Author Profiles 2008:

SETTING THE STAGE by Frank Gregorsky

Aldo Leopold was one of the great 20th-century ecologists. He is the subject of Julianne Lutz Newton's 2006 book Aldo Leopold's Odyssey. And this Q&A also covers her own "odyssey" as a researcher and first-time author. The manuscript began as a PhD thesis, but is much easier to read. In the Preface, Newton explains that Aldo Leopold's "concept of land health [is] such a rich and integrated one" and that by "land" he meant "not only fields and forests but the whole of nature." (For those who are interested strictly in Leopold's thought, try this sidebar, which I assembled along with Newton to give examples of what is meant by Land Health.)

As for telling a life story, Newton writes: "No person can ever know fully the mind of another. It can indeed be a fearful thing to try. Fearful, in my case, because I wanted to give as complete and honest a picture of Leopold and his thinking and experiences as possible." She drew on "a wealth of archival materials, on his vast opus of published and unpublished writings, on interviews, and on the critical work of others." Luckily for us, Leopold wrote clearly, and so does Newton. Luckily for her, a well-done biography of Leopold was already out there (see below). That allowed her to focus on her subject's conceptual journey and career, not his whole life as such. In fact, you can get superbly informed and enlightened about Aldo Leopold by reading Newton's 2006 book on his thinking, in tandem with that 1988 biography.

Curt Meine, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 638 pages -- ISBN 0-299-11490-2

Julianne Lutz Newton, Aldo Leopold's Odyssey (Washington DC: Shearwater Books, 2006), 483 pages -- ISBN 1-59726-045-2

Julianne Lutz Newton, now Warren, has written for Conservation Biology, The Illinois Steward, Journal of Civil Society, and American Midland Naturalist. As of July 2009, she is on the New York University faculty teaching environmental studies as part of the Liberal Studies Program (in the College of Arts and Sciences). Julianne has no website, and has used this Profile as the next best thing. You can still e-mail her via jwarren@illinoisalumni.org or send conventional mail c/o Liberal Studies Program; New York University; 726 Broadway, 6th Floor; New York, NY 10003. Unlike most Author Profiles, this Q&A took place on the phone; and, to use the time efficiently, I e-mailed most of the questions in advance. (During the call, of course, they were drastically condensed.) When you see a blue-ink Q below, it's the whole question as e-mailed, followed in standard type by what took place on the phone. Also, the order of topics has been totally reworked -- in order to separate the two themes (author's subject, versus author's mechanics).

We start with Leopold himself. And, if you are new to the man, I recommend a review of this web display:


PART ONE: Always Thinking, Always Interacting with Real Life

FRANK GREGORSKY (as e-mailed): Biographer Curt Meine said this of Leopold: "The penchant for acting as peacemaker in conservation quarrels seems...to have emerged from within. The external conflicts between aesthetes and utilitarians, sportsmen and preservationists, academics and outdoorsmen, managers and observers, were personal matters for Leopold, for the factions reflected in many ways his own internal composition. He was all of those." That passage blows me away. Carl Jung wrote about "the tension of the opposites," and someone else said that the deeply sane man can entertain chronically opposing concepts in his head. Not that Leopold "enjoyed" schisms or nasty tradeoffs, of course, but -- please talk some about his ability to avoid either/or-ness, and draw on the Meine quote if appropriate.

JULIANNE LUTZ NEWTON: I loved that passage, too. One of the phrases Leopold used came from the pragmatists --

GREGORSKY: Led by William James.

NEWTON: Yeah, and along those lines -- Leopold read some of the work of former Yale President Arthur Twining Hadley. Leopold picked up the phrase "paradox is a sign of truth." Novelist Milan Kundera calls it "the wisdom of uncertainty." It's the idea that when you're thinking about a thing, or considering a matter, you kind of walk around it; take a look from many perspectives; and somehow, when you bring those together, you've got a more accurate perception of something than you would get by standing in one place.

GREGORSKY: Yet Leopold loved to make declarative statements.

NEWTON: Yeah. Maybe even more he raised fundamental questions -- he did a lot of this [type of walk-around]. Not that he was always right. But that was the mental process he tended to go through. And when he would come out with something declarative, it was more balanced than if he hadn't gone through that process.

