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A Ringing Voice
A new book tracing Aldo Leopold’s intellectual journey shows how his manifesto for modern conservationists carries the same weight today as it did 50 years ago.

Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey: Rediscovering the Author of
A Sand County Almanac

By Julianne Lutz Newton
Island Press, 483 pages, $32.95

Memory takes me back a quarter of a century to the night I slept in Aldo Leopold’s “shack.” The structure was an old wooden-sided chicken coop really, reared close to a marsh in Baraboo, Wisconsin, rebuilt first as a hunting camp and later as a retreat for his family. It was early April, and the sandhill cranes were flying on migration. Accompanied by several ornithologists and some of Leopold’s family members, I was there to take part early the next morning in the annual Baraboo crane count.

I like to think I experienced the same sights and sounds at that shack that had surrounded Leopold (whose voice was among the most haunting and inspiring in the literature of American conservation) during the years before his death in 1948. I listened to the animated talk around me. His daughter Nina spread an informal supper on benches among the mature white pines that Leopold himself had planted. Someone plucked a guitar. I was a stranger there, though I couldn’t help but sense Leopold’s spirit among us. Then, just before supper, we heard the soul-piercing unison cries of a pair of courting cranes in the marsh, a call Leopold had described as “the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” 

What stirs that memory now is a new book, Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, by Julianne Lutz Newton. It isn’t a biography but rather a description of Leopold’s lifelong intellectual journey. Much of the text consists of quotations from his work, beginning with his experience as a questioning young forester in New Mexico before World War I. Ecological ignorance then ruled, as settlers and government agents alike took part in a “system of competitive destruction,” sharing the view that nature was simply the limitless raw material of wealth. How contemporary!, a reader inevitably responds.

Forests were for logging, prairies for livestock grazing, grizzly bears for shooting. Even Leopold, an experienced hunter, supported the killing of wolves, falcons, and other predators that threatened the game supply. But the odyssey that was his own inner development proceeded through his career in the U.S. Forest Service, his brief employment with the chamber of commerce in Albuquerque and an industry front called the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, and ultimately his influential tenure as a pioneer professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin. Out of this mix of experience came the posthumous publication of his eloquent ecological masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac, in 1949.

Ironically, Leopold himself never took part in a Baraboo crane count. Cranes had disappeared from his and many other Wisconsin marshes during the frenzy of land-booming and ditch-digging in the first third of the 20th century. Still, in a sketch entitled “Marshland Elegy,” Leopold reflected on the cranes’ arrival in spring, a phenomenon local people had once taken for granted. “Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock,” he wrote. “Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by a shotgun. The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.”

Newton, a research associate at the University of Illinois and president of the Burroughs Institute in Roxbury, New York, began her book as a Ph.D. thesis. It rises above the run of academic publications, however, taking wing on Leopold’s prose. A reader must look elsewhere for the details of Leopold’s life, most accessible in Curtis Meine’s Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (University of Wisconsin Press, 1988). Although Newton may have quoted from more of Leopold’s early writing than the average reader needs, the quotations rest here for future generations of scholars, and in nearly a hundred pages of notes she puts together a trove of intriguing asides. (During a visit to Nazi Germany in 1935 to study its forests and wildlife, Leopold was most impressed by the Germans’ desire “to spend time outdoors.”)

Leopold’s mature writing is tinged with the sadness he detected in his own bereft marshland. Perhaps this melancholy touch accounts for the distinctive “voice” that sets his later prose apart from that of all other American writers. He found his voice gradually, after much observation and thought. The sensibility behind it had taken root when he first uncovered the enormously destructive role that soil erosion played in impoverishing the Southwest’s land and its settlers, prompting him eventually to formulate his concepts of ecological stability and the health of the land. Although Leopold was not religious in the traditional Christian sense, Newton shows that he cherished the Old Testament and copied passages from it into his journal. He took from the prophets not only a moral perspective on dealing with the earth but also a grandeur of utterance that was to transform his thought into a compelling manifesto for modern conservationists. His literary voice came to reflect what he discerned as “the speech of the hills and rivers.” Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey ably summarizes a life’s work that has lost none of its resonance or relevance.
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Editors’ Choice

Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird
By Andrew D. Blechman
Grove Press, 239 pages, $24

