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Letter home from Milford
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Camp Greatest Good: The Yale Forest School Camp of 1907

This article first appeared in The Leopold Outlook Magazine (vol. 19) in 2020
The Leopold Atlas: Revisiting landscapes connected to Leopold’s life and writing

Already a talented writer, twenty-year-old Aldo Leopold struggled in a letter home to recount his first day at Yale Forest School camp. It was July 5, 1907. He wanted to capture the excitement of beginning ten weeks of forestry fieldwork, his first immersive studies for a master’s degree in the still-new science. Describing his tent furnishings, a ham and biscuit supper, and a walk into nearby Milford, Pennsylvania, Aldo bemoaned, “Every word sounds flat and lifeless compared to the reality.” He tried again, more vividly, with details about a “dandy” swim in Sawkill Creek and drifting to sleep lulled by whip-poor-wills. At last he signed off, promising to write often but admitting, “I will never be able to tell you all about things.”

Milford’s Sawkill Falls swimming hole near camp with foresters on dam built by Aldo & classmates circa 1908. Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

Milford’s Sawkill Falls swimming hole near camp with foresters on dam built by Aldo & classmates circa 1908. Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

The Forest School itself was still in a formative stage that year, welcoming Leopold as part of the eighth entering class. Rapid deforestation in the late 19th century had sparked nationwide fears of timber famine, and President Benjamin Harrison had set aside the first federal forest reserve in Wyoming in March 1891. The 1897 Forest Management Act called for science-based “improvements” to the reserves that would mean deploying trained foresters across millions of acres. To meet the demand, German-born foresters founded the first two U.S. schools in 1898, at Biltmore Estate and at Cornell University. But Gifford Pinchot, the first American-born professional forester, distrusted the regimented techniques of German forestry and, as chief of the Division of Forestry, envisioned an innovative institution, designed to train elite crusaders for federal forest conservation. Explaining his family’s founding endowment of the Yale Forest School, which included use of 1,700 acres around their Grey Towers estate in Pennsylvania, Pinchot said, “What we wanted was American foresters trained by Americans in American ways for the work ahead in American forests.” As Theodore Roosevelt’s Chief Forester, Pinchot collaborated on a five-fold expansion of the reserves, and their re-anointing as national forests in 1907. Aldo Leopold—athletic, idealistic, and at home in the woods—was just the kind of young man Pinchot sought to oversee this vast domain.

Trading Ivy League coats and ties for rough trousers and hobnail boots, about 70 campers ventured alongside Leopold to a pine plantation at Grey Towers . Undergraduate geometry lessons at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School had introduced the principles of estimating timber volume of standing trees, and in a spring letter home Aldo thanked his father for their many hours getting to know Iowa’s wilds. Many of the “fellows,” Leopold confided, failed to recognize tree species or “comprehend the way things hang together” in the forest. Yet, armed with calipers, Biltmore sticks, and Progressive Era optimism, camp teams set to work, neatly penciling notebooks full of diameters, heights, and projected values of red pines reduced to cordwood. In an older, mixed stand, Leopold reveled in measuring towering pre-blight chestnuts and, especially, a white pine nicknamed King, “containing six and a half logs and 1,200 ft. B.M. of lumber.” He confesses, “Our ‘estimates’ have been little better than mere guesses, but we are learning.”

Portrait of the Yale School of Forestry Class of 1909, Aldo is in the light suit seated in front.

Portrait of the Yale School of Forestry Class of 1909,
Aldo is in the light suit seated in front.

Forestry educators often clashed over which technical skills to emphasize in the emerging science. Yale followed Pinchot’s priorities of silviculture and planning for forest development, and campers planted seedlings on a Grey Towers lawn, plotted growth curves, and analyzed the effects of shade and moisture
by species. Good plans require accurate topographical maps, so Professor Tracy (a “buster,” wrote Leopold) led crews into the hills, drilling his charges in building triangulation stations and sighting a transit on uneven ground. Leopold found the work hot, wet, “bad on boots”—and thoroughly satisfying. “It is the most interesting surveying job I have as yet encountered,” he told his mother, “calling for a great deal of judgment for quick work.”

Aldo’s Yale College banner for the Sheffield School of Science (indicated by the “s”) Class of 1908.

Aldo’s Yale College banner for the Sheffield School of Science (indicated by the “s”) Class of 1908.

