Friday, June 3, 2011

Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time – A Visual Journey about the Connection of past and present environmental movements

On Thursday June 2, 2011, the Spertus Institute, The Center for Humans and Nature and the City of Chicago Department of the Environmental held two free premiere screenings of the eco-documentary film “Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time.”

Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 – April 21, 1948) was an American author, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and environmentalist. He is best known for his non-fiction work entitled “A Sand County Almanac” (1949). This ecological best seller helped inspire and grow the modern environmental and conservation movements of the present day. This film is a visual tribute to his life’s journey, his work and the connection to his legacy of nature ethics that can be seen here in Chicago today.

Forestry was part of Leopold’s early life as was hunting and other outdoor activities taught to him by his father. Leopold spent hours documenting local birds near his home where he keenly developed naturalist observational skills. After his college studies at Yale, part of Leopold’s early work was working for the US Forest Service in wildlife management that involved controlling populations of bears, wolves, and mountain lions in New Mexico to help local ranchers control livestock losses from these predators. At the beginning, he viewed the control of these populations as necessary as hunting was a familiar part of his childhood.


It was during this time back in the 1930s that he began to see things in a different light. A new type respect for nature and its inhabitants grew and, he started to realize the importance of predators in the balance of nature. This balance, he stated, lies in the conservation of the wilderness not in the dominance of it by humans that he once thought was correct.

So what exactly changed Leopold’s view of the wilderness? This turn of the mind can be best seen in a passage in his book “A Sand County Almanac” which describes an incident of Leopold’s own doing, the shooting of a wolf in New Mexico.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

This passage also explains the name of the film “Green Fire” as the fire in question was the look of death in the wolves’ eyes. This was moment that altered Leopold’s thinking towards the wilderness. The look of “Green Fire” shaped an idea that can be in conservation efforts today. In the film, viewers are challenged to look at their own relationships with the land, environment and the other living creatures that we humans share this space with. It invokes a question: How can humans live in harmony with the land in the ecologically troubled 21st century? The film goes on to document several local Chicago organizations and group who are trying to answer this question, influenced by Leopold’s thinking.


One of these is the Eden Place Nature Center in Chicago’s Fuller Park Neighborhood. Eden Place is an environmental education center whose purpose is to educate the local communities on urban ecology. Eden Place now flourishes with native landscaping, vegetable garden, monarch butterfly sanctuary and resident ducks and chickens in a former illegal dumpsite which tested for the highest level of lead poisoning in the city of Chicago.

Featured in the film, one of the things the staff of Eden Place focuses on teaching children the connection of the food they eat with the land. When the children are asked, “Where does this egg come from?” They answered, “It comes from the Jewel,” which is a Chicago chain supermarket. In response, the staff asks “But where does the Jewel get the egg from?” Here the children confused: Where does the Jewel get that egg from? It has to come from somewhere, right? This is where Eden Place fulfills its mission: with resident chickens, that the public can interact with, the children learn where that egg really comes from. It is the purpose of the local urban ecology movement and evidence of Leopold’s vision to connect people with the land. This is especially important in our modern day society where many people live their whole lives in cities that offer almost no exposure to nature.

The Chicago Wilderness Alliance leans on Leopold’s teachings for inspiration in finding new solutions to today’s conservation challenges and connecting people with nature. It’s “Leave No Child Inside” program is another good example of local efforts made to ensure that children today who are growing up in a world where they are mostly disconnected from nature are given the opportunity to connect with local nature.

The Might Acorns is another program of The Chicago Wilderness Alliance is also seen in the film. The Might Acorns are yet another action to connect Chicago’s urban dwelling kids with nature through a one-of-a-kind, hands-on experience where they can participate in restoration projects and learn the concepts with a school-based ecology curriculum.

These examples show evidence of “Green Fire.” When we confront the death of our environment, we recognize the need for change. Connecting ourselves to the land and understanding our fragile ecosystem is a necessity for change and once that understanding is reached - may a “Green Fire” be started in all of us.

Green Fire film:

Eden Place Nature Center:

Chicago Wilderness:

The Aldo Leopold Foundation:

The Mighty Acorns: