Thanks to the generosity of the U.S. Forest Service and the Aldo Leopold Foundation, I’ve had the honor these last two weeks to be the first writer-in-residence at a lovely two-story bungalow that Leopold built in 1912 in Tres Piedras, a small village two hours north of Santa Fe. Nestled up against a large rock outcropping (one of the three piedras), it served as the headquarters for the Carson National Forest, of which the 26-year old Aldo Leopold had just been appointed as Supervisor – only three years after his arrival in the Southwest! It also became home for two newlyweds. That October, Aldo married Estella Bergere at her family’s house in Santa Fe. After the wedding he whisked her off to Tres Piedras via the famous Chili Line railroad. It was the start of a long, strong marriage. Together, they christened their new home Mi Casita.
Describing this largely overlooked moment in the great conservationist’s life, biographer Curt Meine wrote: “Aldo Leopold could look on his life with deep satisfaction. He had the modest but tastefully appointed home he had envisioned. He was supervisor of his own forest and had helped to make that forest a viable proposition. He had only to stand on his porch to partake of a landscape as beautiful as any on the continent…For a sweet interval, he had attained his ideal: his land, home, family, and work, his fireplace, pipe, books, and time for the contemplation of the days. Leopold enjoyed the best of all worlds. Like the Carson Forest itself, he had ached his way through a long period of change to emerge secure and established.”
Secure, that is, until he fell deathly ill with nephritis the following spring and had to transfer away from Tres Piedras never to return, reminding me of the old saying: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
Here’s a photo of Aldo and Estella at Mi Casita:
That I could stay in Mi Casita exactly a century after its construction added to the honor. Wonderfully restored by the Forest Service in 2005 (and available to the public), it was easy to sense Leopold’s spirit there, especially when standing on the casita’s porch during a tempestuous summer thunderstorm, as he must have. Looking out, I imagined that the view had not changed much in a hundred years. The view east toward the Sangre de Cristos is still unobstructed, with the village’s weathered post office, a busy highway and scattered utility poles the only peripheral intrusions. There were other changes, I’m sure, but they didn’t overwhelm the feeling that time had stood still at Mi Casita.
It didn’t take long before God began chuckling, however. Nothing is timeless, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing otherwise. Making a list of how the world has changed since 1912 would extend longer than my arm. When Aldo stood on the casita’s porch there were 1.5 billion people on the planet. Today, the global population has zoomed past seven billion and is on course to reach a stratospheric nine billion by 2050. I’m certain that Leopold would have been shocked at the news. I can imagine the incredulous, but knowing, expression on his face. Fortunately, there is good news to share with him as well, including the passage of the Endangered Species Act and its wildlife success stories. That would have elicited a smile and nod. But should we tell him the rest of the news – that many wildlife biologists now believe that the sixth great mass extinction of life on Earth is underway? Nah, we can skip that news item.
What about carbon? Did they know much about the carbon cycle in Leopold’s day? As a trained forester, Leopold certainly understood that trees were mostly carbon – the kind that made for solid timber and good firewood. In 1912, that type of carbon was a valuable commodity. Behind the casita is a stand of aromatic ponderosa pines and on the far side of the piedra the Carson National Forest extends for miles, full of good carbon of all shapes and sizes. He probably understood that wildlife are mostly carbon as well. It’s also reasonable to assume that Leopold knew about carbon dioxide. He may even been aware of recent experiments in Sweden that conclusively demonstrated its heat-trapping properties in the atmosphere, though I doubt he understood their implication. Of course, few did back then.
Would climate change have surprised Aldo Leopold? I think not. After all, he spent nearly all of his professional life trying to lead Americans away from ecological self-destruction. In 1925, reflecting on his experience in the Southwest, Leopold wrote: “If we are unable to steer the juggernaut of our own prosperity, then surely there is an impotence in our vaunted Americanism that augurs ill for the future.”
Or this from his classic Game Management in 1933: “The hope of the future lies not in curbing the influence of human occupancy – it is already too late for that – but in creating a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance.”
As his experience matured, his concern deepened. In 1938 he wrote: “We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
It wasn’t just about wildlife and conservation. In 1942, he wrote this remarkable analysis of industrial agriculture in Land-use and Democracy:
“Nearly all American wheat is the product of exploitation. Behind your breakfast toast is the burning strawstack, feeding the air with nitrogen belonging in the soil. Behind your birthday cake is the eroding Palouse, the over-wheated prairies, feeding the rivers with silt for army engineers to push around with dredge and shovel, at your expense; for irrigation engineers to fill with dams with, at the expense of the future. Behind each loaf of (inedible) baker’s bread is the “ever normal” granary, the roar of the combine, the swish of the gang-plow, ravaging the land they were built to feed, because it is cheaper to raise wheat by exploitation than by honest farming. It wouldn’t be cheaper if exploitation wheat lacked a market. You are the market, but transportation has robbed you of all power to discriminate. If you want conservation wheat, you will have to raise it yourself.”
Sounds like operating instructions for the 21st century to me!
And finally this prescient observation in 1944, in a little-read essay titled Post-war Prospects: “The impending industrialization of the world, now foreseen by everyone, means that many conservation problems heretofore local will shortly become global.”
As indeed they have.
Here’s a photo I took from the front porch of Mi Casita: