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June/July 1978

Elder of the Tribe: Aldo Leopold

How the last green glint in a dying wolf's eyes changed a man--and ultimately changed our country.
Aldo Leopold"Aldo Leopold" from the July/July 1978 issue.

Sometimes it is possible to identify intellectual turning points in individual lives. Occasionally these pivots have far-reaching import for history as well. One of the great moments in the evolution of American thinking about man-land relationships occurred by a river in the White Mountain region of a territory shortly to be established as the state of Arizon. The years of 1909 or 1910. Aldo Leopold sat eating his lunch on rimrock several hundred feet above the river. Suddenly, an animal appeared, fording the stream. At first Leopold and his companions mistook it for a doe. But when it emerged from the water and shook the water from a three-foot tail, they saw with a start that it was a huge wolf.

Leopold knew little about the wild wolves. His boyhood experiences included hunting ducks and geese on the Mississippi flyway in Iowa. Then was off to the elite Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and then Yale. In June, 1909, Leopold received a master’s degree in forestry and accepted an appointment in the recently organized U.S. Forest Service. His first assignment took him to the White Mountain and the rendezvous with the wolf.

Given the time and place, the reaction of the men on the rimrock was instinctive. “In those days,” Leopold recalled later, “we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf.” Scrambling for their rifles, the group began pumping lead down the hill. The wolf fell while some pups, which had joyously greeted its emergence from the river, ducked for cover among the rocks.

The party reached the female wolf just before she died. The greenhorn forester and his friends watched “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” Leopold recognized at once “that there was something new to me in those eyes.” He felt a pang of regret–probably one of the first for the death of a wolf in America. When he turned away from the riddled carcass, he sensed that something superbly alive and fundamentally important to the ecosystem had been unwisely removed from the natural order of things on the Arizona mountain.

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