“Green Fire” introduces Aldo Leopold’s land ethic to a new generation

“We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” –Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), the conservationist, writer, and educator, and author of A Sand County Almanac, has long inspired those seeking to understand human society and its relationship with the land.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Curt Meine wrote his doctoral dissertation on Leopold. That dissertation was subsequently published as Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (University of Wisconsin Press). As a senior fellow at The Aldo Leopold Foundation, Meine continues to explore and communicate the legacy of Leopold to new generations in an ever-changing world.

Now Meine serves an the onscreen guide to Leopold’s life and influence in a new documentary, Green Fire. The Foundation produced the film in conjunction with the US Forest Service and the Center for Humans and Nature. See the bottom of this post for a longer synopsis of the movie. For a thoughtful article on Meine and Leopold, click here.

Watch the Green Fire trailer:

I’m looking forward to seeing Green Fire when it comes to town. The filmmakers also anticipate a national release on public television around Earth Day 2012. For more information, check out the movie’s website.

Two other items of note:

Leopold’s Vision and the Forest Service

The Forest Service has an informative podcast with the movie’s filmmakers, Steve and Ann Dunsky and Dave Steinke. Green Fire grew out an earlier project that the filmmakers produced to celebrate the centennial of the Forest Service in 2005. In the interview, Steve Dunsky speaks about how Leopold’s vision ties in with the evolving perspective of the Forest Service.

Well I think that was what was so exciting about doing this film is we didn’t just want to do a film about Aldo Leopold’s life, we wanted to talk about why he’s important today and the reason that this is in a way a sequel to The Greatest Good is that we see Leopold as being kind of the guiding vision of the Forest Service in the 21st Century. Gifford Pinchot and his colleagues in the early part of the 20th Century had a different idea about conservation: that nature was there to be used by people and it is. But Leopold’s vision is much more about people being part of a natural community, and that shift has been occurring in the Forest Service over the last twenty years. And I think that now is the time that we are really seeing the manifestation of that in the agency’s policy and our actions and so the timing is really perfect for Green Fire to be coming out.

The discussion also notes that one of the Forest Service’s priorities in Region Five (California/Pacific Southwest) is ecological restoration, which is what “Leopold was doing…before there was even a term for that activity.”

A transcript of the interview can be found here.

Leopold Out Loud

This past weekend, communities across Wisconsin got together to read from A Sand County Almanac. What started as a local gathering is now an annual celebration. In 2000, the Friends of Scenic Lodi Valley organized “Lodi Reads Leopold,” a 10-hour event during which 35 participants read A Sand County Almanac out loud, cover to cover. In 2004, Governor Jim Doyle (who served prior to the current governor, Scott Walker) declared the first weekend of March Aldo Leopold Weekend. The Weekend has spread to at least six other states.

Next year, after Green Fire has been screened widely, perhaps more communities will join the celebration.

The following is a long synopsis of Green Fire posted on the movie’s website:

Contemporary concerns about human impacts on the biosphere have made Aldo Leopold a powerful and increasingly relevant voice today.  His message of hope, curiosity, and critical appreciation of the natural world inspires people from many walks of life who are concerned about their own changing times and places.  In his own life, Leopold’s commitment to land, family, and community were inseparable. In light of the ecological challenges we face today, his story and ideas add depth to national and local discussions of the relationships between people and nature.

In Leopold’s more philosophical writing, he described nature—or, as he preferred to express it, “land”— as a biotic pyramid, “a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit” of soils, waters, plants, and animals as well as people. “Land health”—what scientists today more commonly term ecosystem health—implied a state of normal functioning in that land community and a high “capacity for self-renewal” or resilience. For Leopold a “land ethic” was an expression of individual responsibility to the health of the land, premised on the notion that human beings were “plain member and citizen” of the land community rather than “conquerors.” A land ethic was thus grounded in a sense of individual responsibility to the larger community of life.

