Of Estella Leopold and a “Fierce Green Fire” for the Earth

Estella Leopold and Louisa Willcox.

This week, I am thrilled to launch the first of a four-part podcast featuring Estella Leopold, daughter of conservationist, writer, and philosopher Aldo Leopold. Last summer I traveled to Seattle for a conversation about her amazing life and adventures. At 92 years of age, and still frequenting her lab at the University of Washington’s Quaternary Research Center, Estella burns with passion for the natural world. At this critical time in our history, her perspectives are especially valuable for wildlife, wilderness, and our planet. I hope you enjoy!

My husband David was horrified to see the three pages of questions I had sent Estella beforehand: “You would not pile so much on anyone else, why are you doing this to Estella?” Cheeky perhaps, but the truth is that I am fascinated by her life, scientific contributions, and memories growing up in such a brilliant family. And, in speaking to her, I could tell she is sharp as a knife.

For a day and a half, Estella generously shared stories about her life’s journey, answering my prepared questions as well as many more that I had not thought to ask.  The interview presented major editorial challenges because of the length and nonlinearity – a real conversation—but a technological mountain for this Luddite.

My path to Estella’s door began with her father, whose classic book of essays, Sand County Almanac, contributed to changing my life as well as the lives of so many others. I have long been fascinated with Leopold’s conversion in his views about predators, from treating them as varmints to be eradicated, to valued members of their ecosystems. In Thinking Like a Mountain, he writes that as a young forest ranger he shot into a pack of wolves, and then this: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch the fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch: I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

In another essay, Leopold tells the tragic tale of how Old Bigfoot, one of the last grizzly bears in Arizona, was killed on Escudilla Mountain. I have devoted a blog to this essay, centered on a pilgrimage that David and I made to Escudilla last winter. That trip prompted me to get my hands on all the biographies and essays about Aldo, as well as all but the most obscure of his published writings. As a natural derivative of my fascination with this man, I sought out and then screwed up my courage to contact Estella, the last surviving offspring of my hero.

I came to her door with my heavily tabbed copy of the book she had written a few years before: Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited.  For me and many other conservationists “The Shack” may as well be the Sistine Chapel. During the Depression, Aldo Leopold purchased a degraded farm near Madison, Wisconsin. Together, the family brought the farm back to life, replanting pine forests, restoring prairie (previously unimaginable), and even burning patches of this fire-dependent ecosystem after years of fire suppression. The Shack was center stage in the thinking and writing of Aldo Leopold (a number of essays in Sand County Almanac are set here), but it was also the heart of the family. To the Leopolds, The Shack meant work, play, scientific inquiry, love, and adventure — although to conservationists and ecologists around the world it has become hallowed ground.

Estella tells the story that “every week my father would say to us: ‘Your mother and I are going out to the Shack this weekend. Anyone want to come with us?’ And the children — all five of us — would shout, ‘Yes!’” It was family time and fun, with lots of singing. Estella had pets that included a fox squirrel and several crows, while her brother Carl raised hawks. At the center of many stories was the towering figure of her mother, also Estella, but dubbed in newspapers “Lady Diana” because of her archery skill. From a prominent Hispanic ranching family, Estella Senior was the family glue, her husband’s right hand, and the love of his life.   I can’t wait to read the junior Estella’s upcoming biography of her mother.

It was almost inevitable that the younger Estella would become a scientist. The youngest of five siblings, who each became leading scientists in their own right, Estella was asked at age twelve by her father what she wanted to be when she grew up. She responded: “a bug-ologist, the others are already taken.” But, when actually confronted with a choice of careers, Estella instead became a renowned paleobotanist who delved into the ancient lives of plants ranging from atolls in the Pacific, the flanks of the Rocky Mountains, and the mountains and shores of the Pacific Northwest, even collaborating with paleontologists in China before it opened its doors to westerners. But throughout his life, Aldo only called the younger Estella “baby” – she says, “because there was only one ‘Estella’ to him.”

Humanizing Aldo 

I know I am not alone in placing Aldo Leopold on a pedestal. He is an icon of American conservation, keen observer of nature, and incandescent essayist. He is perhaps best remembered for coining the term “The Land Ethic” in an essay of the same name that has revolutionized our views about our responsibility to nature. This catch-phrase captured something essential: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

The Land Ethic faces us with tough choices about the long-term consequences of our actions for nonhuman life near and far. But more importantly, Aldo’s thinking shaped the trajectory of generations, manifest in subsequent writings by others that embellished the idea of The Land Ethic. I know I am not alone in bifurcating my life into the time “Before Aldo” and “After.” For me, it happened in a heartbeat in a college library.

