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Mapping Leopold’s Letters

Lawrenceville Students Continue Aldo’s Legacy


In June of 2018, seven students from The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, attended the Leopold Scholars residential summer course. This intensive two-week program includes a mix of field and classroom learning centered on the legacy of Lawrenceville alumnus Aldo Leopold, Class of 1905. Students read all 180 pages of letters that Leopold wrote home to Burlington, Iowa during that period, reflected on passages from A Sand County Almanac, and visited the sites Leopold hiked to in his weekly nature walks as a Lawrenceville student. The blog entry below highlights an interactive, smartphone-friendly digital map these students developed for visitors to the Garden State who would like to walk in the footsteps of a young Leopold.

 -Steve Laubach, Lawrenceville School Director of Sustainability and Science Department Faculty


Aldo Leopold was one of the foremost American wildlife conservationists of the 20th century. He pioneered the “land ethic” as a basis for how humans should regard the land they live in. This concept pushes people to see the land as a part of their own community and to treat it with respect for the mutual benefit of all. The Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, recently established the Leopold Society to celebrate and recognize the work and accomplishments achieved by students who have prioritized environmental stewardship, sustainability, conservation, environmental ethics, service, and leadership. These values truly embody Leopold’s legacy.

In June 2018, we were part of a group of seven students participating in the Leopold Scholars summer immersion program on campus. We learned about sustainability principles, the “land ethic,” and Leopold himself, who was a Lawrenceville alumnus. Although he only attended Lawrenceville from 1904 to 1905, he wrote dozens of letters to his family in Burlington, Iowa, many of which included descriptions of his hikes around and off-campus. We initiated a web-mapping project of Leopold’s letters because we were curious about what we might discover about our campus and the surrounding community. We also wanted to learn more about and immerse ourselves in our environment, and we hoped to follow Leopold’s footsteps and share his legacy with others.

An original map drawn by Leopold during his time at Lawrenceville.

Using Google Maps, we identified over twenty locations that Leopold mentioned in his letters referencing natural landmarks and a map he created soon after arriving at Lawrenceville. There were several obstacles that arose during this period. For example, many buildings and markers that were present during Leopold’s time at Lawrenceville such as mills, farms, and roads were demolished and impossible to identify using current maps. As a group, we narrowed down the locations to places with specific points that Leopold mentioned and that we could visit over the span of three days. We traveled in a van or on foot to each site. At each location, we walked along a similar path to where Leopold hiked. After, we discussed the environment around us, reread Leopold’s letters, and took photos to use for our interactive map. Many aspects of the locations that Leopold traveled to were still present, such as the skunk cabbage along the Upper Shipetaukin Creek. We also identified native species in the area, addressed ecological issues, and explored the local environment. In several sites, such as the Institute Woods, the Stony Brook River, and the “Woods of Eerie Gloom,” canopies of lush foliage hung over our heads, protecting the fauna below. We stumbled over bushes and branches to avoid the poison ivy that coated the forest floor, observed American toads as they hopped toward a nearby creek, and identified bird calls.

By reading Leopold’s work and visiting the sites he described in his letters as a student, we learned about the land ethic in action, but also gained a new perspective on the decline of wild areas and the growing necessity to consider humanity’s impact on the land. In order to help others understand these insights, we embarked on a class project to make our journey accessible to anyone with internet access. With mentoring from Dr. Stephen Laubach, Mr. Martin Burnod, Mr. Sam Kosoff, and Dr. Keith Voss, we built an interactive map using a Google Application Programming Interface (API) that projects the sites Leopold visited during his time at the Lawrenceville School. We invite you to walk with Leopold, too, by clicking here to start your journey. (Scroll down until you see the online exhibit entitled “Aldo Leopold’s Lawrenceville Hikes.”)

Understanding Leopold’s life and career beyond Lawrenceville has helped us realize the importance of conserving the land we live on. From Leopold, we recognized that it is important to consider how the natural world is affected by our substantial consumption of resources and that we should always be searching for new methods of minimizing our impact on the environment around us.

Leopold Scholars at Mercer Meadows Park in Lawrenceville, NJ. Back Row: Tiffany Lin, Varun Aravapalli, David Zhang, Dr. Stephen Laubach. Front Row: Deven Kinney, Jeffrey Tao, Jasmine Barco, Jack Wragan.

After we finished A Sand County Almanac, one of Leopold’s most influential works, ideas about developing a relationship with the land and conserving wildlife habitats led us to think about ways to achieve Leopold’s goal of having a balanced relationship with the land. Our group has thought about advocating for local policies that have a bigger focus on sustainability issues and applying conservation practices in our homes. For example, monitoring our daily behavior is essential so that we can limit water usage, and choosing the food we purchase more selectively can support products from sustainable farming sources. Also, we can restrict our use of non-biodegradable materials that will be thrown back into the world’s landfills or oceans. The desire to minimize our impact on the natural community is the beauty of understanding Leopold’s message.

Through this mapping project and our study of Aldo Leopold’s legacy, we have been introduced to a world of improved interactions with the environment that will benefit humans and all species over the long term. We hope to apply the values Leopold advocated for by promoting sustainability and environmental awareness in our community.


Step back in time and take a hike with Aldo Leopold.

View the map