GREGORSKY: Um-hmm, um-hmm. It was probably better that he had the jobs he had -- the Forest Service, the academic niche. If he were [advocating ecological actions] today -- say, if he had a talk show, and ground out a book every two years -- I think people would not cut him slack for the "yin and yang" approach that you describe.

NEWTON: Yeah – and I don't know if they did back then, either. I don't think his interactions with people were always very easy, or that his [professional] life was easy. Anybody who goes through that kind of [multiple-perspective] consideration of difficult issues isn't living an easy life [laughs].

GREGORSKY: Curt Meine also writes: "He was not a scholar on social or economic issues, but neither was he an ideologue." Would you say Leopold was "in love with ideas yet allergic to ideology"? Or is that whole continuum of words -- including "paradigm" and "conceptual framework" -- simply wrong for a guy that, as one friend said, put together each new landscape image piece by piece? He doesn't strike me as someone whose head is in the cloud thinking of pure concepts.

NEWTON: He wasn't that at all. He was always "back and forth" -- between ideas and practical experiences -- and he was always concerned about "grounding" things in real places. When Ding Darling wrote him -- I think it was when Darling was in charge of the U.S. Biological Survey – he proposed a manual of principles that would help landowners move towards good land use. Leopold's response was, "Well you know, it's probably not possible. If you're gonna write up something like that, it needs to be at the state or some smaller level."

Certainly there were principles – his principles of land health seemed pretty generalizable, which was part of their beauty. But all of them had to be applied in particular places, and those places were unique. So there was that back and forth all the time in his thinking.

GREGORSKY: Would you say that, to the extent he was an advocate or perhaps a crusader, he wanted to enlist people sort of at the macro level – in terms of perception and [long-term] commitment – but he didn't want to hand out "10 things to do that'll work most of the time"?

NEWTON: When he had the game cooperatives, they came up with certain rules for that. But there was a spirit of fun [laughter] -- it wasn't just about the list of things they were doing.

GREGORSKY: And is it your sense that he made most of his mental leaps while outside doing, as opposed to inside brooding?

NEWTON: That's a good [way to sketch it]. He probably came up with ideas in many different places. I hope I'm not making this up, but – somewhere I think I read in a letter that he would go to a movie, and have great ideas when his brain relaxed watching that movie [laughter]. He was always thinking, and [the key] was this interaction with real life.

GREGORSKY: And his wife Estella was separate from that entire realm?

NEWTON: [Pause] Let's see – from what I understand, she was very supportive. And when he died [in 1948 at age 61], she kept supporting his legacy in important ways. It wasn't like she had gone to the shack [see box below] just out of duty. She seemed to have joy [in the tree-planting and farm-type experiments]. But I don't know how much conversation they had about ideas. My impression is that he would talk to whomever he was interacting with [on whatever their passion or specialty was], and he would come to his quiet period and the process of writing. The ideas would be refined and "pounded out." When you see the drafts, he worked very hard at thinking things through.

GREGORSKY: Most of the drafts were in longhand?

NEWTON: Many were. And then he had a secretary to type some things.

The "shack" was on a bedraggled chunk of land Leopold purchased in 1935. Frank Graham Jr., reviewing Newton's book for Audobon magazine, contributes this imagery:

Memory takes me back a quarter of a century to the night I slept in Aldo Leopold's "shack." The structure was an old wooden-sided chicken coop really, reared close to a marsh in Baraboo, Wisconsin, rebuilt first as a hunting camp and later as a retreat for his family... Accompanied by several ornithologists and some of Leopold's family members, I was there to take part early the next morning in the annual Baraboo crane count. I like to think I experienced the same sights and sounds at that shack that had surrounded Leopold...during the years before his death in 1948. I listened to the animated talk around me. His daughter Nina spread an informal supper on benches among the mature white pines that Leopold himself had planted. Someone plucked a guitar. I was a stranger there, though I couldn't help but sense Leopold's spirit among us. Then, just before supper, we heard the soul-piercing unison cries of a pair of courting cranes in the marsh, a call Leopold had described as "the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution." 

