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For the Love of Leopold 

Geography of Hope Conference honors famed conservationist, environmentalist and author Aldo Leopold

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The film Green Fire shows Leopold wearing all his many colorful hats. There's a stunning image of him, for example, in 1909 in the Arizona territory. A recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, he recreated himself as a cowboy with a six-gun and a Stetson, employed by the fledgling National Forest Service. Leopold's friend, Rube Pritchard, boasted in a letter to his mother that he'd rather work in an American forest than be crowned king of England. Leopold added modestly, "I'm beginning to agree."

Co-produced by Ann and Steve Dunsky, both of whom work in Vallejo for the U.S. Forest Service, Green Fire offers Leopold's own words as read by Marin County's inimitable Peter Coyote, whose deep, resonant voice is instantly recognizable. "I never prepared to read from Leopold," Coyote tells me. "I've done voiceovers for hundreds of films, and I always work like an improvisational jazz saxophonist." Still, Coyote couldn't have been better prepared. A longtime, heartfelt fan of Leopold's work, he grew up on a farm, and later learned about nature and spirituality from California Indians, Zen Buddhists and from his buddy, Gary Snyder, who taught him that "the wild has his own dictates."

"Coyote is amazing," Ann Dunsky tells me. "He read perfectly from A Sand County Almanac on the first take." She and her husband come to Leopold's work from opposite directions. He's an Easterner; she's a Westerner. He grew up thinking hunters were evil; she came from a family of hunters. He's a dogged researcher; she's a creative filmmaker. These days, they share a love of Leopold, whom they see as a lifelong moderate who avoided extremes and whose work can bridge clashing communities and opposing schools of thought.

click to enlarge BIRD MAN Outdoorsman and avid hunter Leopold gamely cleans a woodcock on hunting day. - COURTESY ALDO LEOPOLD FOUNDATION
  • Courtesy Aldo Leopold Foundation
  • BIRD MAN Outdoorsman and avid hunter Leopold gamely cleans a woodcock on hunting day.

"When I first read A Sand County Almanac as a teenager," Steve Dunsky tells me, "I saw it as the ruminations of an old man with quaint stories. I went back to it in my 40s and found it a complex work that examines the big picture and sees human beings as a part of the natural world. His 'land ethic' links all of us and every species on the earth."

Professor Kathleen Moore, a philosopher and ethicist at Oregon State, believes that everyone who graduates from college ought to have read Sand County Almanac and understood it. "If students are too busy to read it," she tells me, "they ought to see Green Fire." When undergraduates and colleagues want to know her favorite passage in Leopold's classic, she turns instantly to the section titled "The Outlook" and reads: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

A fiery teacher, impassioned moralist and compassionate writer, Moore doesn't think the sky is falling, but she insists that the oceans are rising fast and furious, and argues that if humans don't act wisely, quickly, "we'll soon be caught between hell and high water." Leopold's ethical values can help, she says, "if humans stop thinking of themselves as solitary beings and recognize they're part of a system and have an impact on it."

Like Meine and Stegner, she's hopeful and whimsical, too. "The beavers are back in the woods of Oregon," she tells me. "They're resurgent, though I can't speak for the beavers on the football team."

Wendell Gilgert calls himself a Leopoldian, and though he's not a professor, writer or filmmaker, he does have a BA and an MA from Chico State. In high school in 1964, his English teacher told him to go to the library, find a book and read it. A Sand County Almanac changed his life. For decades, he worked with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. In 2011, he became the working landscapes program director at Point Reyes Bird Observatory Conservation Science, a Marin County nonprofit. These days, he goes into fields and farms, talks the farmer talk and walks the rancher walk.

"I don't tell anyone what to do or how to improve what they're already doing," he explains. "I suggest tools they might use. I learned that from Leopold." Gilgert hopes farmers and ranchers will be effective stewards of the land, protect watersheds, enhance soils and guard wildlife habitat. Mike and Sally Gale in Chileno Valley, and Loren Poncia in Tomales, operate sustainable ranches that might be emulated, Gilgert says.

The most surprising take on Leopold comes, not surprisingly, from Robert Hass, a guiding light of the Geography of Hope Conference who put Marin's geography on the literary map of America in volumes of poetry such as The Apple Trees at Olema. During the course of our early morning conversation, Hass compared Leopold to T. S. Eliot, another Midwesterner, born a year after Leopold, whose quintessential modernist poem The Waste Land offers a geography of despair in lines such as "Here is no water but only rock." On first glance, Leopold and Eliot seem like polar opposites, but Hass argues that A Sand County Almanac, like The Waste Land, is a modernist work in that it's made up of "patches and fragments."

Furthermore, he believes that The Waste Land is an ecological poem and that, despite Eliot's sense of alienation and despair, was written "out of a hunger for wholeness."

If anyone at the Geography of Hope Conference can fuse seeming opposites and bring together apparent foes, it's surely Hass. No one followed Marin's oyster wars as sensitively as he, and no one hungers more for the wholeness of the community than he. Hopeful and fearless, he's prepared to talk about the links between Wallace Stegner and Aldo Leopold, and eager, too, to persuade the volatile members of Marin's divided community to sit down with one another and share ideas.

"I hope that there's time for poetry, too," Hass says, instantly conjuring an image of a hawk from the work of Robinson Jeffers. "We've got to have poetry to have a geography of hope."

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