Sand County Anniversary

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Published on: May. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

But Aldo Leopold also had close professional and personal ties to Missouri. He hunted quail here and frequently returned with his family to a "shanty" along the Current River. More important: through his contacts and influence he inspired and guided the early conservation movement in Missouri.

In an address celebrating the first successful year of Missouri's new conservation commission, Leopold asked "Whither Missouri?" He then answered his question by saying, when wild crops "have become an expression of pride in land, then and not until then will we have conservation in Missouri."

Aldo Leopold in 1938 was already one of the nation's leading conservationists. He had risen to prominence as a professional forester in the Southwest, where he made a compelling case for the establishment of wilderness areas in the national forests. He also had argued for erosion control and led in developing a new field of game management modeled on forestry.

A professor at the University of Wisconsin, Leopold was considered the leading proponent of wildlife management in the nation. His contributions as an environmental thinker and advocate of a land ethic would peak with the posthumous publication in 1949 of A Sand County Almanac, a literary classic celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall.

Three of Aldo Leopold's four grandparents were Missourians. His great grandfather, Friedrich Runge, emigrated from Germany to Missouri in 1834 with his family, settling on a farm in the Femme Osage Valley in St. Charles County in the midst of Daniel Boone country. His paternal grandfather, Charles J.J. Leopold, came to Missouri on the same ship and a few years later married Runge's eldest daughter, Thusnelda.

The couple settled in Liberty, where Leopold ran a dram shop on the public square and later established a steam-driven rope walk. Charles Leopold's son Carl would marry his cousin Clara, daughter of Marie Runge, born and raised in the Femme Osage Valley, and Charles Starker of Burlington, Iowa, another German immigrant. To this union Aldo Leopold was born in 1887 in Burlington.

Whether Aldo Leopold visited Missouri during his Iowa youth we don't know. But in November 1926, a few years after his move from New Mexico to Wisconsin, he made a two-week hunting trip along the Current River with his two brothers, floating from Van Buren to Doniphan. It was the start of a long series of visits to Missouri that would by turns intrigue, dismay and delight him.

Leopold returned to Missouri in December 1929, crisscrossing the state for six weeks as part of his survey of game of the north central states. He wrote his wife on January 9 from the Hotel Doniphan about his adventures during an ice storm in the Irish Wilderness, which he termed "the wildest remaining spot east of the plains." He also purchased an old cabin on the Current River a stone's throw south of the Arkansas border as a base for future family excursions.

The game survey documented the precarious state of wildlife in Missouri as of 1930. Although rabbits were abundant, Leopold was concerned about the decline of habitat for bobwhite quail and prairie chickens owing to the intensification of agriculture and the plowing of prairies. He particularly recommended a study of wild turkeys that could lead to their restoration. He also explained the critical need for a nonpolitical conservation commission to provide continuity of policy and leadership.

Leopold returned to Missouri for the next five Decembers with his brothers, his sons or friends for a week's quail hunt, using as a base the Current River shanty. While there, he painstakingly mapped the cover types and quail coveys for miles around as they changed from year to year. His visits grew less frequent after his purchase in 1935 of 80 acres along the Wisconsin River nearer his home, immortalized as "the shack" in A Sand County Almanac.

Between trips to Missouri, Leopold often corresponded with conservation officials and others he had met during his game survey, including Rudolf Bennitt and Werner Nagel, University of Missouri zoologists who in 1934 began a more comprehensive survey of the state's wildlife modeled on Leopold's survey.

After passage of the constitutional amendment creating Missouri's new conservation commission in 1936, Chairman E. Sydney Stephens invited Leopold to a meeting in St. Louis and apparently tried to persuade him to accept the key position as director, but Leopold was too committed to his work in Wisconsin to leave.

However, he almost certainly recommended the appointment of Irwin T. Bode, former head of fish and game in Iowa. Bode shared Leopold's convictions that for conservation to be effective it would have to be practiced on private lands throughout the state and that the role of government agencies was to foster research, demonstration and public outreach rather than simply acquire and manage land.

So it was that Leopold returned to Missouri in 1938 to celebrate the new commission, a new wildlife research unit at the university established in cooperation with the commission and the new Ashland Wildlife Research Area in Boone County. It was at the Ashland dedication that he asked "Whither Missouri?"

Leopold was not entirely optimistic about Missouri's future, despite the enormous strides of the previous year. On his drive from the Iowa line to Columbia he had made a tally of 100 farms, of which only 40 had any woodlots remaining, 39 of which were grazed and thus "doomed to ultimate extinction." These and other observations forced him to conclude that there was "as yet very little conservation practice on Missouri farms."

The same day he presented another challenge to Missourians in a talk on "Natural History, The Forgotten Science" at the University of Missouri. He advocated an approach to biological education that would build citizens who had an understanding of the living world-who could read the land, as he had done on his drive from Iowa to Columbia, or look at an abandoned field in the Ozarks and comprehend, as he put it, "how Missouri is put together." For his own course on wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin he prepared a case history of an Ozark farm, drawn from his Missouri experience.

