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A Story Behind Every Bush: Leopold’s Writing Life

Aldo Leopold’s greatest gift for the ages was his ability to put words to paper. Not just any words. Words that sing. Words that teach. Words that inspire.

A Sand County Almanac speaks volumes about his writing talent, but his inspirational words and thoughts can be found in many other archived locations: textbooks, field notes, newspaper and magazine articles, speeches and letters. He was a master at communication with the public. To this day, his written words stir thousands of faithful, like-minded individuals.

But what about the masses who have never heard or read his words?

In August 2015 I was honored to present the talk “A Story Behind Every Bush” at the Building a Land Ethic Conference in Baraboo, WI. With the 2017 conference now approaching, I offer this summary of that presentation and share my thoughts with the larger audience that the foundation’s blog now provides. My talk, “A Story Behind Every Bush,” was an attempt to encourage seasoned and aspiring writers alike to follow Leopold’s lead by contributing to popular venues, including newspapers and magazines.

I began my presentation with the quote below, which came from an essay in the book, For the Health of the Land, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogel.

All I am saying is that there is also drama in every bush, if you can see it… When enough men know this, we fear no indifference to the welfare of bushes, or birds, or soil, or trees… We shall then have no need of the word conservation, for we shall have the thing itself.

Essay topics for Leopold were endless, and he knew well where to find them – behind every bush. Sharing these stories was his mission. Before the Almanac was published, he wrote much, much more.

Beginnings

From early on, Leopold was spreading the land ethic to large audiences – sneaking poetic and though-provoking passages into academic publications. Imagine the raised eyebrows on his students when they read the dedication and preface to his classic textbook, Game Management, published in 1933:

To My Father, Carl Leopold, Pioneer in Sportsmanship: How oft against the autumn sky or moon, we watched the moving zigzag of spread wings, in unforgotten autumns gone to soon, in unforgotten springs!

We of the industrial age boast of our control over nature. Plant or animal, star or atom, wind or river – there is no force in earth or sky which we will not shortly harness to build the ‘good life’ for ourselves. But what is the good life? Is all this glut of power to be used for only bread-and-butter ends? Man cannot live by bread, or Fords alone. Are we too poor in purse or spirit to apply some of it to keep the land pleasant to see, and good to live in?

Leopold’s quest to spread his land ethic philosophy to those who lived on and by the land was bolstered from 1938 to 1942, when he wrote a monthly nature column in the Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer. There he shared stories on the welfare of bushes, birds, soil, and trees with the agricultural community.

Two geese in flight

Photo of flying geese by Don McCullough (www.flickr.com)

Several bits and pieces of these essays he later incorporated into the Almanac. An April 6, 1940 column, “When Geese Return, Spring is Here,contained an opening sentence that he adapted for the Almanac essay, “The Geese Return.”

One swallow does not make a summer, but one flock of honkers, winging northward through a murky March thaw, make a spring, come what later blizzards to the contrary notwithstanding.

In May 1942, Leopold first published his Almanac essay, “Back from the Argentine, in its entirety, in the Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer. An additional last sentence was not included in the Almanac version: “Today the eight pairs of plovers which in 1935 nested on the Faville Grove Area, in Jefferson County, have increased to 22 pairs.”

At the time, this was a newsworthy, local event that was perhaps lost in 1949 at the Oxford University Press.

Many of Leopold’s other early essays – published in textbooks, field notes, newspaper and magazine articles, speeches, and letters – were springboards to the Almanac, described by John Tallmadge as “a work of art” in a Companion to A Sand County Almanac (edited by J. Baird Callicott).

I have a copy of a 1941 letter and rough draft of a speech prepared by Leopold and mailed to his graduate student, Art Hawkins, with this note: “Here is a rough draft of the talk you helped me outline… mark up this copy and return it if that is the quickest way.”

It reads, in part:

When we speak of ‘outdoor recreation,’ we imply in ‘civilized’ peoples the economic base has shifted to tame animals and plants, but that the cultural base retains part of its wild roots. People go back to the outdoors because that is where they came from. This paper deals with the cultural value of this wild rootage. No one can weigh or measure culture, hence I will waste no time trying to. Suffice it to say that by common consent of all thinking people, there are cultural values in outdoor sports, customs, contacts, and experiences. I will further venture the opinion that these values are of three kinds… First… experience, which reminds us of our distinctive origins and evolution… our awareness of American history… the split-rail value… Second… any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food-chain… Thirdly, the conquest of nature by machines has led to much unnecessary destruction of resources.

