as radical, in many ways, as Copernican heliocentrism. Leopold knew the hurdle for acceptance would be very high, that it might take decades or even centuries for everyone to adopt the ethical imperatives. But he was determined to try. One of his strategies was translating ideas into metaphor and myth. Since watching the green fire die, he wrote,

I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise.

Sand_county_almanacIn 1948, fighting a grass fire in the sand counties of Wisconsin, Leopold collapsed and died of a heart attack at the age of sixty-one. The following year, “Thinking Like a Mountain” was released in a collection of his essays and philosophical musings, A Sand County Almanac. The book soon garnered a reputation as a “green bible.” Critics compared Leopold to Muir and Thoreau, though he exceeded both in his ability to fuse romanticism with serious science, creating a new language for speaking about the natural world that was simultaneously aesthetic and rigorous.

Given his commitment to skepticism, Leopold would have baulked at being called a prophet, but that’s what has happened over time. The “fierce green fire” became as powerful, for some, as the Crucifix, held aloft on a new crusade to reclaim the land of a rewilded America.

“This book looks as harmless as a toy glass pistol filled with colored candy,” wrote a critic from the New York Times in 1950. “It turns out to be a .45 automatic fully loaded.”

Aldo Leopolds letters and notebooks are held in the Aldo Leopold Archives at the University of Wisconsin. The two definitive biographies are Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, by Curt D. Meine, and Thinking Like a Mountain, by Susan L. Flader. Leopold never revealed the exact date or location of the wolf shooting; I write that the shooting occurred in 1909 on the rimrock of the Black Canyon based on the considerable sleuthing of Flader and Meine.

Lance Richardson is a writer living in New York.