The Nature of the Imagination: Background

by Carl Strang

On Tuesday evening I played the role of Aldo Leopold for the second and last time. A year ago I was asked by Wendy Tresouthick, the educator at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie (a Forest Service site) to present a talk, a first-person interpretive presentation in which I would portray Leopold, who most readers of this blog know as one of the most important figures in North American conservation history. I was to develop a new talk that Leopold might present today. I gave that talk at Midewin in March, and then again at Mayslake Forest Preserve on Tuesday.

Me as Aldo at Mayslake

This was a big challenge, but it didn’t take long for me to decide to take it on. I had come out of the Leopold tradition, my Ph.D. in wildlife ecology earned under the supervision of Charles M. Kirkpatrick, who had been a teaching assistant for Leopold at the University of Wisconsin while pursuing his own Ph.D. in zoology. I had done my field work in Alaska on a national wildlife refuge, again steeped in traditions established by Aldo Leopold. I soon discovered that I was the same age as Leopold when he died prematurely at age 61. When I gave the talk this week I was only 3 months older than Leopold at his death.

I re-read a couple of biographies, picked up a new one, and read a good portion of Leopold’s writing. As I went, I kept open to ideas for the talk, focusing on common themes in Aldo’s thinking and mine (of course, there is the possibility of circularity: to what degree was “my” thinking shaped by Aldo Leopold?). The talk that emerged is titled “The Nature of the Imagination.” It includes perhaps 5% Leopold quotes which I hope fit more or less in flow with my writing, and the bulk of the points are suggested directly by Leopold’s writing, so I think the presentation was fair enough to him. I plan to post the script here next week, so you’ll have a chance to decide for yourself. I introduced the talk with comments tied to the local site, paraphrased from the following (Mayslake version; the convention here and in the talk itself is to use quotation marks to indicate direct quotes from Leopold’s writings):

I want to thank the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County for inviting me to speak to you. I spent a little time in this county while doing my game survey of the north-central states 17 years ago in 1929, but I didn’t spend much time here, so I was glad of the opportunity to make some amends for that gap.

Coming to this site is a respite for me. It’s a relief to step away from the deer controversy in Wisconsin for a brief time.  Your Illinois whitetail deer still are recovering from their extirpation generally, though I have seen one herd near Rockford that is doing well, to the point where it needs to be controlled. In Wisconsin the story is different. Our forests all across northern Wisconsin, especially, are threatened by what is already an overabundance of deer. The real challenge of wildlife management is people management, in this case helping people to see there can be too many deer. It’s politics, and it’s conflict I would as soon do without. I’ve been called unpleasant names, and made a convenient target by those who haven’t been paying attention to certain realities – more on that later. So, it feels good to escape that for a day and visit you in Illinois.

Today I saw your preserve here at Mayslake, and saw the wonderful restoration work being done by Conrad, and Jacqui, and Bill, and the other volunteers who are rebuilding this place’s prairie, wetlands and woods. I learned that you use fire in your management plan. I once thought fire was the greatest enemy of grasslands and forests, but experience has shown the error of that kind of thinking, at least in some instances. “In [the Southwest, and I suspect here as well], the climax type is and always has been woodland. The thick grass and thin brush of pre-settlement days [in Arizona] represented a temporary type. The substitution of grazing for fire brought on a transition of thin grass and thick brush. This transition type [reverted] to the climax type – woodland.” In Madison our experiments at the arboretum we have created to represent primeval Wisconsin are supporting the value of fire in prairie health. Clearly you are getting good results with fire here, and I will report them back to our committee. Well, so much for preliminaries. Now I’ll get into my talk, which I have titled “The Nature of the Imagination.”

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2 Comments

  1. Beth Johnson said,

    October 12, 2012 at 8:15 am

    How interesting. I would have loved to hear Aldo Leopold in person. I read the book “The Sand County Almanac” this summer and also saw the documentary “Green Fire”. Very intersting and significant man who really made a difference.

  2. October 15, 2012 at 5:57 am

    […] is the script for the talk I gave as Aldo Leopold at Mayslake Forest Preserve last week. As in the introduction, quotation marks indicate direct quotes from Leopold’s […]


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