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Leopold on wilderness.

an invitation from the Oberlaender Trust of the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation for an all-expenses-paid trip to Germany and other central European countries to study forestry and game management. The Germans had been practicing these arts for centuries and Leopold, who had grown up in a German-American family and was joshed by his schoolmates about his "German soul," was keenly interested to see what they were doing.

Germany in 1935 was already entering the grip of Nazi militarism, a fact that could not escape Leopold and his fellow touring foresters, though it is doubtful that they appreciated the crucial role of forest products in Hitler's mobilization for economic self-sufficiency under the direction of chief forester Hermann Goring, or considered the possibility that some of the extraordinary hospitality they received might be calculated to create a favorable impression of German forestry among people who could spread the word.

Leopold was impressed by much that he saw in Germany, but he was also profoundly unsettled by it. Germany, after a devastating experience with soil sickness brought on by wholesale conversion to monotypic plantations of spruce or pine, had shifted around 1914 to a more ecologically informed policy of Dauerwald or "permanent woods"--mixed forests naturally reproduced--coupled with an aggressive, nationalistic Naturschutz movement aimed at preserving small remnants of native flora and fauna. But the Germans were still managing the bulk of their land for both highyield timber and high-density deer and other game. As Leopold observed in a communication to his departmental newsletter, "One cannot travel many days in the German forests, either public or private, without being overwhelmed by the fact that artificialized game management and artificialized forestry tend to destroy each other."

While still in Germany, Leopold drafted a series of articles on the Dauerwald and Naturschutz movements for publication on his return to the states. But his handwritten, undated paper on "Wilderness"--probably also written in Germany, perhaps as a speech-remains the most evocative and intimate account of his impressions. Germany, more than any other country, was actually practicing conservation while America was still preaching it. Yet something was lacking--a certain quality of landscape that should have been found even on productive forests and farms, the "mixing of a degree of wildness with utility." Leopold was haunted by this realization of Germany's esthetic deficit, the more so because it stemmed from an excess of conservation rather than a lack of it, and he was determined to help America avoid the same fate.

That he titled the piece "Wilderness" while acknowledging that he had not expected to find wilderness areas in the American sense reflects the broadening scope of his thinking. Earlier that same year he had joined with Robert Marshall and others to found the Wilderness Society, in order to give impetus to a preservation effort he had spearheaded almost alone back in the 1920s. But his concern now was no longer with recreational values so much as with the role wilderness might play in the search for biotic stability.

Just before leaving for Europe, he had articulated a rationale for the new conservation group, published in the first issue of its magazine, The Living Wilderness. It was "philosophically a disclaimer of the biotic arrogance of homo americanus, . . . one of the focal points of a new attitude--an intelligent humility toward man's place in nature." No wonder he recoiled at the regimentation of German rivers, the near-extirpation of predators, and the unnatural simplication of the forest. Leopold's German essay was thus an esthetic yearning for an accommodation with the earth that he hoped wilderness might one day allow us to discover.

In retrospect, it is clear that Leopold's confrontation with the consequences of Germany's overemphasis on production of timber and game marked a turning point in his thinking. Though attracted all his life to songbirds and wildflowers as well as to harvestable game and trees, Leopold had assumed that noneconomic species would automatically thrive if environmental conditions existed that were requisite to produce a sustained yield of harvestable species. But within months of his return from Europe, he was telling students that the objective was to use the tools of management to maintain or restore diverse, healthy systems.

There were other events in Leopold's life and in the world of ecological thought in the mid-1930s that helped to effect the transformation in his thinking. Not least was the humility engendered by his personal efforts to restore the worn-out riverbottom farm in the sand country of Wisconsin that he had acquired just months before leaving for Europe. Crucial to his understanding of the nature of a truly healthy system was a hunting trip the following year to the wilds of the Sierra Madre in northern Mexico, where he finally realized that all his life he had seen only sick land.

During the same years, ecologists began to appreciate anew the role of evolutionary processes in diversifying the biota and creating the conditions for healthy resilience, a key insight that would soon undergird Leopold's land-ethic philosophy. But for a person like Leopold, who thought so deeply about what he observed in the field, it would be difficult to overestimate the impact of his German experience. Though a few scientific pieces had yet to fall into place, it is clear that in his unassuming, handwritten essay on Germany's esthetic deficit he grasped intuitively the essence of his mature land ethic.

Dr. Susan Flader is a professor of environmental history at the University of Missouri, a former AFA director, and co-editor with J. Baird Callicott of a new volume of Leopold's essays.
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Title Annotation:Aldo Leopold on Germany's landscape
Author:Flader, Susan
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1991
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