Aldo Leopold Foundation
For more photos, click gallery, above.
Growing up in Michigan, I always felt a twinge of envy toward my cousins raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm. My hometown was a small city with a suburban feel - a dreary place of shopping malls, fast-food joints and downtown decline. (For the record, I don't see it that way anymore.)
Though there was a nature preserve a half-mile from our house, we never went there (its reputation as a hotbed of illicit activity wasn't exactly a draw). You might say I suffered from what Richard Louv dubbed "nature deficit disorder" in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods.
My cousins, on the other hand, lived in the farmhouse where their father had also grown up. To be sure, I knew the life of a farm family was hard work, but there was also a certain romantic quality: the rolling vistas, the sense that this piece of land was integral to their family's existence.
While I hike through state parks and get a thrill looking out from the bluffs overlooking Devil's Lake, watching the turkey vultures soar, there's a part of me that will always feel disconnected from the natural world and its cycles, I fear. I feel an outsider's appreciation, not a sense of deep-rootedness, though I'm beginning to rethink my place in the scheme of things.
Conservation biologist and author Curt Meine had a different response to growing up in actual suburbs. A scrubby little prairie near his high school (Maine East in Park Ridge, Ill., also Hillary Clinton's alma mater) became an unlikely inspiration.
Meine revisited that spot not long ago, while working on the newly released documentary Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. The film premieres this weekend in Madison (see sidebar for details).
Leopold, who lived in Wisconsin from 1924 until his death in 1948, is best known as the author of A Sand County Almanac and, particularly, its final essay on his concept of a land ethic - the idea that the land (including soils, waters, plants and animals) is a community to which we belong, and which we must respect and care for. The book has sold more than two million copies since its posthumous publication in 1949.
Throughout his life, Leopold articulated a sophisticated yet elastic philosophy that sidestepped the polarization between the utilitarian and strict preservationist approaches to the environment.
"When we were filming in the Chicago area, the small film crew and I had to run down to O'Hare to pick up some equipment," Meine recalls. "We passed by Maine East, and we were going to pass by this old prairie that was kind of a touchstone for me in high school, this little abandoned prairie in the suburbs."
The patch of land sits right next to a McDonald's, just as it did when Meine was in school.
The film's director insisted on filming Meine revisiting this prairie, and the scene made it into the film. "It's not a likely place for someone interested in conservation to emerge from," Meine admits.
But Meine, now in his early 50s, has made a significant mark in conservation, environmental history and related fields. After undergraduate years at DePaul University, Meine headed to Madison, where he earned a master's and Ph.D. in land resources at the UW.
His doctoral dissertation, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1988, and rereleased in its first paperback edition last fall.
The paperback includes a foreword by legendary farmer/writer Wendell Berry and a new preface by Meine. At well over 500 pages - not counting footnotes - the Leopold biography is a weighty, thoroughly researched tome that is still the gold standard in terms of Leopold studies.
Meine, for his part, is modest about his book's reputation, while acknowledging it's had "an usually long shelf life."
Since it was first released, he says, "There's been a lot of refocus on different dimensions of [Leopold], but a full biography of the sort I did, for whatever reason, no one has come along to do another one. Either I did a good job, or no one has five years to spend doing it!"
Meine's role as a key chronicler and interpreter of Leopold's life and legacy has led him to a career woven from many strands. He's a Senior Leopold Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo; a research associate with the International Crane Foundation, also in Baraboo; and director for conservation biology and history at the Center for Humans and Nature, based largely in Chicago.
On top of these activities, Meine teaches, lectures and organizes. While his work keeps him on the road regularly, he also has an office in his home along the Wisconsin River, between Spring Green and Sauk City.
In his work and life, Meine - like Leopold before him - bridges the gap between history, theory and hands-on practice. It's no surprise, then, that Meine was tapped to be the onscreen narrator for the Green Fire documentary. (The film's title comes from a Leopold essay in which he ruefully recounts shooting a wolf and seeing the "green fire" die in its eyes.)
The film's creation involved more than 70 interviews, conducted in sites all around Wisconsin, Chicago and the northeast. Leopold's daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley, now 93, is the most prominent family member in the documentary. "She's a warm person and a wonderful communicator," says Meine.
The seeds for Green Fire were planted in 2005, the centennial of the U.S. Forest Service. At the time, the agency had made a film called The Greatest Good, in which Leopold's work played an important role. (Leopold earned a degree from the Yale Forest School in 1909.)
Crews for the film came to Madison to interview Meine, Bradley and UW environmental history professor Bill Cronon. After The Greatest Good was completed, talks ensued between the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Forest Service about another project.
Ultimately, the film became a co-venture of those two entities and the Center for Humans and Nature.
"We chose to do the most difficult thing," says Meine of the film's approach. "It would have been easy to do a straight historical biography, à la American Experience. And it would have been easy to do contemporary stories of the land ethic in practice, à la An Inconvenient Truth or Food, Inc. We said, 'Let's try to do both.'"
The production team decided the most logical way to blend these approaches would be through an onscreen guide - Meine himself. At first, Meine resisted the idea. "But in the Leopold world, resistance is futile," he jokes.
"In retrospect, you can see the logic of it," he says. "We're connecting the history of Leopold with how his ideas continue to shape preservation and environmental actions."
Examples range from city kids in Chicago learning about local foods and ecological restoration, to ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico who cooperate with their neighbors to preserve healthy landscapes.
Beyond its special screening this week, the film is scheduled to air on Wisconsin Public Television on Earth Day next year (April 22, 2012). The one-hour TV version will be pared down slightly from the 72-minute theatrical version. It will eventually appear on DVD as well.
"We hope to do a lot of extra features [on the DVD], because we had to leave out a wonderful body of work" in the other versions, says Meine. "A lot of the interviews wound up almost as oral histories. There's an amazing range of people in land-ethic-inspired work."
Meine followed up his seminal Leopold bio with, among other writings, the 2004 book Correction Lines, which offers a more personal response to his intellectual mentor's ideas. The book also traces the varying ways Leopold's ideas have been received, used and sometimes misinterpreted.
For Meine, one of the most important lessons we can learn from Leopold is that developing - and living out - a thoughtful relationship to the natural world is always a work in progress that requires many voices to be meaningful.
As Meine puts it, "My mantra in the last few years - and the most important sentence Leopold ever wrote - is, 'Nothing so important as an ethic is ever written; it evolves in the minds of a thinking community."
It's an approach that the conservationist has implemented in his own life. The executive director of Gathering Waters Conservancy, Mike Strigel, has known Meine for about 15 years, through work at both the International Crane Foundation and Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.
Strigel praises Meine's role as a thoughtful community builder: "'Conversation' is a word Curt uses quite a bit. It's at the heart of who he is. He sees the process of building a community, and those conversations, as absolutely critical to conservation. Curt is never one to pontificate, even given all his knowledge."
Sometimes, according to Strigel, Meine is asked to be a Leopold oracle - a role he rejects. "He often gets the question, 'What would Leopold have done?' His response is, 'I'm not going to speak for Leopold.' It forces us to define what that community is. That's the way he's kept Leopold alive."
And it's a very Leopold-ian gesture. "Leopold's not the last word; he himself says it," notes Meine. "It's up to all of us to participate in this cultural conversation that collectively constitutes an ethic."
Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time has its Madison premiere this weekend. Friday night's screening at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery is sold out, but another screening is at the Barrymore Theatre, 2090 Atwood Ave., on Sunday, March 6 at 7 pm. Tickets are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. View the film's trailer or buy tickets here.