Like many readers who gravitate towards books about this blue spinning ball we call home, I have a long and loving history with “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold’s most famous work. I regularly recommend it to anyone who crosses my path, even the unsuspecting nonreaders, because even if people don’t know him, they know his “land ethic” is buried deep in the zeitgeist of our cultural conversations about connectivity and moral responsibility for our planet.
What many don’t know is that his first home, which he shared with his bride, Estella, is in Tres Piedras, New Mexico, right across Colorado’s border. “Mi Casita,” as the couple named this home, is a bungalow built in 1912 after Aldo was given $650 by his employer, the newly-created Forest Service. This bungalow, which served as his supervisor’s quarters, overlooks the Sangre de Cristo mountains in a remote area, the nearest big town being Taos, and the other nearby location being Antonito.
I was lucky enough to live there for a month through a writer’s program. Which felt like a stupendous honor: This is the place where his big ideas no doubt began roiling around. Leopold’s land ethic articulates the belief that all the elements of land – people, climate, water, soil, geology, wildlife – are integrated and connected, even in ways we cannot immediately see.
This is an idea we take for granted now, but was new at the time. He then went on to co-found The Wilderness Society and become one of the leading American conservationists of the 20th century. Sadly, but not unusually, his fame came after his death.
Indeed, the story of his book is a heartbreaker: Leopold submitted “A Sand County Almanac” in 1947 and just one week after learning of its acceptance, died of a heart attack while helping fight a neighbor’s grass fire. Sales of the book were very low until the ‘70s, when a renewed interest in environmental issues made the book a bestseller.
His ideas stay with us, though, and during my visit there, I couldn’t help but wonder if the diversity of his ideas came from the diversity of place – not only is the landscape varied, but the cultural heritage of this area was influenced by Native, Hispanic and Anglo-American ways of looking about the world. Part of his experience in this home undoubtedly helped him see conservation in a new way. His thinking was simply more complex and expansive than the cultural conversation of his time, which is why his ideas are relevant and necessary now.
Born in Burlington, Iowa, in January 1887, he was an early graduate of the school of forestry at Yale. He got a master’s degree, passed a Civil Service exam, and was stationed on the newly-established Apache National Forest in Arizona, then went to Albuquerque. In 1912, a year after he was assigned, New Mexico became a state. At the young age of 25, he was acting forest supervisor and was paid $1,400 a year. “The Pine Cone,” a sometimes-monthly publication, stated his mission: “A square deal for everybody, special favors to none” – a tagline I just love. Here, he wrote and worked hard to get rid of the overgrazing, erosion and lack of game of the area.
I was delighted by the landscape that surely delighted the couple. The gorgeous golden aspens, the huge cottonwood outside glimmering yellow, the sky burning that famous Taos-blue, an expanse so big that I often thought of his famous quote, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.”
Laura Pritchett heads the MFA program at Western State University in Gunnison.