The River of the Mother of God: and Other Essays is a collection of Aldo Leopold’s least known writings. Many of these were previously published in periodicals or were presented as lectures. There are even a few book reviews included. However, a great deal of the essays were found after Leopold’s death in 1948 and came to light only in this collection.
Aldo Leopold is best known for A Sand County Almanac, but he was a prolific writer with hundreds of individual pieces. With The River of the Mother of God: and Other Essays we see Leopold’s progression of thought. We also see how his writing improves. He changes from being pro-predatory control to wanting to manage habitats for predators. He also understands the importance of hunters, the necessity of government involvement in conservation, and the need for environmental-friendly agriculture. He provides blueprints for differing groups of people to work together in the best interest of the land and all its inhabitants.
Starting with a short essay mostly likely written in 1904 when Aldo was seventeen, this collection goes chronologically to a 1947 essay titled “The Ecological Conscience”. Many of these were pieces that would be at least partially incorporated in A Sand County Almanac. Others stand out simply as gems of conservation-based ideas.
“Helping Others” (1934) chronicles Leopold’s efforts with various farmers and hunters to create a pheasant habitat they can hunt. This co-op merged together several individual landowners property, with costs shared to maintain suitable habitat for wild and raised pheasants. Leopold stating that the “…first theorem of social justice: The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
Other essays center around declining species. In “Threatened Species” (1936) we see Leopold’s concern for keystone predators along with threatened (he never seems to use the term “endangered”) species. He promotes his desire for the many conservation and environmental-minded organizations to work together to protect species. He specifically points out the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker and that action must be taken immediately or they are doomed.
Aldo Leopold spent time in the American Southwest but I like to claim him as a Wisconsinite. The Leopold Center is located in Baraboo, Wisconsin and many of the essays center around his work in Wisconsin. These include not only his farm, but his teaching and work with the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. One particular essay is about a “wildflower digger”, a vandal that stole the last yellow ladyslipper from the Arboretum. Leopold doesn’t hold back is disgust to this degenerate.
Many of Leopold’s essays are timeless. But some included in this collection were timely and specific to a place. In “The Last Stand” (1942), Aldo uses is art of persuasion to convince Michiganders to protect an area of old-growth hardwoods in the Porcupine Mountains in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The forest was threatened by wartime cutting and ended up being protected as a state park.
The River of the Mother of God
Leopold has essays about conservation in Mexico as well as South America. The collection’s title, The River of the Mother of God, is based on a river in the Amazonian forest, “a river without beginning and without end”. This essay was rejected by The Yale Review and went unprinted until this publication. Leopold discusses the need for wilderness for wilderness’s sake. It is noble and rings true today. And while I largely agree with his words, it reminds me of many of today’s “adventure environmentalists” (my term, not Leopold’s).
These explorers complain that wild places are being over-visited or at risk of being visited to death by “the masses”. They write beautiful prose and publish astonishing images of places that require great effort and time to visit. These elite environmentalists use expensive equipment and have the luxury of travel time that many can not afford. Then they want to slam the door shut on anyone else that would dare to see it in person.
Leopold doesn’t make this claim, but in many ways he lays the foundation, 100 years ago, for these current adventurers. We can do more harm by worrying that wild places will become too popular. Instead, we should encourage ethical exploration that is more likely to inspire adventurers to want to bring some of that wildness home, to places nearer and likely dearer to them.
That said, National Parks where people drive around from vista to vista in air conditioned vehicles is also not the way to see the natural world. In this regard I am on team Edward Abbey. You need to walk or ride a horse into the wild. You need to get your feet dirty and get down on the ground to actually “see” wilderness.
On the whole, this collection is not as good as A Sand County Almanac. But it scores a lot of points for the variety of ideas and the progression of those ideas. There are some definite gems sprinkled throughout and anyone already familiar with the Almanac will greatly appreciate reading these.
I happened to read this collection while re-reading A Sand County Almanac and it was of great interest to see some of the pieces in The River of the Mother of God: and Other Essays that helped form the former.