In the late 1930s Leopold began developing more personal ties to the state. His son Starker, a doctoral student in zoology at the University of California-Berkeley, was hired by the Missouri Conservation Department in 1939 to undertake the comprehensive study of wild turkey outlined by his father a decade earlier. The family gathered in Missouri for their most memorable Christmas ever, hunting at the shanty and in the vicinity of West Plains. His youngest son, Carl, began graduate study at the University of Missouri in 1941, but left to enlist in the Marines the day after Pearl Harbor.

Starker finished his Missouri fieldwork in 1943 and published The Nature of Heritable Wildness in Turkeys, in which he worked out answers to many of the questions posed initially by his father. In 1945 Leopold's daughter Nina moved to Columbia with her husband, Bill Elder, who became a professor of zoology at the university.

In September 1947, Leopold, then a member of the Wisconsin conservation commission, traveled to Missouri for what would be the last time to speak at a testimonial dinner on "The Statesmanship of E. Sydney Stephens," who was retiring after a decade as chairman of the conservation commission. Much as in "Whither Missouri?" a decade earlier, he recognized the landowner and farmer as the "ultimate prime movers" in conservation.

In that speech he concluded that "if conservation can become a living reality anywhere, it can do so in Missouri. This is because Missourians," as he put it, "are not yet completely industrialized in mind and spirit, and I hope never will be."

While in St. Louis for the testimonial, Leopold also met with Charles Schwartz, who had been suggested by Leopold's children as the perfect artist to illustrate the collection of natural history essays he was preparing to publish.

Only days after completing arrangements for the illustrations with Schwartz, Leopold entered a hospital at the Mayo Clinic for delicate surgery to sever a nerve that had been causing painful spasms in his face. He was scheduled to return to Missouri the following March to present a paper, "Why and How Research?" at the North American Wildlife Conference, but had to avoid the strain of travel.

A month later, Leopold received a telephone call from Oxford University Press informing him that his book had been accepted for publication. He wrote to Charlie Schwartz about arrangements for the illustrations and left with his wife and daughter Estella for a spring planting trip at his Sand County shack. Five days later, on April 21, he was repairing tools at the shack when he spotted smoke across the marsh. While heading toward the flames with fire-fighting equipment, he suffered a heart attack and died.

That June, the front cover of the Missouri Conservationist had a drawing of Leopold by Charlie Schwartz. Inside were moving tributes by statesmen of the conservation movement, Werner Nagel, E. Sydney Stephens and William Elder. Leopold and Stephens are the only two people to have been honored with covers in more than 60 years of the magazine.

A Sand County Almanac, illustrated with Schwartz's pen and pencil drawings, appeared in October 1949 to good reviews. By the early 1970s the book had sold over a million copies. Aldo Leopold's reputation continued to grow until now he may be judged the most influential environmental thinker of the 20th century. The challenge he posed to Missourians to make conservation a living reality on private as well as on public lands continues to summon us all.

The Charlie Schwartz Connection

When Aldo Leopold recruited Charlie Schwartz (1914-1991) to illustrate A Sand County Almanac in 1947, Missourians became connected to what would become one of the most popular conservation books of all times.

After receiving the first batch of illustrations, Leopold wrote to Schwartz, "The more I study them the more I like them. In addition to their overall merit, I like the accuracy of your details even down to the species of grasses suitable for each."

In the years following publication of A Sand County Almanac, Charlie Schwartz and his wife, Libby, would establish their own place in the archives of conservation history, both enjoying long and productive careers as wildlife researchers and film-makers with the Missouri Conservation Department.

The love of natural things that Leopold wrote about and taught in the classroom, Charlie and Libby captured in their nature films and documentaries. Their movies, books, paintings, sketches and research projects won national awards. Like Leopold, their goal was always to be scientifically correct yet communicate on a level that all could understand and appreciate.

The Aldo Leopold Education Project

Cathy Ferguson and Jeanine Pallai's students at Waynesville Middle School likely had never heard of Aldo Leopold and probably would not have chosen A Sand County Almanac to read on their own. But the teachers are among 78 educators who have been trained in the Leopold Education Project (LEP) in Missouri, so the book became required reading.

The Leopold Education Project, a program of Pheasants Forever, offers a curriculum for middle and high school students that is based on Leopold's teachings. In his words, "The objective is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands."

Ferguson and Pallai are part of a group of about 3,000 educators in 30 states who have taken part in LEP training. These teachers use A Sand County Almanac in their classrooms. Following a teacher's guide, they plan environment-related student activities, such as map making, bird watching and graph designing, to make students more aware of the land and how to make responsible choices regarding the environment.

"It is a great way to introduce students to a great writer and naturalist," says Ferguson. "Through Leopold's writing, our students came in contact with vocabulary and philosophy that's not in today's textbooks. And they have fun!"

"LEP is contagious," says Ferguson. "Teachers catch it, students catch it, and they have it for life." To learn more about the Leopold Education Project, contact the LEP State Coordinator Janice Greene at (417) 836 5306 or e-mail her at <JaniceGreene@mail.smsu.edu>.

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