Like many readers drawn to books about that 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-reader, because even if people don’t know them, they do knows 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, was in Tres Piedras, New Mexico, just across the Colorado border. “Mi Casita,” as the couple called this home, is a bungalow built in 1912 after Aldo received $650 from his employer, the newly formed Forest Service, which had just been formed in 1905 at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt . This bungalow, which served as his superior’s quarters, overlooks the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in a remote location, with the nearest major town being Taos and the other nearby location being Colorado’s southern town of Antonito.
There is a cool program where writers who want to continue their work can apply for a month and I was lucky enough to be chosen to try just that. What felt like a tremendous honor: This is the Place where his big ideas no doubt started to swirl around. Leopold’s “country ethics” articulates this belief Everyone the elements are land – people, climate, water, soil, geology, wildlife integrated and connected, even in ways we can’t immediately see.
It’s an idea we take for granted today, but was new at the time. He subsequently co-founded the Wilderness Society and became one of the leading American conservationists of the 20th centuryth Century. Unfortunately, but not uncommonly, his fame came after his death.
In fact, his book’s story is a heartbreaker: Leopold submitted “A Sand County Almanac” in 1947 and died of a heart attack just a week after learning of his acceptance while helping fight a neighbor’s weed fire. Sales of the book were very low until the 1970s, when a renewed interest in environmental issues made the book a bestseller.
However, his ideas stay with us and during my visit there I couldn’t help but wonder if the diversity of his ideas stems from the diversity of the places – not only is the landscape varied, but the cultural heritage of this area has been influenced by Indigenous, Hispanic, and Anglo-American ways of looking at the world, and some of his experience in this home has undoubtedly helped him see conservation from a new perspective. It seems to me that his thinking was simply more complex and inclusive than the cultural conversation of his time, which is why his ideas are relevant and necessary now.
Born in Burlington, Iowa, in January 1887, he was an early graduate of the Yale School of Forestry. He earned a master’s degree, passed a civil service exam, and was stationed in the newly formed Apache National Forest in Arizona, then went to Albuquerque, and then to New Mexico. In 1912, a year after its grant, New Mexico became a state. At the young age of 25, he was an assistant forest ranger and was paid an annual salary of $1,400. The Pine Cone, a sometimes monthly publication, explained its mission: “A fair deal for all, special favors for no one” – a slogan I just love. Here he wrote and worked hard to get rid of the overgrazing, erosion and lack of wildlife in the area. In fact, this Carson River watershed was one of the most heavily grazed in the country.
Staying at his home, I was delighted to learn such facts about him, but I was also amazed by the scenery, which I am sure enchanted them. The magnificent golden aspens, the huge cottonwood tree outside shimmering yellow, the sky burning that famous Taos blue, an expanse so vast that I often thought of his famous quote: “There are some who are without wild things can live, and some that cannot.”
My stay also happened to coincide with the couple’s anniversary in 1912, so I went outside and toasted the huge, very dark night sky – a huge band of the Milky Way and a few shooting stars. After all, this is where they started their journey. It seems to me that it was one of those rare true companion-type relationships, and his dedication of “A Sand County Almanac” to Estella is just one of the many indications that her sum was supported by every part.
From every account I have read, it was Estella who inspired him in his work, his ambitions, his thinking, and she would do so for 36 years. Her wedding picture hangs indoors in a bedroom, she is wearing a white dress, dark hair, holding a bouquet that looks like white stars and I have often thought of her, how she came here, so young, unable to cook or take pictures, although she learned both quickly.
Now Tres Piedras has a post office, a restaurant with good green chili and a forest service. I explored local spots like the Ojo Caliente Hot Springs, the Taos Pueblo, the Taos Art Museums, and Georgia O’Keefe’s famous Ghost Ranch. I wandered among ponderosas, wandered through sage. But mostly I was there to write environmental works, hoping to continue his thoughts and highlight the relevance of Aldo and Estella’s ideas in our time.
“Our tools are better than we . . . but they are not sufficient 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 feeling: living off a piece of land without spoiling it. Including our remarkably special blue spin ball.
Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and a winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, WILLA Award, Milkweed National Fiction Prize, High Plains Book Award and multiple Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More at www.laurapritchett.com.