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Reading Records with Estella Leopold

Estella Jr. with father Aldo and the Shack sidehill, 1937

By Curt Meine

Estella Leopold and I meet along the Wisconsin River on a drizzly fall day, on the land that her father, conservationist Aldo Leopold, depicted in his classic book A Sand County Almanac.  Over our thirty-five year friendship, Estella and I have had many opportunities to talk over events in her life and in the lives of her family, and the insights that she has gained along the way. But when I pose the question to her—“What kind of ancestor do you want to be?”—I am not sure how she will respond. She pauses for just a moment.

Estella was the youngest, and is now the last survivor, of five notable siblings—the children of Aldo and his wife, also named Estella. “Little” Estella is now ninety-one years old. She was just eight in 1935, when her father acquired, for a song, the “sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society.” She spent her teen years actively engaged in the pioneering ecological restoration work that began to heal the damaged land. She was twenty-one in April 1948, when her father lost his life just yards away from where we are sitting. He succumbed to a heart attack that overcame him while fighting a grass fire that had escaped from the neighbor’s farm.

Estella studied botany at the University of Wisconsin, then earned a master’s degree at the University of California-Berkeley and a Ph.D. at Yale. Her research involved early work in the emerging field of palynology—the study of fossil pollens and spores to understand plant evolution, ancient ecosystems, and past climatic conditions.  Her significant contributions to paleobotany earned her multiple honors, including election to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.  (Her brothers Starker and Luna were also elected members, a unique accomplishment in the history of the Academy.)

For all her achievements as a scientist, Estella was never one to wall off her research from her conservation activism and advocacy. Her knowledge of the deep past was prelude to her concern for the future. In the 1960s she led efforts to establish the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado. She fought proposals to construct dams along the Colorado River that would have flooded portions of the Grand Canyon. She opposed plans to bury high-level nuclear wastes along the Columbia River at Hanford, Washington. She helped create the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in 1982. With her siblings she founded the Aldo Leopold Foundation to carry forward her father’s “land ethic,” his philosophy of love and respect for land “as a community to which we belong.”

Given Estella’s informed scientific understanding of deep time, and her family’s legacy of conservation and ethics, I expected, I suppose, an expansive response to the matter of responsible ancestry. I reframe the question, and ask her what comes to mind when I invoke the term ancestor.

She has a one-word reply.

“Records!”

Some explanation is in order. Estella is working on another book. Since her older sister Nina passed away in 2011, Estella has devoted more of her time to writing about her personal and family history.  In 2012 she published Saved in Time, recounting the campaign to protect the Florissant Fossil Beds. In 2016 she shared the experience of her family’s intimate practice of land stewardship in Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited. Now she is researching her next writing project, focused on her mother’s deep family history in New Mexico. Her thinking on ancestry is thus quite immediate, literal, and personal.

“We need to keep records out of respect! They give a feel for what our elders were like.” The stories of her Luna and Otero ancestors are woven into and through the history of Mexico and New Mexico, embedded in place names across the region. Her ancestor-patriarch Solomon Luna, for example. He was a sheep baron whom Aldo once described as “kind of a king-maker to New Mexico,” playing a key political role as New Mexico gained statehood. Other stories involving other maternal ancestors reflect enduring family traits:  warm familial relations, a tradition of gracious hospitality, an abiding love of music and Mexican cuisine, a steady commitment to progressive political reforms. In her nineties, Estella is still exploring who she is and where she came from. And to have records—accounts, interviews, stories—is to have data, real information to help illuminate the unknown.

Maybe Estella has in mind one of her father’s lines. Reflecting on his lifelong interest in phenology, the careful chronicling of the timing of natural events, Aldo wrote that “keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search and the chance of finding order and meaning in these events.” Discovering order amid the fog of time and change, details and impressions. Finding meaning in the layers of natural and human history. Estella built a long and distinguished scientific career by seeing whole worlds and geological epochs in microscopic fossilized grains of pollen. She knows how to make the most of the minutest bits of evidence. It was what she was trained to do.

But Estella moves easily from the hard nuggets of facts and evidence to the fine latticework of our constructed ethical norms. For her, being a responsible ancestor is not an overly complicated matter.  She says simply: “You have to be pretty moral, and set a good example.” The world knows Aldo Leopold for his framing of an inclusive land ethic. Estella sees its germ in her parents’ lived experience and character. “They were kind to everyone, both of them so generous. They were so in love with one another, and lived in a way that transferred and passed along that kindness.” Her mother was universally appreciated for her personal warmth and thoughtful consideration of others. Her father was “always looking for the highest qualities in all his acquaintances—his classmates, his colleagues, his students.” From this relationship came a family ethic of careful regard and respect for other people. That, in turn, yielded—or maybe coevolved with?—a land ethic, extending that regard and respect to the larger community of life.

I wonder if Estella can draw a connection between her refined scientific understanding of deep geological time and her sense of responsibility extending across generations. I coax her to connect her knowledge of our fossil ancestors to our obligations to those who will follow us. “Estella, do you think having that view of deep time has sharpened in some way your perspective on our ethical commitments?”

She again resists thinking conceptually about the question, and goes straight to a story. She recollects the time she invited the famed Wyoming-based geologist David Love to one of her study sites in the coastal Mexican state of Nayarit. Having explored in depth the Eocene flora of Wyoming, she tempted Love by explaining that the ancient plant life of Wyoming was best represented in contemporary times by the tropical forests of Nayarit. “Come to Mexico, David, and you can imagine what Wyoming was like! You can see it there.”  Estella can see entire worlds and epochs in tiny grains of pollen. Her science feeds her imagination. When pursued in this way, empirical knowledge allows us to put our brief human experience on Earth—as individuals and as a species—into context. To imagine ourselves in our most expansive context of time and space.

In the 1930s Aldo Leopold found himself also in Mexican space, navigating the river of time and expanding his imagination. In Chihuahua’s Sierra Madre, along the banks of the Rio Gavilan, Leopold heard “the song of the river”:

To hear even a few notes of it you must first live here for a long time, and you must know the speech of hills and rivers. Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over the rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it—a vast pulsing harmony—its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries.

For all who listen to the songs of rivers, or are attentive to pollen grains, or confront honestly the mixed stories of our own ancestors, the records of the past help us to peer into the indefinite future. The messages from history cannot on their own make us into the ancestors we would like to be for our descendants. But they help us to imagine ourselves as honored bearers of stories and responsibilities, and they bond us to those who will follow.

As we talk, Estella Leopold draws on a past that reveals itself to her at the end of a microscope, in the pages of family documents passed along by her mother, through memories of walking the sandy shores of the Wisconsin River with her father. All that history distills itself, finally, into an ethic of care that is simply a given, a natural inheritance for her. She continues to pass it along, to give it forward. Because you have to be pretty moral. You have to set a good example.

~

"Reading Records with Estella Leopold," by Curt Meine, from WHAT KIND OF ANCESTOR DO YOU WANT TO BE?, edited by John Hausdoerffer, Brooke Parry Hecht, Melissa K. Nelson, and Katherine Kassouf Cummings. © 2021 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the University of Chicago Press.