Aldo Leopold: Life, Land, Legacy

January 17, 2019

“Our lumber pile, recruited entirely from the river, is thus not only a collection of personalities, but an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests. The autobiography of an old board is a kind of literature not yet taught on campuses, but any riverbank farm is a library where he who hammers or saws may read at will. Come high water, there is always an accession of new books.” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949)

Writers have often compared libraries and archives to wildernesses. But for Aldo Leopold, the metaphor was reversed. To him, a woodpile was as rich in meaning as a library of good books.

Now, a first-ever large scale exhibit of Aldo Leopold manuscripts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison exploring his life and work is on display in the UW-Madison Libraries’ Department of Special Collections January 22 – May 24. A special lecture will take place as well, on March 30 with Curt Meine.

“This is an opportunity to revisit Aldo Leopold’s evolving legacy on the 70th anniversary of his book A Sand County Almanac,” says Curt Meine, Senior Fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation. “Its publication was a landmark in the way we understand the development of our moral responsibilities to our communities, to the land, to other species, to future generations.”

Leopold, considered by many as the most influential conservation mind of the 20th century, was an author, professor, and public intellectual. In 1933, the University of Wisconsin appointed him to a chair in game management, and he subsequently became the world’s first professor of wildlife management, a position he held until 1948.

“The exhibit reveals many seemingly incongruous facets of Leopold’s complex relationship with nature,” notes Stanley Temple, who also served in the same position from 1976 to 2008 at UW-Madison and is a Senior Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation. “He was a bird watcher and a bird hunter, an advocate for protecting wilderness and a proponent of sustainable use of natural resources, a guardian of public wild lands who also understood the central importance of individual responsibility for the health of private lands. The exhibit reveals Leopold’s genius was that he navigated these complexities by constantly evolving his thinking about critical issues.”

Leopold’s papers came to the UW-Madison Archives in several installments beginning in the early 1960s. The majority of Leopold’s surviving manuscripts are found in the Aldo Leopold Papers, a collection held by University Archives in Steenbock Library. Leopold published more than 500 articles, essays, and reports. His papers also include yet another estimated 500 unpublished items, as well as extensive correspondence, field journals, research records, photographs, and other materials.

Another major collection, the R.A. McCabe Collection of the Writings of Aldo Leopold, has a home in the Department of Special Collections. Leopold’s papers were fully digitized by the library between 2007 and 2009 and are available freely online through UW Digital Collections.

“For those who may be less familiar with Aldo Leopold I hope the items chosen for this public exhibit will make them want to learn more about him,” says Temple. “For those who already know something about Leopold, I hope the exhibit reveals new insights that strengthen their appreciation of his timely and timeless contributions. For everyone who visits the exhibit I hope it makes them want to explore the trove of additional material available online in the Aldo Leopold Archives.”

The exhibit was collaboratively curated by Katie Nash, Robin Rider, and David Pavelich. Many thanks to friends and colleagues who helped us along the way. Among them are Stan Temple, Curt Meine, Buddy Huffaker, Natasha Veeser, Dan Joe, Carly Sentieri, and Gil Taylor.

For more on our Q&A with Curt Meine and Stanley Temple, click here!