Aldo Leopold cover


Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire by Marybeth Lorbiecki

reviewed by David Stones
University Registrar



One of my favorite reading techniques is to match the location of an approaching meeting with a book about the region. James Michener’s books are especially appealing, and Chesapeake, Centennial, Hawaii, and Texas were chosen for trips to Baltimore, Denver, Honolulu, and Dallas.

My family, Boy Scout, and school outings to the Desert Southwest have been enriched by many pertinent books. Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire was interesting and hilarious. Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West talks not only of Powell’s exploration of the Grand Canyon, but also the initial charting of the vast Colorado Plateau and some incredibly accurate observations on the arid areas of the Western U.S. Stegner also describes why laws and practices carried from the Eastern U.S. could not possibly be applied with success.

The Philosopher’s Rock at Barton Springs pays tribute to Austin’s mid-20th century trio of Walter Prescott Webb, Roy Bedichek, and Southwestern University graduate J. Frank Dobie. When knee or shoulder surgery interrupted my noon running or walking exercise, I made an effort to read the works of all three. Webb’s Texas Rangers was very detailed and interesting, but his main work was The Great Plains. His conclusions were compelling, and very close to Powell’s – just 70 years later. Bedichek’s Adventures with a Texas Naturalist is a series of short chapters, but fascinating to one interested in environmental issues, including midget oak trees in the West Texas sand dunes, the function of hackberry trees, and the importance of the fallen tree to the flora and fauna. Dobie was most entertaining with stories of characters and events of the West, from cattleman Frank Chisholm to Ben Lilly, who traveled from Louisiana to Big Bend to the Gila hunting mountain lions – usually with a knife. 

Southwestern University supports a program called Destination Service, which offers a variety of Spring Break service trips to students. The last five years, I have had the immense pleasure of accompanying different busloads of SU students to the Gila Wilderness Area in the mountains of New Mexico near the Arizona border. We camp at 6-7,000 feet and we build and maintain hiking and horseback trails for the U.S. Forest Service. Since this is a wilderness area (the first in the U.S.) we use primitive firefighting tools for this work. Although I had backpacked in the Gila while in graduate school, I wanted to be educated for my first SU Gila trip. The Gila Wilderness Area: A Hiking Guide, by John A. Murray, gave me a general overview of the geographical and historical aspects of the Gila. This induced me to read Marybeth Lorbiecki’s Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire. I was surprised by my ignorance of his story, but not by the fact that my parents had several of Leopold’s books. Perhaps they were smarter than I’d realized.

As a young man, Aldo Leopold found himself working as a Forest Ranger/Game Warden in the Gila area. This is very rough country in the Mogollon Mountains and the headwaters of the Gila River. It is now home to Cliff Dwellings National Monument (of the Mogollan culture, contemporary to the Anasazi of northern New Mexico), and was the hideout of Geronimo and the Mescalero Apache. Over time, Leopold evolved from a killer of predators to an advocate for their preservation as a necessity for the deer population. He did so following careful observation and reflection. He further advocated the setting aside of areas of wilderness before they could become changed by settlement.

I keep returning to one passage, which goes thus:

One particular afternoon, Leopold and another crew member spotted a wolf and her pups crossing the river. They shot into the pack and then scrambled down the rocks to see what they had done. One pup was crippled and trying to crawl away. The old mother wolf lay snapping and growling. Aldo baited her with his rifle, and the wolf lunged at him, snatching it in her teeth. The men backed away, but kept their eyes on her, watching her die. Many years later, Leopold wrote: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain.” The scene haunted Aldo, though he couldn’t figure out why. It took him a long time to understand the implications of what he had done.

Leopold helped form a set of local preservation societies. These later merged to form the New Mexico Game Protective Association. Interested in nature and wildlife, he also tirelessly wrote newsletters (including “The Pine Cone”) and letters to politicians, and gave speeches to increase public awareness. He was rewarded! In 1924, 755,000 acres were set aside as the Gila Wilderness. A large adjoining area just to the east was later allocated, named the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area.

Leopold didn’t stop there. He wrote Game Management, thought to be a definitive text. Another piece was the first Forest Service manual on erosion control,The Watershed Handbook. He later took his talents to the Midwest, where he practiced more detailed observation of wildlife, plants, and environmental conditions over time (as reported in his Sand County Almanac, considered by some to be “the environmentalist’s Bible”). He also established, at the University of Wisconsin, the first academic program in ecology. He served on numerous state, national, and international committees and commissions. He preached preservation and the importance of all parts of an ecosystem – regardless of whether man fully realized the importance of all the pieces.

I was surprised to see so much in common between the works of Bedichek, Powell, Webb, and Leopold. Dobie, too: the Gila Wilderness boasts a campsite named after Ben Lilly.

Every environmental studies student should know Leopold’s story well. All of us would benefit from more individuals reading about him. Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire provides ample evidence that, given dedication and time, one person can indeed make a significant difference. I need to get busy!


Go to next page                                 Back to reading list