GREGORSKY: Lot of times in these interviews, on either the writer or their subject, I come up with six or eight terms and ask: Was she this, or was she not this? But Leopold is so interesting – I'm starting to think of him as a "continuum" sort of guy. He is moving between extremes and often transcending them by "lifting up" --


GREGORSKY: -- and saying, "Well, neither of you guys have quite got it; try seeing it from up here." So rather than try to apply single descriptives to this man Leopold, I'll offer you a "set of pairs" – four pairs. You don't have to be numerical and say he's "six on a scale of 10," but see where you would place him between [each of these] two poles.


GREGORSKY: First one – CONSERVATION versus PRESERVATION. The former being [resources for sustained] human use, the latter being "keep almost all the people out."

NEWTON: Hmmmm – right, he's in the middle [laughter]. Working with the U.S. Forest Service, he was Conservation – concerned with the management of resources. But he was also one of the first writers on the importance of wilderness areas. Later on, standing up on that mountain, looking at the whole landscape, he knew: We need both.


NEWTON: Ummm – again, in the middle. One of my favorite Leopold statements was made to his friend Bill Vogt -- "that the situation is hopeless should not prevent us from doing our best" [laughter]. I love that. He would hold on to both: Be realistic, but let's keep working because there is always hope; let's keep imagining a positive vision for the world, the kind of world we want to live in.

GREGORSKY: Next – and it's the most extreme one here – VISIONARY versus MECHANIC. I can see a nuts-and-bolts, practical "tinkerer" at times, and a blue-sky "vast vista" man [in other situations].

NEWTON: Again, sort of in the middle. A couple of times, he said: "I'm not a Utopianist." But he was a practical "utopianist" -- in the sense that "maybe this isn't something we'll ever actually get to, but it's certainly worth envisioning and working for."

GREGORSKY: As an example of that – how about the way he tried to change the entire American culture of hunting!?! Talk about idealism.

NEWTON: Yes. But at the same time, he loved to do things with his hands, to work at making bows and arrows, and to talk to farmers who were repairing their tractors. He understood and appreciated the [common activities of outdoor life]. You can see it, again, in how he tried to bring the game cooperatives together; or in how he experimented with land regeneration at the Shack.

GREGORSKY: Fourth set of opposites – are you familiar with the Myers-Briggs "type indicator"?

NEWTON: Uh-huh.

GREGORSKY: This one comes from that. Where was Aldo Leopold in terms of INTUITOR versus SENSOR?


GREGORSKY: A sensor is in the moment, in the experience, in the tactile appreciation of things --


GREGORSKY: -- and then larger thoughts or some kind of framework come later. Whereas the intuitor, as Carl Jung wrote the book in 1923, is "struck" by concepts that seem to come out of nowhere.

NEWTON: Right. There was a dialectic going on. Leopold was both. Of course, no one really knows, but it seems like he "sensed" all these things and they'd become input into his "intuitive" organ, you know? And then [the newer ideas] would shape the things he observed. There'd be this back and forth.

GREGORSKY: Are there any other polarities or continuums that I missed and you have relied on to come to understand this man?

NEWTON: I don't know. Those were fun ones – very perceptive and good.

GREGORSKY: And you are telling me that he's almost in the middle of all of them.

NEWTON: Yes. That would be my call [laughter].

To see merely what a range is, or has, is to see nothing. To see why it is, how it became, and the direction and velocity of its changes – that is the great drama of the land. The stumps in a woodlot, the species age and form of fencerow trees, the plow-furrows in a reverted field, the location and age of an old orchard, the height of the bank of an irrigation ditch, the age of the trees or bushes in a gully, the fire scars on a saw log – these and a thousand other roadside objects spell out words of history of the recent past and the trend of the immediate future.

-- Aldo Leopold, Game Management (1933), page 388

GREGORSKY (from the e-mail): The framework and values of "land health" dominate Chapter 11 of your book. I can't find the page number, but probably from that chapter I wrote down Aldo's five elements: Soil, Water, Plants, Animals, including People. That's his fivesome, right?