To many disciples, Aldo seems hardly of this earth, relegated to a sort of Mount Olympus of Conservation, shared perhaps with Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Teddy Roosevelt, and some of Aldo’s friends such as Bob Marshall and Mardy and Olaus Murie.

Estella shattered that notion, painting a portrait of a far more rich, interesting, and down-to-earth man, not some guy on an ethereal cloud. “Was he intimidating?” I asked off the bat. “Not at all!” Estella assured me, laughing. (You can hear her laughing a lot throughout the interview).

Aldo Leopold comes across as a decent, deeply caring, and immensely curious person — educated but not a snob, easy in the company of farmers, scholars, or governors. Indeed, his wide-ranging and unprecedented wildlife surveys, conducted before most state or federal wildlife management agencies had been created, relied on information from anybody with relevant information: landowners, hunters, trappers, even garden clubbers. His reputation as one of the nation’s premiere wildlife experts brought a spotlight to moments of transformation in institutions, professions, and even his own life. Emblematically, following a visit to Germany’s excessively manicured forests, Leopold changed his views of management, becoming a champion of preserving wilderness. And his employment by the Sporting Arms and Ammunitions Manufacturers’ Institute did not deter him from speaking out about the value of predators – or urging his employer to temper some of its anti-carnivore advertisements.

He cared passionately about the lives and careers of his kids, delighting in seeing them blossom as world-class scientists. And their prowess as natural historians had other benefits. For example, even as Leopold fretted over his son Carl’s deployment in the Pacific during World War II, the worried father celebrated when he was able to pinpoint his son’s secret location from descriptions of local bird life contained in letters sent home.

Humor runs through many tales. Estella shares a priceless story about her father at The Shack during a time when a tame Great Horned Owl disrupted their sleep by raising a ruckus on the roof. Driven to distraction, Aldo burst out of the cabin one night, barefoot and in his pajamas, with young Estella in tow asking: “What are you doing Daddy?” “Goddam owl,” muttered her dad who headed for the nearby Wisconsin River where he whittled down a willow branch and proceeded to stab some frogs. Helping Estella climb onto the roof, he hoped that the frogs would make the owl happy. “But it turns out that owls don’t eat frogs,” she concludes with a chuckle.

You can’t hoist Aldo back up Olympus after that.

Estella: Of Environmental Alchemy  

I expected to hear about Estella’s scientific endeavors but, in addition, was astonished to learn the depth of her mastery of environmental campaigning. She had big wins as well as inevitable losses, of course: saving the Grand Canyon from dams but losing the fight for Glen Canyon. Importantly, she learned from her experiences, demonstrating her chops in the successful fight to save Florissant Fossil Beds.  Summarized in a fascinating book coauthored with Herbert Meyer, Saved in Time: The Fight to Establish Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado vividly describes a campaign to save a world-class paleontological treasure that was a virtual Rosetta Stone of ancient fossils comprised of hundreds of insects species, birds, fish, plants, and mammals, even including brontotheres that were relatives of horses but more closely resembling rhinoceros—all near perfectly preserved in wafer-thin shales. She and her compadres did it all: top notch media work; effective grassroots organizing; political lobbying involving a young lawyer, Richard Lamm, who would go on to become the Governor of Colorado; public protest featuring ladies in pearls and high heels in front of bulldozers; and litigation that pioneered many environmental lawsuits to follow. Plus, the book reads like a thriller.

I still laugh out-loud hearing her tell about their attorney, Victor Yannacone, who she had tracked down after reading a magazine article. As recounted by Estella: “Well, he said we needed to just sue the bastards.”  She shrugged, and laughed. But they did — and won.

I have trained lots of talented young environmentalists over the years and most never embodied the native skill or acquired the level of strategic ability that Estella demonstrates. To be sure, conservation was in her genes. But I never got the impression that her father was interested in the art and science of campaigning. In his writings and the wonderful biography by Curt Meine, Aldo comes across more as a teacher, writer, and philosopher. Indeed, his students affectionately called him “the Philosopher.”   Although he served on the founding board of The Wilderness Society, he was not in the political fray as were friends such as Bob Marshall, Olaus Murie, and Howard Zahniser.

