I am a huge dog lover, known to annoy my mother by pointing out every dog I see on the sidewalk as we are driving. Given this obsession, I was quick to notice when I first watched the feature documentary about Aldo Leopold’s life, “Green Fire”, that an astonishing number of historical photos of him included dogs from boyhood to his final days. It was deeply humanizing to think of Aldo not as the historical figure, but as a lover of dogs. As I explored further, I saw the timeline of Aldo’s life in a new light through the photographic chronology of him with his dogs, and I pondered how he may have been shaped and enriched by them.
Aldo’s father, Carl Leopold, was a self-taught outdoorsman and hunter, and the family dog often joined young Aldo and his father on these adventurous romps during Aldo’s youth. Surely many dog lovers like myself would concur that caring for an animal in one’s childhood can foster ethics of compassion and responsibility. These traits, it turns out, would become central to Aldo’s land ethic, his view that there must be a set of philosophical and moral principles behind the human-land relationship.
As Aldo progressed into young adulthood, he landed his first job with the U.S. Forest Service after graduating from the Yale School of Forestry. One of his most enduring essays “Thinking Like a Mountain”, was inspired by this time in his life. In it, Aldo says he was “full of trigger-itch” as he excitedly shot a wolf, realizing only too late the folly of his ways when he saw a “green fire” dying in her eyes. It makes me wonder if his change of heart regarding wolves as “varmints” to animals integral to the health of ecosystems was in any way connected to his lifelong ties to her beloved canine descendants.
Also during his time in the forest service, Aldo met the love of his life, Estella Bergere, with whom he eventually had five children. Like in his own childhood, the Leopold children were raised with a series of ever-present family dogs, most named Gus or Flick. The majority of the dogs were German Shorthaired Pointers or Springer Spaniels. I can see why the Leopolds chose these breeds, recognized for their duality as family friendly dogs, but also sturdy, athletic, and trusty hunting partners.
Instilled from his youth, hunting with his dogs was a favorite pastime of Aldo’s throughout his life. In his essay “Red Lanterns” he writes of his dog being a “professor of logic” following his trusty nose and himself a “dull pupil” while out on a partridge hunt. I respect Aldo for his attitude not of dominion over his dogs, but as partners from which he could learn to become better attuned to his natural surroundings by following their wolf-like instincts.
On one hunting trip toward the end of Aldo’s life, tragedy befell his dear dog, Gus. The dog, enraptured by the scent of an injured doe, sustained a calamitous injury after being kicked by the panicked animal. The only humane response was for Aldo to put him down. In a touching gesture, Aldo covered Gus with his coat, and in his journal entry from the next day, he wrote that he had “no appetite for hunting.” Aldo’s daughter, Estella Jr., confirmed the deep sentiment that the family held for their dogs, writing in her memoir Stories from the Shack that “we all loved them and considered them a part of the family.”
Sadly, Aldo Leopold passed away in 1948 at only 61 years of age of a heart attack while volunteering to help fight a neighbor’s grass fire. In a poignant essay, “The Neighbor’s Fire,” Estella Jr. wrote of her, her mother’s, and their current dog Flicky’s reaction to the news of her father’s passing: “A heavy weight hung over the two of us and the dog. We felt an emptiness that cannot be described. We could not talk.” It strikes me that Estella chose to write about Flicky in this way, just as much a part of the family as herself and her mother, united in grief.
Aldo discerned that the wolf he shot so carelessly in his youth had a wisdom beyond his understanding “known only to her and the mountain”, but I would like to think that when he was forced to put down Gus, he realized that our dogs also hold wisdom. Unconcerned with modernity, attuned to the environment with every sniff, and supplying endless love, the spirit of dogs embodies the values that would underlie Aldo’s conception of a land ethic. So maybe I am onto something with my canine obsession. It helped me see these creatures not just as background objects in historical photos, but as major players in Aldo Leopold’s life, serving as guardians, teachers, friends, and partners. I hope in writing this that they are brought to the foreground, where they should redeem their rightful place as key influences on Leopold, as they are for so many of us.