NEWTON: Yes. In at least one or two places, in an unpublished manuscript, he put "air" or atmosphere in there.

GREGORSKY: Oh, he did. [The e-mail version of my question had read: "Meaning no disrespect to him, is it the case that air (and air quality) was simply not thought about during the 1930s?? Or does 'air' literally not make sense when you are focused on land and water, along with the creatures that use both?"]

NEWTON: There's only so many things you can put in a list without it becoming too cumbersome.


NEWTON: And his original list of five covered the more familiar, tangible aspects of things.

GREGORSKY: But the absence of "air" in the formal model – that makes me [suspect that air quality] wasn't a concern back then.

NEWTON: Probably.

GREGORSKY: The word "smog" did not arrive until the 1950s. Adlai Stevenson used it in his second campaign against [President] Eisenhower, at least in a passing way.

NEWTON: In London, much earlier than that, as industry burgeoned, and people became unhealthy, [air quality was something of a concern]. But here, during the 1930s, it didn't often come up, I don't believe. The conservation discussion was largely about "natural resources."

Four extracts from “Sustainability: A Dissent,” by Julianne Lutz Newton and Eric T. Freyfogle, in Conservation Biology: February 2005, pages 23-32:

Sustainability, the noun, is relatively new to the English language. Its first recording in a dictionary may have come in 1987. The underlying concept, though, has been familiar for much of a century. In its adjectival form – sustainable – it entered popular speech to describe the scientific method of Progressive Era forestry. In the 1970s, largely through the work of Wes Jackson, sustainable became attached to a branch of agriculture. Promptly it began appearing in conjunction with a varied range of cultural ideas: sustainable development, sustainable institutions, sustainable societies, and sustainable future…

Our thesis is that sustainability has grave defects as a conservation goal and ought to be replaced. Linguistically, the term is an adjective dressed up as a noun. Much like efficiency, another such adjective, sustainability is not a freestanding goal so much as an attribute of the means used to achieve a goal. Just as efficiency means merely “low cost,” sustainable means little more than “considering the long term.” Yet what is it that, over the long term, we are supposed to sustain, and who is doing the sustaining?…

Sustainability suggests a life that is dull and repetitive. It implies restrictions that keep us from growing and changing… If conservation is to succeed, it needs to offer people an alluring vision of what life could be… [Aldo] Leopold sought to do just this when he called on his colleagues to develop a single conservation goal… Leopold gave his goal the name “land health,” by which he meant a vibrant, fertile, self-perpetuating community of life that included people, other life forms, soils, rocks, and waters… Health is an attribute, not of an organism in isolation, but of an organism integrated into a biotic community – or so the conservation movement needs to make clear. Health for conservationists, accordingly, needs to include healthy relationships, cycles, and functions…

Because our behavior is causing our [ecological] problems, our goal should be to make it, and ourselves, better. We should strive to improve our behavior patterns, not sustain them, with the long-term aim of fostering and enjoying a good life, ecologically, ethically, and aesthetically… A useful start would be to cast aside sustainability and begin talking about its replacement. What is conservation for? What kind of society does it envision, and what will the benefits be if we head in that direction?

To receive the whole 3,200-word paper as a PDF, send that request
to coauthor Julianne Lutz Newton using the e-mail

PART TWO: Academic and Author Angles

GREGORSKY: All right, we'll take a break from the [e-mailed] agenda now, and I have a question about process, research, the thesis, if I can read this scrawl here.

NEWTON: Uh-huh.

GREGORSKY: Okay. Starting when you began researching for the PhD, going through all the writing, and then the time until you actually had the hardcover of Odyssey in your hand, how long a stretch was that?

NEWTON: [Pause] I think it was – five years.

GREGORSKY: And you were trying to get your doctorate. But – were you thinking this would turn into a book?

NEWTON: Well -- I wanted it to be. And I was lucky to have a committee who [pause] – I guess I purposely said: "I'm not gonna do this work just for this committee [laughter] or for this degree." In my own mind, I had --

GREGORSKY: It doesn't read like a PhD thesis [laughter].