People often ask me what makes for an effective environmental campaigner. The question is hard to answer and more complicated than it appears. It goes without saying that the best advocates are persistent, humble, and brave. But there are more skills than meet the eye. You have to know something about bureaucracies and organizational and political decision-making, but you can’t surrender to the government’s rules. You have to be able to navigate the maze of relevant science without getting lost in the details. You need to know how to talk to journalists, which means reducing complicated ideas to sound bites and yet tell a compelling story. You need to have insight into key decision-makers and who can influence them. That means being able to communicate with and inspire different people with vastly different personalities. Because different environmental problems involve different decision-makers operating in different arenas at different scales, you often need to be able to navigate local, state, and national domains. Although conciliatory negotiations with opponents is often desirable, sometimes such tactics are little more than delusional paths to irretrievable loss, in which case you have to go to court and, well, “sue the bastards.”

Winning environmental campaigns entails stirring these ingredients and applying heat and pressure to create change that I consider to be a form of alchemy. Environmental alchemy is not about turning “base metals” like lead into “noble metals” like gold but, in the end, transforming our relationship with nature. And what works in one context, fails in another. More than the sum of component parts and resources, successful campaigns share an element of mystery.

Even more baffling (although well studied) is environmental leadership. Leading a campaign is not just a simple extension of efforts such as letter writing or testifying in a hearing. And it is not the same thing as charisma, although that helps. Being a leader is more than being able to inspire your allies and would-be allies or thoroughly understanding your opponents. It means keeping all the pieces in your head and a mental map of how they are interconnected, while having an instinct for the next step forward and how that fits into a broader vision. In my experience, only the tiniest fraction of environmentalists are effective leaders – a fact belied by the scale of today’s massive environmental industry.

I can count on one hand leaders who are true geniuses in this arena. I include Estella in this rarified group. What is astonishing about her early victories, especially Florissant, is that it was won without the help of environmental laws that were mostly passed afterwards. And here she and her fellow advocates challenged a powerful and politically well-connected developer, won a lawsuit, and succeeded in turning the fossil site into a National Monument. Wow. Her other wins, including on disposal of nuclear wastes and development of oil shales, are no less impressive.

Listen and you will hear the voice of a maestro, often laughing at the little details – which is where the magic happens.

The Leopolds and Love

Estella surprised me when she suggested that the notion of love is at the heart of Sand County Almanac, which I then reread for the umpteenth time. She is right of course. Love for the diminutive Draba plant, a common spring mustard. For the music of geese, sandhill cranes, and the chorus of songbirds that awaken the dawn. For wolves and grizzlies, naturally. And Aldo’s hunting trips with sons Starker and Luna along the wild Gavilan River in Mexico, where he discovered what had been largely lost in the western U.S. to the onslaught of cattle grazing: healthy, functioning streams, teeming with trout.

She also offered this: that love linked her father’s moral and mental connection to nature. I think I had gotten so lost in his beautiful turns of phrase and the power of his philosophy that I slid over this crucial fact. Love is always the amalgam that drives positive transformation.

It is not surprising that the same holds true for Estella. You can feel her passion in her delightful story about pikas, a small mountain species of rabbit, today threatened by a warming climate.  And her fondness for her students, who she coached and helped launch on eminent careers.  Or her grandniece Claire, who is following in her footsteps.

With intimate details, Estella brings her family alive. She tells how her father would come home for lunch and hug Estella Senior for a long time at the doorway. How the five kids and their parents played guitar and sang together, recycled driftwood from the river or material gathered at the dump to build fences or furniture, or hunted, canoed and practiced archery. I found myself envious of such an upbringing.

Estella emphasized that in the family, her father was more about affection than discipline, a task seemingly left to her mother. I won’t spoil the funny story she shares to illustrate that point – or any more of the rest. You just need to hear them for yourself.

This first piece introduces the Leopold family, and upcoming episodes cover their lives at the Shack along with Estella’s own career and legacy.  Prepare yourself for an adventure with a master storyteller, alchemist, and member of a legendary family.

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Louisa Willcox is a longtime grizzly bear activist and founder of Grizzly Times. She lives in Montana.


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