by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time is the first full-length documentary on Aldo Leopold, prominent early twentieth century conservationist and author of A Sand County Almanac (trailer below). Environmental ethicist J. Baird Callicott places Leopold within the “holy trinity” of historic conservation figures alongside Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. This Emmy Award-winning film explores Leopold’s experience through the development of his idea of a “land ethic.” It follows his life story through places he lived and worked, quotations from his writing, and interviews with his children. The filmmakers weave this story from the past into the present, directing us toward the future as we attempt to implement Leopold’s land ethic in the context of a changing climate. Peppered with interviews with Leopold scholars as well as practitioners in the fields of conservation, biology, ecology, forestry, wilderness and resource management, urban conservation, ranching, farming, and politics, Green Fire connects us with the history of the conservation and environmental movement through the life of Leopold and the influence he had on so many fields.
Growing naturally from a film created for the centennial of the U.S. Forest Service, The Greatest Good, this film shows the next chapter in the development of conservation consciousness in the American mind. Curt Meine, director for conservation biology and history with the Center for Humans and Nature, senior fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and author of Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, serves as the film’s on-screen guide and narrator. We see Meine leafing through the unpublished Leopold manuscripts housed in the archives of the University of Wisconsin that launched his career as a Leopold biographer many years ago, meeting Leopold’s children, and traveling to sites where Leopold lived and worked. His thoughtful narration coupled with contemporary imagery and archival footage introduces viewers to Leopold’s land ethic through the lens of the “fierce green fire” of life Leopold witnessed leaving the eyes of a dying wolf early in his career. Through this lens, we witness a turning point in the man, as well as a metaphoric turning point in the relationship between Americans and the landscape. Meine and the rest of the filmmakers guide us toward an understanding of Leopold’s land ethic as a way to bridge the gap between professed environmentalists and conservationists on the one hand, and ranchers, hunters, economists, and politicians on the other, whose world views often seem aimed in stunningly different directions. By looking into the life of this man who was a hunter, forester, scientist, writer, and philosopher, who found value in both wilderness and human-formed spaces, whose wife came from a long line of ranchers, and who emphasized the benefits of holistic ecosystem management for the good of society, we can begin to see how we might utilize Leopold’s land ethic for the betterment of ourselves and our planet.
Leopold’s land ethic encourages us to view land not as a commodity belonging to us, but as a community to which we belong. He invites us to enlarge our ethic of right relationship with other human beings to include the soil, the water, the animals and plants, and the other resources that make up our world — what he called the “land community.” We see his trial and error as he and other forest managers learned the important place of predators in a functioning ecosystem, after having supported the practice of killing wolves and other predators in order to create a “hunter’s paradise.” We also see his efforts to experiment with and live out his land ethic in Midwestern farming communities, working with an entire watershed to reduce soil erosion, and restoring his own farm in Wisconsin’s “sand counties.”
Curt Meine spoke with Whole Terrain recently, recounting his experiences in the making of this documentary, and sharing with us about his interest in Leopold’s work.
Whole Terrain: How did you become interested in Aldo Leopold?
Curt Meine: In my graduate school years in Madison, WI, I was interested in environmental history, ideas, ethics, and conservation history. Leopold was a prominent figure in Wisconsin, having served on the faculty there, and his papers were kept in the university archives. That allowed me to enter into his world and explore my interests through his life.
Leopold was a great example of the ability to combine science, literature, and ideas, and to cross the boundaries between fields and disciplines. That appealed to me greatly as one who shares that interdisciplinary way of viewing the world. I appreciated his ability to make connections and express them powerfully and meaningfully. If I’d been studying elsewhere, he would still have been an attractive starting point for my own ideas and work. But being in Wisconsin gave an immediacy and intimacy to his life story.
That story is not only important in its own right as an example of how to view the world with ecological eyes, but it’s also indicative of the larger story of the evolution of conservation ideas and practice. Through his personal story you learn a lot about the larger story of conservation history.
WT: In your opinion, why should we still be learning about and from Leopold rather than more current environmental thinkers, writers, and scientists?
CM: I don’t think it’s one or the other, but both. If we want to understand the story of our current environmental challenges and our relationship to the greater reality, to the natural world, we have to understand where we came from. Leopold is a central figure in that. He helped to bring the science of ecology into that conversation. He made connections between culture, philosophy, civics, and science, and he provided a foundation for so many different fields of modern environmental and conservation work. Knowing that history helps to ground us as we face those challenges of today and tomorrow.