NEWTON: And I didn't want it to. You know, I didn't want to do something that big just to jump through a hoop to get a degree – that didn't matter as much as actually engaging with something and having it be a living process that produced something hopefully meaningful [to a wider audience]. And I was lucky to have people that were inspiring and very smart in that way – and also permissive [laughter]. That isn't always the case [in writing a doctorate].

GREGORSKY: Any kind of fun stories about the archives, the boxes of stuff, maybe going to Curt Meine for his take on what gaps a new book on Leopold could fill? You know, the "weeds" type of experience that only a nonfiction writer can appreciate.

NEWTON: Gosh. So many people were so good to me and so helpful. The people who love and admire Leopold, or who at least come into touch with him or have studied him – it's a great group of people! The network reaches far and wide.

GREGORSKY: So they were all delighted when they heard another book was coming.

NEWTON: [Laughter] They were all kind, open, and helpful.

GREGORSKY: They wanted to make sure you got it right! [Laughter]

NEWTON: Yeah, they were generous. The guy who is the curator of the Leopold collection – Bernie Schermetzler – was very particular. He needed lots of warning about when I was gonna show up. One time, he brought a box out to me, and I was going through it, and I didn't – you know, you don't know exactly what's in every box. And I pulled out an envelope, and in it was the little notebook that Leopold had in his chest pocket when he died as the fire burned over him.


NEWTON: It had some stains, and it was charred. And that was sort of a moving, unexpected – I thought wow, I can't believe that's here.

GREGORSKY: Yeah – I'm getting chills just thinkin' about it.

NEWTON: It was a moving moment [pause].

GREGORSKY: Now, as the first-time author, what was your biggest positive surprise about – not the thesis, but the production of the book? Dealing with the publisher, anything in that whole area --

NEWTON: I can tell you – it was that there exists still in this world an editor like I had: Jonathan Cobb. He's what you think of from days gone by -- an editor who cares about his authors, engaged in the writing and the ideas, and always at work. He saw things through and didn't once let me off the hook [laughter]; he always knew the right question -- the question that needed to be raised to motivate me to think more in order to make something more clear or more right.

How Newton paired up with Cobb is too complex to report here. The key point is that – unusually – this new author's editor was in place before the publisher was.

NEWTON: I went with that press ["Shearwater Press," an imprint of Island Press in D.C.] at least partly because I knew Cobb was there. But I did submit it to some academic presses as well, and had some good responses from them. Island Press came back to me more positively and more quickly. It turned out to be a very good choice, because going with a trade publisher [took the book] to a broader audience.


NEWTON: They also better understood what I hoped I was doing – better than an academic press probably would've been inclined to do.

GREGORSKY: Plus they do more PR. And they give you an editor. A lot of times, academic presses don't provide an editor.

NEWTON: And that was what so unique and wonderful – given the way publishing can be [laughter].

GREGORSKY: Okay, the flip side of the question – in the production of this book, all the different aspects of that, what was the biggest negative surprise?

NEWTON: Let's see [six-second pause]. How little sleep I got? [Laughter]

GREGORSKY: Because of deadlines? Or you underestimated the workload?

NEWTON: Because it just took possession of me, of my mind. That wasn't a bad thing, but it was a challenging [process]. Maybe you can't always live like that [laughter].

GREGORSKY: So you went to Starbucks every three hours, or -- how did you cope?

NEWTON: I'd drink lots of tea. And there was a bakery in downtown Urbana that I really took advantage of.

GREGORSKY: Did you go through more than one computer?

NEWTON: No, I had one trusty laptop; it's still with me now.

GREGORSKY: So, putting a positive spin on that, we could say you had several lessons in self-management.

NEWTON: Yes, I sure did. Yes, yep.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I most recently finished reading Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice (1930) and Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel (Grove Press, 1988), and have just reread Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Knopf, 1980). I also recently read James Perrin Warren's John Burroughs and the Place of Nature (University of Georgia Press, 2006), Cormac McCarthy's The Road (Knopf, 2006), David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions (Scribner, 1996) and Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990).

