Meeting Nature as a Presence

Aldo Leopold and the deeper nature of Nature

| Fall 2017

  • Leopold was trained as a forester and was an avid hunter. Working for the Forest Service, his goal was, in part, to manage forests for the maximum quality and yield of timber.
    Photo courtesy Aldo Leopold Foundation
  • The respect for nature and the desire to protect the earth into the far future is rooted for Leopold in a budding recognition of the living quality of the earth as a whole.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Geoffkuchera
  • Leopold rode thousands of miles on horseback and observed first-hand the ecology, wildlife, and human use of the land in this arid part of North America.
    Photo courtesy Aldo Leopold Foundation

We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming mêlée of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks…I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.

— Aldo Leopold

With these words, the 56-year-old Aldo Leopold reflected back on an experience he had at the age of 22. It was 1909 and Leopold was leading a crew for the newly formed United States Forest Service that was carrying out an inventory of the locations, quantity, and quality of timber in Arizona and New Mexico.

After shooting the wolves, Leopold and his crew climbed down to the banks of the river and found the old wolf. She was still alive but unable to move. Leopold put his rifle between himself and the wolf, she grabbed the rifle in her jaws and then died.

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. As he watched the light in those eyes disappear, Leopold met the wolf for the first time. For a split second he glimpsed the wolf as a being in its own right. The impression stayed with him. In a sense the wolf became part of Aldo Leopold on that day.

11/29/2019 9:21:10 AM

I have enjoyed Leopold's thinking and writing since college. Once in awhile when I detected fertile minds, I shared some of his story and thinking with my students. Over a 30 year career in high school science this did not happen often. I have hoped that during my lifetime I would see more people would become familiar with Leopold's ideas. This kind of thoughtfulness was also expressed by Emerson, von Humboldt, Goethe, and probably others, and still it is not widely recognized. I appreciate an essay such as this one.

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