A new documentary broadens awareness of a timeless thinker
“Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.”
— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Everybody in California seems to have at least a vague notion of who John Muir was. Now, with the help of a new documentary film, Aldo Leopold may get more of the props he earned during his fascinating life as a forester and conservationist.
Leopold’s following has been growing since his work in the first half of the 20th century. When Steve Dunsky set about with his co-producers creating Green Fire, they heard plenty of superlatives from the biographers, historians and naturalists they interviewed. One called Leopold the third pillar of conservation’s “Holy Trinity,” with Muir and Henry David Thoreau.
He was certainly ahead of the curve in the conservation movement. Decades before climate change was a blip on the radar of most scientists, let alone the general public, Leopold kept meticulous phenology logs, tracking the timing of seasonal changes on his Wisconsin property. His daughter, in her 90s when the film was in production, was still faithfully tracking more than 350 individual indicators — logs begun by her father.
Leopold is best known for his articulation of the “land ethic,” embodied in many writings, including A Sand County Almanac, which has been translated into a dozen languages. Dunsky says Leopold’s ideas are “as or more relevant to the conservation challenges of today, as John Muir’s were. The story of conservation today is about restoration. That’s where the cutting edge is today, it’s in ecological restoration.”
Buddy Huffaker, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Aldo Leopold Foundation and the film’s executive producer, says that while Leopold is well known to scholars and naturalists, “Film presents a whole new medium to communicate his ideas and introduce him to new audiences.”
Huffaker says Leopold’s core contribution was ‘his foresight and recognition that the future of conservation wasn’t going to be putting fences up around things…but figuring out how to take land that had lost its resilience and restore that health.”
“Leopold understood the environmental economics as well,” says Huffaker, “That we derive all of our health and wealth from the natural world. When we talk about ecosystem services, we can pay for it now or pay for it later.”
The film, edited by Dunsky’s wife, Ann and co-directed by Forest Service colleague David Steinke, is nicely crafted. It weaves together several story lines from scholars and family members, with a series of Leopold’s personal revelations, one of which provided moving inspiration for the film’s title (Hint: it’s not about a forest fire). Some might be put off by the fact that Dunsky works for the US Forest Service regional office in Vallejo (Leopold worked for the Forest Service). The work is an unabashed homage. But the research and production values that went into the film are first-rate, and the insights well worth a viewing.
Dunsky says he expects it to air on PBS stations within a year or so. It is currently making the rounds in a series of special screenings, some of which have sold out. A second showing was added to Monday night’s screening in Berkeley, after the first sold out. A screening schedule and more background is posted at the Green Fire website.
As any quick web search will reveal, Leopold was nothing if not quotable. Perhaps his best circulated remark has to do with “intelligent tinkering;” the idea that any backyard mechanic worth his salt knows enough to keep all the various parts intact, even if he’s not sure what they’re for. In this age when we’ve moved well beyond the tinkering stage with the world’s ecosystems, Leopold’s words are perhaps more relevant now than when he said them.