I am in the midst of Visions of Utopia (Oxford University Press, 2003), a volume of three essays by Edward Rothstein, Herbert Muschamp and Martin E. Marty. Bill McKibben's Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (Times Books, 2007), Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Karl Popper's Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Basic Books, 1962) are at the top of my stack of what comes next.

I've heard people talk about creating a healthy diet by intuitive eating -- listening to what your body needs. I guess that is how I approach reading, too. I try to practice intuitive reading -- listening to what my mind needs. Recently, I think that I am reading not only to explore ideas and for company, but also to learn more about the various creative ways authors tell their stories.

From "Scientists' Nightstand" -- The Bookshelf talks with Julianne Lutz Newton


GREGORSKY: Where did you grow up?

NEWTON: My family goes back in the Catskills a long distance. I'm actually related to John Burroughs, and that family is from there – my father's side of the family. We did move around and live in Pennsylvania for a while, but the Catskill Mountains area is what I consider "home."

GREGORSKY: [as it slowly dawns] So you're related to John Burroughs – the namesake of the Institute you now head?

NEWTON: Yes. He was the most popular nature writer in the early 1900s. His writing is sort of rambling and it's romantic. Interest in him has waxed and waned. He really grappled with how industrialism was changing the world. He was friends with Henry Ford and Teddy Roosevelt.

In 2004 she married James Perrin Warren, author of a book – on none other than John Burroughs! You might have missed it in the welter of titles above -- John Burroughs and the Place of Nature. Technically, Julianne's last name is Warren, and it was even when her own book came out in 2006. But environmental readers know her as Julianne Lutz Newton, so we stuck with that for this web Q&A. Here is some info on her husband's book, which was also an '06 release:

[B]etween the Civil War and World War One...Burroughs was the most popular American nature writer of his time [and] and was often compared to Thoreau. Unlike Thoreau, however, whose reputation grew posthumously, Burroughs was a celebrity during his lifetime: he wrote more than 30 books, enjoyed a continual high level of visibility, and saw his work taught widely in public schools. James Perrin Warren shows how Burroughs helped guide urban and suburban middle-class readers "back to nature" during a time of intense industrialization and urbanization. Warren discusses Burroughs's connections not only to Muir and Roosevelt but also to his forebearers Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. By tracing the complex philosophical, creative, and temperamental lineage of these six giants, Warren shows how, in their friendships and rivalries, Burroughs, Muir, and Roosevelt made the high literary romanticism of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman relevant to late-19th- and early-20th-century Americans.


GREGORSKY: According to the American Scientist web Q&A, you began as a trumpet major in college. Why the early pull of music, and who if anyone was an early musical role model?

NEWTON: My father was a trumpet player, and he started me and my two siblings on the trumpet. I put it down for a while, and then one summer in junior high, I took it up, and really got into it. At Ithaca College, I was a Music major for a year, and then I changed to biology, but I kept playing. Music was very important to me. A lot of it had to do with creating something – but also with playing with groups of people and feeling like I was part of a community. As a family, we moved around a lot of places, and that gave me someplace -- everywhere we went, I could be part of a community.

GREGORSKY: So it was orchestral as opposed to jazz?

NEWTON: I did orchestral, band, jazz – kind of did it all. It was fun.

GREGORSKY: Was your father in a band?

NEWTON: He was good and he played mostly for fun. At Cornell, he played in their marching band. In fact, he was their student Conductor.

GREGORSKY: Now your mother -- need a little bit about your mom.

NEWTON: She grew up the daughter of a Dutch Reform minister, who was a really interesting character. He was educated in a couple of Ivy League universities, but then wanted to be an evangelist, so he moved [the family] from place to place, almost every year. It was a disjunct kind of childhood [my mother had]. Yet she's the most gracious person in the world. She was a nurse – not an "intellectual," but a very smart and very wise person.

GREGORSKY: In that web Q&A, you quote novelist Milan Kundera on the "forgetting of being" that comes when we lose any "view of the world as a whole and ourselves in relation with it." You would like "the scientific method [to be] practiced within the context of this world." That indicates you are against reductionism, either intellectual or social. What else does it mean? Adjacent to that answer, you say this about the Bible: "I grew up learning it. I have found it to be alive and beautiful, and if one reads it with an open mind, it balances within it the wisdom of uncertainty and the wisdom of certainty and helps protect from the forgetting of being."