To many urban dwellers, pigeons have a foul reputation as ubiquitous, feathery nuisances. Tainting park benches and freshly cleaned shirts worldwide with their chalky guano, they’re often referred to as “rats with wings.” But to some people, as journalist Andrew D. Blechman reveals in Pigeons, the humble birds aren’t vermin. Instead, they’re war heroes that suffered mortal wounds carrying military messages, phenomenal athletes that can fly more than 500 miles in a day, and even comforting companions to the lonely. Upon meeting Orlando Martinez, a Brooklynite who makes a living racing pigeons across rooftops in avian derbies, Blechman dives into a zany world where pigeons, along with the people who love them—and those who love to hate them—take center stage. In his travels across the United States and to Europe, Blechman meets pigeon preservers who live communally with their wards, pigeon researchers who study how homing pigeons actually reach home, and pigeon breeders whose fantailed birds “are some of the strangest-looking feathered beasts” Blechman has ever seen. A quick and thoroughly entertaining read, Pigeons will have readers chuckling at the quirky characters and pondering surprising pigeon facts.—Julie Leibach 
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Sensuous Seas: Tales of a Marine Biologist
By Eugene H. Kaplan
Princeton University Press, 288 pages, $24.95

Hermaphroditic, sluglike bottom dwellers called sea hares wind their gelatinous bodies into a writhing mass and orgy the night away on the ocean floor. A tiny Amazonian fish called the candiru uses needle-sharp fin spines to lodge itself in the urethras of unsuspecting swimmers. These are just a couple of the many provocative scenes that grace the pages of Eugene Kaplan’s latest book, Sensuous Seas. These snapshots serve as a springboard into Kaplan’s lessons on the lives and habits of the earth’s weirdest underwater creatures. Kaplan has taught biology at Hofstra University’s Marine Laboratory, in St. Ann’s Bay in Jamaica, for more than 20 years. There he honed his ability to enliven his teaching method, which he reveals in the prologue to Sensuous Seas: “Infuse into each lecture a generous helping of sex.” Kaplan strikes the perfect balance between titillation and education in the vignettes that comprise this book. One moment you are 300 feet below the sea, viewing rare breast-shaped sponges from a submarine, and the next you are sitting next to Kaplan in a Tokyo sushi bar as he tempts fate by eating the toxic flesh of a fugu puffer fish. Each adventure is a window into the fascinating world of marine biology and a colorful glimpse into the life of a veteran marine biologist.—Bob Grant
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This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America
By Anthony Flint
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 298 pages, $22

Mark Twain once famously quipped, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” You might say the same holds true for sprawl, that modern scourge otherwise known as rampant, unchecked, and unplanned development, which, as Anthony Flint reports in this perceptive book, “chews through farmland, open space, wetlands, woods and meadows at a rate of over 300 acres per hour.” People who live in the suburbs often rant about sprawl, particularly the worsening traffic congestion it causes. But does anybody really do anything about it? “Most Americans live in spread-out subdivisions, drive to work in mirrored-glass office buildings off highway exit ramps, and hop back into their cars to shop at big-box stores and eat at chain restaurants,” Flint observes dryly. Until recently, the smart growth movement, which calls for homes and businesses to be built more compactly and to make better use of mass transit, was gaining traction. But a backlash of sorts kicked in two years ago, when Oregon voters passed a ballot measure easing restrictions on development. The state was formerly touted as a smart growth leader for its strict urban boundaries, which preserved farmland and open space. What makes this book valuable reading is that Flint, a former reporter for the Boston Globe who covered transportation and planning issues, shows how property rights advocates, free market think tanks, and other vested economic interests, such as  home builders and road builders, have beaten back efforts to change long-standing zoning laws and development regulations that lead to sprawl. Those who truly hate sprawl and want to fight back would be well advised to read this book.—Keith Kloor
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Art of the Wild

First, the bad news: Our planet is severely sick, and we’ve got only one shot to make it better. The good news: We can do it—but we need a dramatically new model, one that “will let everyone on the planet get rich and stay rich, while healing the planet’s ecosystems,” writes Alex Steffen in Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams, 596 pages, $37.50). Divided into seven sections, each addressing an aspect of daily living, Worldchanging is a cornucopia of solutions for people who want their habits to reflect their environmental and humanitarian ethics. From water-recycling showers and do-it-yourself biofuel to malaria-fighting coconuts and mobile grocery stores, the ideas and illustrative photographs that accompany them will inspire readers to make sustainable plans for a prosperous and greener future.—Julie Leibach

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