Like many readers who gravitate towards books about this blue spinning ball we call home, I have a long and loving history with “A Sand County Almanac,” Aldo Leopold’s most famous work. I regularly recommend it to anyone who crosses my path, even the unsuspecting non-readers, because even if people don’t know him, they know him — his “land ethic” is buried deep in the zeitgeist of our cultural conversations about connectivity and moral responsibility for our planet.
What many don’t know is that his first home, which he shared with his new bride, Estella, is in Tres Piedras, New Mexico, right across Colorado’s border. “Mi Casita,” as the couple named this home, is a bungalow built in 1912 after Aldo was given $650 by his employer, the newly-created Forest Service, which had just been established in 1905 at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt. This bungalow, which served as his supervisor’s quarters, overlooks the Sangre de Cristo mountains in a remote area, the nearest big town being Taos, and the other nearby location being Colorado’s southern town of Antonito.
There’s a cool program in which authors who seek to continue his work can apply to live there for a month, and I was lucky enough to be chosen to attempt just that. Which felt like a stupendous honor: This is the place where his big ideas no doubt began roiling around. Leopold’s “land ethic” articulates the belief that all the elements of land — people, climate, water, soil, geology, wildlife — are integrated and connected, even in ways we cannot immediately see.
This is an idea we take for granted now, but was new at the time. He then went on to co-found The Wilderness Society and become one of the leading American conservationists of the 20th century. Sadly but not unusually, his fame came after his death.
Indeed, the story of his book is a heartbreaker: Leopold submitted “A Sand County Almanac” in 1947 and just one week after learning of its acceptance died of a heart attack while helping fight a neighbor’s grass fire. Sales of the book were very low until the ’70s, when a renewed interest in environmental issues made the book a bestseller.
His ideas stay with us, though, and during my visit there, I couldn’t help but wonder if the diversity of his ideas came from the diversity of place — not only is the landscape varied, but the cultural heritage of this area was influenced by Native, Hispanic, and Anglo-American ways of looking about the world, and part of his experience in this home undoubtedly helped him see conservation in a new way. It seems to me that his thinking was simply more complex and expansive than the cultural conversation of his time, which is why his ideas are relevant and necessary now.
Born in Burlington, Iowa, in January of 1887, he was an early graduate of the school of forestry at Yale. He got a master’s degree, passed a Civil Service exam, and was stationed on the newly-established Apache National Forest in Arizona, then went to Albuquerque, then to New Mexico. In 1912, a year after he was assigned, New Mexico became a state. At the young age of 25, he was acting forest supervisor and was paid $1,400 a year. “The Pine Cone,” a sometimes-monthly publication, stated his mission: “A square deal for everybody, special favors to none”— a tagline I just love. Here, he wrote and worked hard to get rid of the overgrazing, erosion, and lack of game of the area. In fact, this Carson River watershed was one of the most heavily grazed in the country.
While staying in his house, I delighted in learning such facts about him, but I was also delighted by the landscape that surely delighted them. The gorgeous golden aspens, the huge cottonwood outside glimmering yellow, the sky burning that famous Taos-blue, an expanse so big that I often thought of his famous quote, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.”
My stay also happened to coincide with the couple’s anniversary in 1912, and so I walked outside and toasted the enormous, very dark night sky — a huge band of Milky Way and a few shooting stars. It was here, after all, that they began their journey. It seems to me it was one of those rare true-companion-type relationships, and his dedicating “A Sand County Almanac” to Estella is just one of the many indications that their sum was aided by each part.
According to every account I read, it was Estella who inspired him in his work, his ambitions, his thought, and she would for 36 years. Their wedding photo hangs inside in a bedroom, she in a white dress, dark hair, holding a bouquet that looks like white stars, and I thought often of her coming here, so young, unable to cook or shoot, though she quickly learned both.
Now, Tres Piedras has one post office, one restaurant with good green chili, and one Forest Service station. I explored local places like the Ojo Caliente Hot Springs, the Taos Pueblo, the art museums of Taos, the Ghost Ranch of Georgia O’Keefe fame. I hiked among ponderosas, wandered through sage. But mainly, I was there to write environmental works, hoping to continue his thoughts, to highlight the relevance of Aldo and Estella’s ideas in our times.
“Our tools are better than we are . . . but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it,” he wrote in “Engineering and Conservation” in 1938. What a simple and pure and true sentiment: To live on a piece of land without spoiling it. Including our remarkably special blue spinning ball.
Laura Pritchett writes a monthly column about loving Colorado and issues in the West. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. Her novels, including two forthcoming ones, are all set in contemporary Colorado. More at www.laurapritchett.com.
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