Inspiring a Land Ethic

There are degrees and kinds of solitude. An island in a lake has one kind; but lakes have boats, and there is always the chance that one might land to pay you a visit. A peak in the clouds has another kind; but most peaks have trails, and trails have tourists. I know of no solitude so secure as one guarded by a spring flood; nor do the geese, who have seen more kinds and degrees of aloneness than I have.

 – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

When my grandmother, Dorothy, was young, she lived at the foot of the Adirondack Mountains in the town of Dolgeville, New York. Her father – my great-grandfather Raymond Hopson – worked for the U.S. Forest Service and spent his days working up in the mountains, coming down once a month to shower and visit the family.

Raymond died long before I was born. Grandma Dorothy went on to gain a Master’s Degree and become an artist – a unique path for women of her time – while my mother became a chemical engineer and later a nurse. Yet somehow, echoes of my great-grandfather’s career filtered down through the generations as we moved across the country to Michigan, California, Wisconsin and Minnesota, taking hold first of my uncle Mike and then of me. Sometimes I imagine that the forest attached itself to strands of his DNA and will stay in our family forever.

My uncle Mike stands overlooking a valley during a childhood trip to visit family in the Adirondacks.

Like Great-Grandfather Raymond, Aldo Leopold began his career working for the newly established U.S. Forest Service. The work took him to Arizona, New Mexico, and eventually Wisconsin. There, he bought a worn-down farm in Baraboo near the Wisconsin Dells and began working to restore the land to good health.

Aldo Leopold is considered by many to be the father of wildlife ecology. He was instrumental in the establishment of the United States’ wilderness system and inspired future conservationists for years to come. His most famous book, A Sand County Almanac, is a beautiful collection of nature essays, infused with philosophy and daily observations of the seasons’ changing moods. He wrote about draba, a tiny white flower that blooms early in the spring amidst the gravel, of hunting ruffed-grouse in October when the tamaracks are smoky gold, and of banding chickadees in the winter. Would 65290 survive another year?

Aldo Leopold photo from USDA.

Leopold eventually took a job as a professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison where he chaired a new program in game management. He also developed and began to promote a new way of thinking about the relationship between humans and nature. According to the Aldo Leopold Foundation, “the idea of a land ethic is simply caring: about people, about land, and about strengthening the relationships between them.”

Sadly, Leopold died in 1948, one year before his seminal collection of essays was finally published. Eventually, his children established the Aldo Leopold Foundation in 1982 as a way to continue his legacy and continue teaching people to care for and nurture the land.

The Leopold Center can be found along a hilly country road in central Wisconsin.

Currently, the Aldo Leopold Foundation is making a number of resources available online as a way to help people connect with nature during the pandemic ( Resources include the Emmy Award winning documentary about Leopold – Green Fire – as well as discussion guides for educators. In addition, the foundation has released a special edition copy of A Sand County Almanac for purchase, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Like my great-grandfather’s forest DNA, Aldo Leopold’s words carry on through the decades and somehow remain relevant in spite of all that has changed in our world. Today, as we enter a sixth week of isolation, I read his words from long ago and think yes, there are degrees and kinds of solitude. And perhaps I should talk to the geese.