Forest School Dean Henry Graves must have spotted Leopold’s enthusiasm and acumen, for he assigned an extra job of improvement thinning at the forest experimentation station. Another Pinchot contribution, and probably the first site dedicated to long-term forest research in the U.S., it seems also to have been an interlude in Leopold’s lifelong romance with pines. Once, his ax bit into a coppiced chestnut harboring a yellow jacket nest, but he savored sinking his blade into pine heartwood, “to bring out the big aromatic chips so clean and white.”

At the end of each long day, bone-weary students shouldered their axes for the hike back to camp. Most stopped to cool off in the deep, icy pool below Sawkill Falls. Aldo wrote home so often about diving from the slippery rocks and sliding over the waterfall on his back that another letter was needed to reassure worried parents that “it has been used by generations of Foresters and every rock and every danger point is well known.” He didn’t share with home that foresters’ stunts attracted an audience, or the Milford Dispatch complaint that genteel sensibilities were offended by those swimming in “nature’s costume.”

Refreshed, with a long summer evening ahead, the men might try out the new camp tennis courts or swat baseballs in preparation for combat with Milford’s rival team. Professors, little older than their students, played too, and though rarely victorious, the “wildest excitement” attended the games. A few “fussers” retrieved collared shirts to court vacationing young ladies at Milford’s Bluff Hotel. But everyone gathered again around the weekly campfires, to crunch apples and sing songs crafted to foster an esprit de corps that Pinchot strove to instill throughout the Forest Service. The Chief was touring western forests that summer, missing his usual campfire lecture, but his presence was inescapable, even as voices rose toward the stars:

Mine eyes have seen the coming of the savior of the trees;
Our great and glorious champion who set the forest free.
His name shall go resounding over land and over sea;
While Pinchot marches on.

On rare afternoons off, Aldo headed for the backcountry. “Chink” Paxton, “Ruf” Maddox, or other friends might join him foraging for berries, counting partridges, or fishing for bass in the Delaware River. One night, they trained a survey transit toward the sky to view a lunar eclipse. Most evenings, Aldo slipped off alone for an hour or two, waiting high on “My Hill” as shadows crept across the valley and “night voices” awoke. His parents, he knew, would understand such experiences meant more to him than memorizing Latin tree names. “A big red moon is just climbing over the black ridge of the Jersey mountains in the East,” he explained, “and nobody should study on such a night—not in summertime.”

Yale Forestry student surveying on easy lawn of Grey Towers circa 1922. Photo courtesy of Jesse Buell Collection, USDA Forest Service, Grey Towers National Historic Site, Milford, PA.

Yale Forestry student surveying on easy lawn of Grey Towers circa 1922. Photo courtesy of Jesse Buell Collection, USDA Forest Service, Grey Towers National Historic Site, Milford, PA.

Yet as fall approached, Aldo grew restless, eager to catch part of the family’s annual vacation at Les Cheneaux Club in northern Michigan. He writes of katydids “in full chorus,” the first goldenrod blooms, and early migrating warblers, whose “lisping voices come down out of the stars at night.” Student crews raced to finish their final project: a multi-day traverse covering 40 – 50 square miles of field and forest. Despite steep topography and drenching rains, Aldo and “Mac” McDaniels set the pace, loving every minute except the tedious drafting “indoor work” back in camp. The only miscalculation seems to have been throwing apples at a skunk on one late walk home. On the last day of camp, Aldo wrote with growing confidence to his family at Les Cheneaux, “We covered more ground than any other party, and got a fairly decent map also.” Admittedly not yet ready to pass the forest ranger’s exam (“where you have to fell a crooked pine on a peg”), Leopold would require two more years of coursework and practical experience to earn his master’s degree and a first job in the Forest Service. But he was much closer.

Today, visitors to Grey Towers National Historic Site can hike uphill behind the Pinchots’ bluestone mansion, to a tent site recreation of the Yale Forest School camp. The tall chestnuts are gone, but reforested hills attest to the skill and foresight of the nation’s first foresters. Leopold would move on from his early training at Milford, to view land more ecologically, and environmental ethics more holistically, than in his formative Forest Service days. But we can still agree with Aldo’s assessment on July 11, 1907: “Thank the Lord I am not loafing this summer and still more that I have taken up this subject.”

JULIE DUNLAP teaches about the land ethic at the University of Maryland Global Campus. She was a 2016 Scholar-in-Residence at Grey Towers National Historic Site, and her forthcoming book for children is Janey Monarch Seed (Green Writers Press, 2020).

 


Read Julie’s Good Oak Story here.