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Aldo Leopold Listens to the Southwest Dan Shilling “He said, after speaking of the Indian’s knowledge of nature, ‘Nature is the gate to the Great Mystery.’ The words are simple enough, but the meaning unfathomable.” —Aldo Leopold, age 17, in a letter to his mother describing a Native American elder who spoke at his boarding school1 I Serious people have struggled with the meaning of this “unfathomable” knowledge, from Socrates, Spinoza, and Lao Zi in generations past, to Annie Dillard and Edward O. Wilson today. What is the relationship between, and the meaning of, the human-nature dynamic? As the epigraph wonderfully foreshadows, few authors would wrestle more eloquently with that elusive meaning than Aldo Leopold. A key figure in environmental history and thought, Leopold came to Arizona in 1909, directly from college. To mark that centennial, this issue of Journal of the Southwest features three essays about the forester and writer who, in generations to come, will likely be considered alongside Muir and Thoreau. At the start it is worth remembering the environment Leopold stepped into in 1909. He left it with his certainties not a little disturbed. An Iowan whose land-management career played out primarily in the Southwest and Midwest, Leopold is remembered as a founding member of the Wilderness Society; the originator of scientific game management; the architect of the nation’s first wilderness area; a critic who questioned DDT nearly twenty years before Rachel Carson; the father of Starker and Luna Leopold, noteworthy ecologists in their own right; an advocate for responsible heritage tourism more than a Dan Shilling, Ph.D., is the former director of the Arizona Humanities Council. His Leopold research was supported by a fellowship from Arizona State University’s Institute for Humanities Research. Journal of the Southwest 51, 3 (Autumn 2009) : 317–350 318  ✜  Journal of the Southwest half-century before the phrase existed; one of the earliest practitioners of community-based land cooperatives; and, well ahead of his time, an activist who suggested boycotting products made using child labor or in an environmentally negligent manner. Moreover, similar to ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan or biologist E. O. Wilson today, whose writings privilege humanistic concepts as much as nature’s mechanisms, Leopold was a scientist who authored hundreds of technical articles, but he is generally regarded as the voice that launched the discipline of environmental ethics in the early 1970s, more than two decades after his untimely death in 1948. To be sure, Leopold was no trained philosopher: educated as a forester at Yale during the Progressive Era, when Gifford Pinchot’s “wise-use” creed dominated wildlife policy and Theodore Roosevelt’s administration, Leopold came to Arizona to begin his land-management career in the new Apache National Forest. That first year on the job he probably never passed up an opportunity to shoot a predator, especially the despised wolf, but after one such incident he sensed a disconnect between his formal classroom training and the hillside lesson, an event he would write about thirty-five years later: We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce 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 only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of triggeritch ; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.2 The mountain thinks, the wolf too—mutually—about their refuge. There is between them “something known.” Where is Homo sapiens in this dialogue? asks Leopold in this landmark passage from a 1944 essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” one of the more remarkable statements in environmental literature and a pivotal episode in A Sand County Almanac , a collection of Leopold’s essays published posthumously in 1949. He had shot the mother wolf on a ridge in eastern Arizona, probably near Escudilla Mountain south of Springerville.3 His was a routine act, since the Forest Service’s eradication policy of the day held that fewer...


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