Sound familiar? Look at the beginning of “Part III: The Upshot of the Almanac” in a Companion to A Sand County Almanac.

Great Nature Writing

More than 40 years ago, I was fortunate to study under Professor Callicott in his groundbreaking environmental ethics courses. Later, in 1987, when he edited a Companion to A Sand County Almanac, I discovered more about A Sand County Almanac’s lasting appeal in “Chapter 5, Anatomy of a Classic,” written by Tallmadge.

“The book stays with us,” Tallmadge wrote, “because, in reading it, we experience something analogous to what Leopold experiences in nature itself.”

According to Tallmadge, Leopold – like other great nature writers – used “scientific facts to enrich and deepen their readers experience… (and) relies heavily upon his own observations, conveys a strong sense of place, responds with charming affection to the creatures he studies, writes in a vivid, unaffected style, and organizes his book episodically.”

Five people standing in front of the Leopold Shack

The Wisconsin Aldo Leopold Writing Contest invites students to explore the land ethic and try their hand at nature writing. Pictured here are four of last year’s winners with contest organizer, Trish Stevenson (far right).

Sporting Classics Magazine, a nationally recognized, premiere publication, recently recognized Leopold as one of the 30 greatest outdoor icons.

“The pioneer in wildlife management, Aldo Leopold’s intimate connection with wildlife and wild places through hunting fueled his lifelong quest to discover the conservation practices he hoped would one day lead to a time when, in his own words, ‘we may begin to use it (the land) with love and respect.’”

Question After Question

Leopold’s land ethic and his writing influence went well beyond the classroom and A Sand County Almanac. He used the power of the pen to spread the word. Tallmadge described his writing style as one that forces the reader into “personal acts of interpretation.” In other words, Leopold had a wonderful style of asking his readers many questions.

‘Shall we fire the marsh?’ This is a question which faces the owner of marshlands, especially in the spring following a wet year like 1938.” Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer – April 22, 1939.

Would you like to sit at your south window and watch cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, tree sparrows, bluejays, and woodpeckers eat breakfast? Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer – December 3, 1938.

Question after question can also be found in the Almanac, and some cold, wintry night I will count the number of queries found between the covers of his classic book. He warned us in the book’s forward that, “Only the very sympathetic reader will wish to wrestle with the philosophical questions of Part III.” And those, you must agree, are the most thought provoking. For example:

It is, by common consent, a good thing for people to get back to nature. But wherein lies the goodness, and what can be done to encourage its pursuit? A Sand County Almanac, Part III, Conservation Esthetic.

A Story Behind Every Bush: Following Leopold’s Lead

So, what was I trying to convey in my 2015 talk “A Story Behind Every Bush” and in this piece today? Simply put, we – you and I – need to reach out beyond the choir. For more than four decades, I have attempted to spread the word, and reach larger audiences in a single swoop. I often quote Leopold and have been told his influence on my writing bleeds through. That, I dare say, is the ultimate compliment.

“‘Shall we fire the marsh?’ This is a question which faces the owner of marshlands…” – Aldo Leopold, 1939

I have penned a weekly outdoor column called “Up the Creek” since the 1980s: First in local hometown newspapers, then through Gannet newspaper syndication, and for the past several years in the Portage County Gazette, and the bi-monthly Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s Rural Route magazine.

At last count, my readership potential is nearly 28,000 strong. And that doesn’t include dozens of articles I’ve had published in national magazines over the years, or my column’s internet presence on Facebook.

Have you ever thought of writing a nature column? Does your hometown newspaper have one? I have met many talented folks along this Leopold trail we all follow. People who attend Leopold Education Project workshops, annual meetings, brown bag seminars at the Leopold Center – as well as the foundation’s staff and board members – all are very capable of writing a weekly or monthly column. Or perhaps a blog?

What would I write about, you ask? E-mail me at and I’ll send you copies of three of my past columns that address that very question. Do a little research – Google does wonders. Remember to “Quote” – “Quote” – “Quote” your favorite writers (including Leopold). Keep your stories short and sweet at around 500 words. Then write, edit, and read out loud.

Soon you’ll develop your style – and don’t forget to ask your readers questions. Take lots of pictures – cell phones have made us all potential professional photographers. And finally, carry small notebook and pencil at all times… remember, there’s a story behind every bush!