Marking the 70th anniversary of the publication of Aldo Leopold’s most famous literary contribution, A Sand County Almanac, the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Library of Special Collections has curated an exhibit of materials in the Leopold Archives. Aldo Leopold: Life, Land, Legacy is an encompassing look at just that – from Leopold’s childhood, education, personal and professional life, to his enduring legacy.
I recently visited the gallery inside the UW’s Memorial Library to see what more I could learn about Leopold. It never fails, there is always something new to note or a new connection illuminated, and this endeavor proved no less. Even despite having visited the archives before and having pilfered through a few notable boxes of materials, the amount of which is quite astonishing, I was moved by a number of the exhibits on display. The carefully selected pieces on display in this first-ever large-scale exhibit touch on all aspects of Leopold’s remarkable life, and they provide interesting insights into his thinking.
Education & Early Career
Something about seeing the world through the eyes of a young person is always touching, but what is most striking about viewing the drawings and notes of the young Aldo is how early his passion for natural things developed and how it foreshadows what’s to come. And, well, not to mention his aptitude for sketching!
Moving through the glass cases, you get a sense for how Leopold’s hunting tradition played an integral role in his early career with the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwestern United States. On display are various articles and correspondence, especially to the publication The Pine Cone to which he regularly contributed and gained awareness with then President Teddy Roosevelt. While these manuscripts illustrate his early beliefs that predators should be eradicated to preserve game for hunting, in other glass cases you see the progression of his thinking to their necessity in maintaining balanced ecosystems. Additionally, hunting was a family affair in which all the Leopold children and his wife participated. Estella, Sr. was a Wisconsin state archery champion, in fact!
Leopold in Wisconsin
In 1924, Leopold and his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin and later accepted a chair position with the University in 1933. A portion of the Leopold Archives are courtesy of his professional files and provide great detail about his life as a professor and academic. From correspondence confirming his appointment to photographs of Leopold in his office to research and funding proposals or lecture notes, it’s as if you’re transported in time, if only momentarily, moving through the highlights of his career. And while I had known about Leopold’s leading role in creating the University’s Arboretum and prairie restoration, seeing maps detailing the innovative project with his hand notations is still something to behold.
And, if the sketches and maps don’t move you, perhaps the hand-written early drafts of “Good Oak” and “Thinking Like a Mountain” will. In today’s digital world, one has to appreciate how handwriting makes the words on the page so much more personal, even if they are hard to decipher. (Leopold’s penmanship can be hard to read, but that may be more a sign of our times lacking in longhand instruction and use.) The archives are a testament to the careful thought Leopold put into his writings as evidenced by numerous iterations and revisions of the essays contained in A Sand County Almanac.
The making of A Sand County Almanac is told by the pages held in the archives. But that’s not all. Because of his meticulous note taking, the archives also tell the story of how Leopold and his family began to rehabilitate and transform the land around their Shack. Maps detail the plans. Photographs show the noticeable before and after contrast. Journals tell of bird sightings and flower blooms.
Even though I’ve become familiar with the story and the images, when I think about the time that has lapsed, some 70 years plus, I still find it extraordinary how one pioneering man accomplished so much in his lifetime and beyond. While A Sand County Almanac may be the farthest reaching with over 2 million copies printed in 14 different languages, one might argue other accomplishments had even deeper impacts, like advocating for the country’s first official wilderness area or mentoring graduate students to become pioneers in their own right. No matter which storyline (and there are many!) you find most impressive, it’s likely the archives can shed a bit more light on what you think you know.
Aldo Leopold: Life, Land, Legacy is on display now through May 24. Join us for a special lecture, “The Making of A Sand County Almanac” by Curt Meine on Saturday, March 30. For more details about the exhibit or the lecture, click here.