FILM REVIEW – Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and A Land Ethic for Our Time, Reviewed by Matthew Pamental

Directed by Steven Dunsky, edited by Ann Dunsky (DVD, 2011, 73 min.)

Green Fire is the first full-length biographical documentary on Aldo Leopold.  Given Leopold’s status, this in itself makes the film of significant interest for scholars and activists alike.  However, the movie’s worth is not just in its being the first, but in its execution.  As the title suggests, the movie documents Leopold’s life and work.  But it also emphasizes the importance of his land ethic for our own time, illustrating a range of current conservation and educational efforts inspired by Leopold’s work—from ranchers in the Southwest citing his work in developing ecosystem management practices to urban Chicago groups teaching inner city children that food doesn’t come from the grocery store.  Visually beautiful and liberally sprinkled with pertinent quotations from Leopold’s writings read by Peter Coyote whose voice adds to the gravitas of Leopold’s words, the movie shifts between still photos taken during Leopold’s lifetime and discussions and interviews with a wide array of individuals, continuously interweaving Leopold’s family life, discussion of his intellectual work, and stories of his conservation work and its contemporary significance.

The viewer is led, through the on-screen guidance of noted Leopold biographer Curt Meine, through the history of Leopold’s life and family, from his early exposure to both the beauty and devastation of nature along the banks of the Iowa River at his childhood home in Burlington, Iowa to his death in 1948 fighting a fire on a neighbor’s property near “the Shack”—the Leopold family’s weekend getaway in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Bracketing the arc of Leopold’s life, both in the movie and in reality, is the story of the evolution of the land ethic, which on Leopold’s view, dates to his killing of a female wolf during his first weeks working for the US Forestry Service in the Apache National Forest in Arizona in 1909.  Leopold describes the incident, dubbed the “green fire incident” in the movie, more than 35 years later in his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” and the incident serves to anchor the development of Leopold’s views, periodically re-appearing throughout the movie as changes in his views come to light, culminating with the hopeful story of the reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves in the Apache National Forest, the very region in which the green fire incident took place.

Following a general introduction, the film is divided into nine chapters, each covering a specific period in Leopold’s life: his childhood in Burlington, his time in the Southwest, his marriage to Estella Bergere and early family life, his move back to the Midwest to take up a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his work on soil conservation in Coon Valley, Wisconsin, his purchase of the Shack and its significance, Leopold’s experiments in restoring the property around the Shack, the development of his land ethic, and his death and legacy.  A variety of notable individuals, including author and poet N. Scott Momaday, activists Dave Foreman and Bill McKibben, and current NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenko, as well as numerous biologists, ecologists, and wildlife conservationists, give brief comments on Leopold’s significance.  Leopold’s children—Nina Leopold Bradley, Estella Leopold, Jr., and the late Carl Leopold, as well as great-grandson Jed Meunier—provide commentary on, among other things, Leopold’s marriage and family life, the significance of the Shack where he and his family experimented with various ecological restoration practices, and the importance of continuing his work.  Several rural and urban conservationists, as disparate as a cattle rancher from Arizona and an urban ecologist from Chicago, give interviews on the significance of Leopold’s ideas for their own practices, which are featured in the film.

Throughout, the film documents the evolution of Leopold’s thinking, as his work led him to make contributions to fields of game management, forestry, ecosystems management, and watershed conservation, among others.  From the green fire incident to the Coon Valley conservation effort, the return of the sandhill cranes, and Wisconsin’s Sand County as witnessed by Leopold scholar Susan Flader, the film captures the poignancy and hopefulness of Leopold’s story.  Engaging and often deeply moving, Green Fire is a fitting tribute to Leopold’s life and work.

Although the professed purpose of the film is to bring Leopold’s ideas to a general audience and to spur environmental activism, it would be a valuable resource for a wide variety of undergraduate courses including environmental ethics and environmental philosophy, as it deals with not just the tenets of Leopold’s land ethic, but also his thoughts about the nature of value, the meaning of wilderness, and the notion of land as an organism.  For its discussion of the evolution of Leopold’s ideas on conservation, ecosystem management, and so on, the film would also be appropriate for introductory courses in, e.g., ecology, soil conservation, wildlife management/conservation, and urban ecology/ecological restoration.

Matthew Pamental
Department of Philosophy
University of Tennessee-Knoxville