WT: I appreciate that Leopold came at conservation not only from a Romantic view of the sublime beauty of Nature as something separate and distinct, but also as a hunter, rancher, and member of a human community. He wanted to preserve the land not just “out there,” but to make it work best for people, and vice versa. How do you think we in the environmental movement might best live this today?
CM: Leopold doesn’t quite “fit” with the way we often look back at our environmental history. He wrote so powerfully and lyrically about place that we sometimes forget: that place wasn’t a sublime landscape at all, but a rather mundane and degraded part of the Midwest. He’s a bit of an anomaly in that way. He focused his attention on an everyday landscape that had been used hard, worn out, and left behind.
Looking at it from another angle, Leopold was a hunter and forester. He understood our economic relationship to the natural world, and the necessity of vital human communities. He realized that different places have different ecological and cultural contexts, and need to be treated differently. That can allow us to move beyond stereotypical dichotomies — between wild and human, rural and urban — to deal with the realities of our relationship to the natural world in terms of the human economy, but also in terms of environmental sustainability.
And so today, for example, we might extend Leopold’s concept to include the question, “What does the land ethic mean for people who live and work in urban environments?” We have to keep thinking and caring about large and remote wild places, but we also need to pay attention to agricultural and urban and suburban environments, and the global ecosystem that sustains us all. Leopold helps us to see and make these connections for the good of us all.
WT: Why did you choose “green fire” as the central metaphor for the film?
CM: The green fire image, which resonates so powerfully in Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” was present in the earliest stages of making the film, carried through the whole production process, and symbolized what we were trying to do. It captured the literal evocation of the moment in Leopold’s life when he encountered the dying wolf; it marked his growth and understanding of change over the course of his lifetime; and, as Peter Forbes says in the film, it symbolizes the evolution of the conservation andenvironmental movement.
We didn’t want to do a strictly historical film, but strove to make connections between the past,the present, and the future. The film bounces back and forth between historical stories and contemporary expressions of the evolving land ethic. We feel this is in keeping with Leopold’s goal that the land ethic wouldn’t be his idea alone, but a continually evolving idea within a larger “thinking community.” The image of the “green fire” allowed us to make those connections.
WT: What were some of your favorite moments from the making of this film?
CM: A lot of my favorite moments involved connecting or reconnecting with members of the extended community I’ve worked with for many years, allowing them to share their story through the film: Michael Howard in Chicago, Sid Goodloe in New Mexico, Paul Johnson in Iowa — among other good friends and colleagues. I enjoyed the chance to visit with them, and providing them with an opportunity to tell their story of how Leopold affected their lives and work, and to show how they have extended his ideas in their own lives and communities.
WT: What do you hope people take away from this film?
CM: My greatest hope is that it provides a tool for bringing people together in communities everywhere. We’ve seen that so far, as the film has been shown in hundreds of communities, in churches, schools,libraries, universities, and nature centers across the country. It’s been a delight to see that happen.
Leopold’s story is very special in that way. People come to these hard questions about the way we interact with the world with different attitudes, beliefs, and stories. Leopold’s story shows that there’s a lot of common ground. If we continue to work toward that kind of shared understanding in our communities, we can make progress.
I hope that people come away from the film understanding a bit more about the history of conservation and environmental ideas, that they see reflections of their own interests in Leopold’s life and legacy, and that younger viewers especially see that there is a place for them to “plug in” in making a difference. In any place and community, there is a way that they can contribute in a real and meaningful way to the further evolution of the land ethic. That can mean many different things, in different places–in urban neighborhoods, in agricultural landscapes, in a wild place along a river, in a forest, or in the desert.Whatever your interest is, whatever your skill is, whatever place you find yourself, there is a way to connect that can contribute to a land ethic for our time.
Green Fire would be a good documentary to show in college classrooms related to the environment, ethics, land and resource management, and the sciences, as well as with community groups interested in implementing a holistic method for community resource management and sustainability. You can purchase the DVD for personal use here, or go to Bullfrog Films to purchase the rights to show it in a community setting. Educational institutions can purchase the DVD or stream the documentary through Bullfrog Films here.