NEWTON: Certainly that heritage of the Bible and Christianity came from my mother. From my father, too. As for loving literature? I think my understanding that I was related to John Burroughs had some sort of effect.

Also, my dad was very much a person of his time; he thought that being a scientist and studying science was the key to a lot of things. So I kind of got pushed that way a little bit. I'm naturally inclined to be more of a humanist – but am very grateful for my scientific training.

GREGORSKY: How did your dad's scientific bent show at home?

NEWTON: He was very quantitative. He sometimes wanted to reduce things to numbers. [Laughter]

GREGORSKY: Yet he blew off steam on the trumpet!

NEWTON: Yes, he did [laughter]. That was good.

GREGORSKY: We're back to the "tension of the opposites."

NEWTON: [Laughter]

GREGORSKY: Okay, all these New York roots and family lineage. Did you move to Illinois to do this [Leopold doctorate]?

NEWTON: Actually, I went to Illinois for vet school – and spent two months there before feeling really confined.

GREGORSKY: Did you say vet school??

NEWTON: Yes, I know [laughter] – that's what took me to Illinois, first off. It seems funny now, but it was traumatic at the time. I was doing fine, working in the lab, and suddenly I thought: "I'm going to spend the next four years memorizing stuff, and then carrying out X, Y and Z. Yes, I'll get to do research, but" – I had been reading Tolstoy and discussing it with another student. After I dropped out, he said: "When I heard you talking about Tolstoy, I knew you weren't gonna stay here."

GREGORSKY: [Sympathetic laughter]

NEWTON: Not that there aren't wonderful veterinarians who love Tolstoy -- but these are different mental processes. I looked up one day and saw this flock of cowbirds and starlings. They were so beautiful. Yeah, it's true -- cowbirds and starlings seemed beautiful to me at that moment. I just wanted to be outside. Thankfully, the same university is affiliated with The State Natural History Survey – and a great wildlife and conservation program – and I jumped over to that the next semester.

GREGORSKY: How old were you when this happened?

NEWTON: Thirty.

PART THREE: Coming to Ecology with Terms

GREGORSKY (again, blue means the question as e-mailed): Curt Meine has a 1937 quote from Leopold defining ecology as "the politics and economics of animals and plants." On page 10 of your book, you are even pithier: Ecology is "the study of organisms in relation to their environment." Yet, in each case – your definition and Leopold's -- a small number of words convey a vast tapestry. Can you deploy a few more words but make the focus narrower? Meaning, can you give us a definition of "ecology" that is definitive as well as durable?

NEWTON: People use that word in so many different ways – everything from a political movement, to the "ecology" of eating a certain kind of cereal [laughs], to a more scientific context. My way of thinking about it is that it's about interrelationships,

GREGORSKY: You use the term "organisms," which could mean everything from an ant to a person.

NEWTON: Yes. Or even of a soil microbe.

GREGORSKY: Or a company?

NEWTON: Maybe. In a sense. There's a web of interrelationships. With a company, you can follow the strands to places, and the effects on land. You can follow them to people in society at every level. Government and communities and individuals -- theoretically, at least – you can follow the strands to learn about causes and effects and influences. The root of "ecology" is "eco," which has to do with home, and so it's sort of the study of our home – whether we're using ourselves as a window to connect to the world as our home; or we're studying some other organism that connects to everything else [that comprises] our shared home.

GREGORSKY: It sounds like you're standing by your definition in the book, which is good; it's only two years old, you might as well stick by it

NEWTON: [Laughter]

GREGORSKY: Okay, ecology is "the study of organisms in relation to their environment." But the thing that confuses me – in Santa Fe interviewing Bill deBuys, I said: "Tell me the difference between ecology and environment." And the way he described it was: Ecology tends to be more detached, more scientific, and somewhat clinical; they try to be descriptive – as opposed to prescriptive, or proscriptive. Whereas environmentalists – environment and environmental – imply a stance, a position, an agenda.

