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Rediscovering Aldo Leopold in Found Footage

Mon, 08/24/2015 - 1:57pm -- Stephen Laubach

Recently I was excited to discover rare video of Aldo Leopold at a fly fishing camp. At about the same time, the University of Wisconsin Press released my book on the history of the Leopold Memorial Reserve, Living a Land Ethic: A History of Cooperative Conservation on the Leopold Memorial ReserveReaders of Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac know this site well, as the home of the Leopold family’s famous shack. Living a Land Ethic traces the roots of an innovative yet little-known conservation agreement among five landowners. Signed in 1967, the reserve agreement put in writing a commitment among neighbors to continue ecological restoration and protect the shack area from development. The two principal stewards of the reserve were the Leopold and Coleman families, who later founded the Aldo Leopold and Sand County Foundations. The Aldo Leopold Foundation was formed by the five children of Aldo Leopold, while the Sand County Foundation was founded by Reed Coleman and his mother Catherine.

During the course of my research, I unexpectedly encountered four reels of film footage from the late 1920s taken by Reed Coleman’s father Tom that included the video footage of Aldo Leopold fly fishing and camping in northern Wisconsin. While a short, three-second portion of the Leopold footage was included in Green Firethe 2011 documentary of Aldo Leopold, few people I talked to were aware of the existence of entire reels of film. In the interest of preservation, the original reels were immediately donated by Sand County Foundation to the University of Wisconsin Archives, along with other reserve documents and artifacts. The film has now been copied to a high-resolution digital format. Interestingly, no audio recordings of Leopold have ever been located, though they are thought to exist somewhere in the thousands of hours of Wisconsin Public Radio reels in the UW Archives. Little time remains to examine this, however, as the recording material is degrading and may soon be lost forever.

Upon viewing the tape, I discovered that Tom Coleman mostly recorded family events such as Christmas or the July 4th holiday. It was also evident that he enjoyed filming wildlife and outdoor adventures with family and friends. Out of fifty minutes of film, I found three minutes that included Leopold. This segment also featured Leopold’s sons Starker and Luna, who looked to be in their early- to mid-teens. Upon further analysis of the surrounding landscape, Leopold biographer Dr. Curt Meine believes the footage to be from northern Wisconsin in the late 1920s, shortly after enormous quantities of white pine and other timber had been clear-cut from the Upper Great Lakes region. Meine subsequently reviewed Leopold’s diaries (available online courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation) and determined from the people present, their estimated ages, and the background landscape that it must have been a 1927 trip to the Lily River in the Nicolet National Forest northwest of Green Bay.

Coleman’s son Reed watched the film and identified the other person in this clip (visible in waders at minute two) as his father Tom. From conversations with Coleman and Meine, the sequence was determined to be of Tom Coleman packing in the driveway of the Coleman’s house in Madison (in foreground), then of Aldo Leopold fly fishing, followed by Leopold cooking flapjacks over a campfire. The final clip shows someone’s hand stuffing a creel with small trout and fern fronds.

Uncovering the only extended video footage of Aldo Leopold capped fifteen years of research to deepen my understanding of his broad legacy in conservation, ethics, and numerous related fields. Seeing Leopold triumphantly net a trout, cook up burned pancakes, and banter with his sons as they devoured their blackened breakfast allowed me to relate in new ways to a man I had come to revere. Beyond the mental imagery painted by his lyrical writing, the movements and facial expressions captured on film humanized Leopold and bridged the generations that separated us.   

Confirming the film's details led me to read Leopold’s corresponding diary entry (scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the original diary entry and a transcribed version). From the diary, I learned that the video was part of a four-day trip to the Lily, a tributary to the Wolf River. The Wolf is now famous for fly-fishing, whitewater rafting, and other recreational opportunities that its clear waters provide, which Steve Born makes a passionate case for protecting in his recent WOW blog post about flyfishing in Wisconsin. After a day fishing the Lily, Leopold, his brother Carl, and Tom Coleman decided to try another nearby river, concluding that “the big Lily is about the prettiest stream we have ever seen but contains only small fish.” Their new location yielded plenty of fish but not many more large ones, as the final trip tally was “47 trout, 7-11 inches, mostly 7-8.” The end of the video, with an unidentified person packing fish in a creel, confirms the small size of the fish.

For full literary effect, I recommend watching the video and then reading the diary entry alongside Aldo Leopold’s essay “The Alder Fork—A Fishing Idyl from “June” in Sand County Almanac. Readers of the Almanac will see how such diary entries played a role in him drafting an essay for his final masterpiece. It has been well documented by Curt Meine and others that Aldo wrote many drafts of his essays, allowing him to polish his writing of the same passages over a series of months and years. In this case, the overlap between the two experiences is clear. Leopold’s ode to the Lily River at the end of his diary entry bears a strong resemblance to “Alder Fork,” down to the distance driven (“two hundred miles of hot, dusty road,” according to the Almanac essay). Given the similarities between the two pieces, the Lily River trip must have been part of a rich suite of fly fishing adventures that together informed “Alder Fork.”

A version of this post originally appeared on the Trout Unlimited "Front Porch" Blog on October 29, 2014.

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Stephen Laubach ​is an outreach specialist for the UW-Madison Arboretum Earth Partnership program and a writing consultant on cooperative conservation projects​.

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