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A Blank Spot On The Map

We travel to New Mexico's Aldo Leopold Wilderness to understand the roots of the preservation movement and see just how far we've come.

The day before our trailside swim, FS trail 79 led us away from the parking lot at Emory Pass. It wound past a forest-green outhouse and along a dirt road skirting a helipad and fire fighting station. This part of the trail is hiked by tourists from the overlook and is littered with soda cans and cigarette butts. We stepped over a pile of spilled cheese curls. “Even the squirrels won’t eat those things,” Jim said.

Slowly, though, we left the roads, the refuse, and seemingly the rest of the world, behind. At a spot where we could no longer hear the highway, where the sunlight was pouring through the branches and the breeze was sweet with the vanilla scent of ponderosa pine, Jim stopped in the middle of the trail, closed his eyes, and smiled. “This smells like the West, right here.”

It is a smell, and a slant of light, that Aldo Leopold knew well. Even though he was born in Burlington, Iowa, and lived much of his later life in Wisconsin, the West was in his soul-the sharp scent of sage, the way the shadows seem almost purple on the cliffs at sunset, the unfenced distances. As soon as he graduated from the Yale School of Forestry in 1909, he headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a job with the U.S. Forest Service.

The Southwest was still the Wild West then and Leopold jumped into it with both spurs, outfitting himself with a 10-gallon hat, batwing chaps, even a revolver. But underneath the getup he remained a man of science, able to quote Shakespeare or recite the Latin name of a wildflower faster than he could draw a six-shooter. Leopold was no ivory tower scientist, though. Once he buried himself in swamp mud up to his eyeballs so he could watch a muskrat undetected. Another time a fleeing quail defecated on his face. His journal notes say he “could identify blackberry skins in the droppings.”

He made long, meticulous surveys of the wildest reaches of the district. It was magnificent country. Grizzlies and wolves still roamed the pine-shadowed peaks. There were massive stands of uncut timber, clouds of waterfowl. “Every living thing sang, chirped, and burgeoned,” he wrote. “Massive pines and firs…soaked up sun in towering dignity.”

But to a keen-eyed observer like Leopold it was obvious that he was witnessing the end of an era. Deep, gullied creeks spoke of erosion caused by overgrazing. Fences began to wrap the land in barbed wire. New roads, increased logging, more tourists were all eating into the wild country he knew in those early years.

He was, by his own words, “young and full of trigger itch,” but not so young or so trigger happy that he didn’t sense something slipping away.

He watched government trappers rid the mountains of grizzlies and wondered “who wrote the rules for progress.” He saw “the green fire die” in the eyes of a wolf he himself had shot and wondered what else was dying with that animal. “We are crushing the last remnants of something that ought to be preserved for the spiritual and physical welfare of future Americans,” he lamented. The land was losing its very wildness and no one, it seemed, was counting the cost.

We set up our tents in a lovely green meadow beneath the outline of Hillsboro Peak. We are moving rather slowly, stiff from our first day on the trail and from carrying 16 pounds of water apiece into this dry country. There is a breeze in the trees that sounds like running water.

“Do you think the environmental movement was inevitable?” I ask Jim while we are cooking.

“I think it was inevitable that humans realize that we can’t keep trashing the planet, that we have to reach some kind of workable, sustainable relationship with the natural world. Certain people understood that earlier than others and helped it along,” he says. Aldo Leopold was one of those.

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