Those who come to Leopold’s story and ideas have found varied meanings. For most, however, the experience inspires deeper reflection about the relationship between people and nature. Leopold’s personal story, his deep aesthetic appreciation, and his concepts of land health and a land ethic have influenced people across cultural and political divides and provoked robust debate. Leopold would be heartened by this, for he regarded a land ethic not as an individual’s expression but as a product of social evolution. “Nothing so important as an ethic is ever written,” he wrote. It evolves “in the minds of a thinking community.”  This perspective makes Green Fire an excellent vehicle for stimulating reflective discussion about community concerns and environmental ethics today.

Green Fire explores the themes of community and responsibility, both of which are pervasive in Leopold’s life and writings and in the work of many contemporary humanities scholars.  It will trace the evolution of these themes during his lifetime and in the broader American culture and explore them through contemporary efforts in communities, landscapes, and organizations across the nation that draw upon his work for inspiration.  From urban citizens in Albuquerque, Milwaukee, and Chicago to Western ranchers and farmers in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, and from the campus of Yale University to the wilds of the Apache National Forest in Arizona, these seemingly disparate threads come together through the story of Leopold’s life and ongoing legacy. Green Fire extracts these connections to help audiences think critically about community and responsibility and their own responses to today’s ecological challenges.

Leopold’s notion of an evolving land ethic provides the backbone of the narrative. It was the organizing idea that defined not only his personal, intellectual, and spiritual growth but in many ways the development of the American conservation and environmental movements over the last century. In particular, Leopold sought to resolve the long-standing (and often divisive) tension between the preservationist and utilitarian strains of conservation thought, policy, and advocacy. This essential dynamic in the history of American conservation remains problematic; meanwhile Leopold’s role in productively addressing it remains too little appreciated.

Green Fire also examines the theme of community–both within the natural world and in the social context of conservation. The related themes of sense of place, stewardship, and responsibility derive from Leopold’s notion of community and connect his story to creative contemporary expressions of an environmental ethic. His personal journey is part of a still larger, longer-term, and unfinished journey of Americans (and indeed people around the world) as their relationships to the natural world continue to evolve. The contemporary stories woven into the film illustrate Leopold’s continuing influence today, while also demonstrating a diversity of human relationships to nature.

The film frames Leopold’s life in terms of historical tensions that continue to shape our lives and landscapes: between nature preservation and the need to sustain healthy working landscapes, between the environmental impact of modern technologies and the practice of ecological restoration, between the proper functions of government and the creative role of experimentation by individuals and citizen groups; between urban and rural communities and interests; between local, national, and global concerns. Leopold was engaged in all aspects of these tensions and thought about them deeply. In illustrating the all-inclusive nature of Leopold’s ecological approach to politics, the film implies not one true or ultimate land ethic, but myriad ways and traditions of acting responsibly toward (and within) the land community.

Green Fire features commentary and insight from some of today’s most recognized historians and conservation leaders, including three of Aldo Leopold’s children (Nina, Carl, and Estella), numerous Leopold scholars, noted environmental scholars and writers, and respected scientists, public officials, and business and non-profit leaders. Historians Susan Flader and Curt Meine, and philosopher Baird Callicott have spent years explicating Leopold’s work. Additional scholars include historians Bill DuBuys and Sylvia Hood Washington, educator David Orr, and writer Peter Forbes, among many others.  Practitioners, like former Natural Resources Conservation Service chief Paul Johnson and International Crane Foundation founder George Archibald, return regularly to Leopold’s writings, while groups like Chicago Wilderness, the Southwest’s Quivira Coalition and Malpais Borderlands Group, and Vermont’s Center for Whole Communities draw heavily on Leopold’s inspiration and philosophy in finding new solutions to today’s conservation challenges. Other interviewees include ranchers, urban educators, Midwestern farmers, and students.   By challenging viewers to think about their own relationship and responsibility to the land community, the film inspires them to consider what a land ethic might look like in their own communities today.



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3 thoughts on ““Green Fire” introduces Aldo Leopold’s land ethic to a new generation

  1. I recently heard Curt Meine speak at the Chicago Wilderness Wild Things Conference, where he discussed Leopold’s Chicago connections and showed a clip of Green Fire. I, too, am looking forward to seeing the complete film.

  2. Thanks, Adrian. I just read your recap of the Wild Things conference (and first heard about it from Christine Esposito’s (@TerracomChicago) tweets) — sounds like an excellent event. Looking forward to reading more of your blog!

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