NEWTON: Yeah, that's interesting. And I think so, too. The meaning of "ecology" seems to be, at its core, about interrelationships. While "environment" – in my mind, it seems almost like you're talking about something that's separate.

GREGORSKY: Separate from the organisms? Really?

NEWTON: Yeah, well – or that you're thinking about it [that way]: "Ohhh, that's the environment out there." And when I dwell on what it means to think about things ecologically – and this is just what happens in my mind [laughter] – I don't think "that's the environment out there," but rather: "This is the way all the parts of the world are connected into a whole; or the way all the parts of things in this place are connected" – it can work at different scales.

GREGORSKY: [Pause] Maybe it's because "environment" is a noun – and it ends up feeling like one huge, vast thing.

NEWTON: Yeah [sympathetically].

GREGORSKY: Whereas "ecology" is a discipline or a study or the process of thinking about --

NEWTON: Yeah [pause]. Yes, that's possible. Environment is sort of a "thing," and ecology is a field of inquiry – something with a little bit more procedural feeling or meaning to it.

GREGORSKY: In 1936, Aldo Leopold used the phrase "carrying capacity." I never liked that phrase because it implies that Earth is doing all the work and humans are getting a free ride, rather than making the earth more productive. Elsewhere he balances the term by conceding that technology can expand the land's carrying capacity. It has done so -- radically -- over the decades, making short shrift of the hysterical gloomsters. I have a lot of respect for the way Leopold, in contrast, consistently avoided both absolutism and defeatism. Even when he is emphatic about a value, he still does not make it an absolute. He rebalances rather than condemns or excludes.

Anyway, the question here is about that phrase "carrying capacity." I never knew it went back 70 years. Do you know the source? Leopold didn't come up with that, did he?

NEWTON: I don't believe so, and I don't really care for it either. I didn't have time to look into it [before this call], and I don't know where it began. But by 1914, when Leopold was working on grazing [issues] with the Forest Service, they were using that term. One of the things about it – talking about the "carrying capacity" meant the land's ability to produce a particular natural resource. So [that usage] maybe tends to be very specific and resource-oriented.


NEWTON: And it was a beautiful thing when he moved from that view – the one he was trained in – to the idea of "land health," where he starts talking about the capacity of the land for self-renewal.

GREGORSKY: Um-hmm, um-hmm.

NEWTON: Which then became the holistic way of talking about the land – still not the same as "carrying capacity," though the two are related. For example, the Forest Service controlled land, and part of it would be grassland, so "we're gonna put this number of sheep on it," because this amount of land -- this place -- can "carry" this number of sheep. Leopold wondered: What time-frame are we talking about? Not just the physical space, but also the time: How long is this [stretch of land] going to sustain that number of sheep? Also, several decades ago, wildlife ecologists used the term pretty frequently, and so did fisheries people.

GREGORSKY: Very interesting. So when "carrying capacity" entered the popular language – I heard it in the '70s – I always thought it was new for that time. But only the scale was new. It was being used to estimate how many thousands, or millions, or even billions, of people could be "carried." The numbers had become unwieldy.

NEWTON: Yeah, and people are still using that. To come up with that number [laughter] is almost impossible. You start by trying to understand the quality of a place --

GREGORSKY: And then to extrapolate that to a whole country, or even a continent --

NEWTON: Yeah. I mean, so many unknowns. It's a very complicated thing to try and come up with some sort of number. When you apply that to humans – you know, part of me really appreciates that effort, but it just seems like maybe not the best route we could take in understanding the world.

The supportable population of an organism, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available within an ecosystem is known as the ecosystem's carrying capacity for that organism. For the human population more complex variables such as sanitation and medical care are sometimes considered as part of the necessary infrastructure. As population density increases, birth rate often decrease and death rates typically increase. The difference between the birth rate and the death rate is the "natural increase." The carrying capacity could support a positive natural increase, or could require a negative natural increase. Carrying capacity is thus the number of individuals an environment can support without significant negative impacts to the given organism and its environment. A factor that keeps population size at equilibrium is known as a regulating factor. The origins of the term lie in its use in the shipping industry to describe freight capacity, and a recent review finds the first use of the term in an 1845 report by the U.S. Secretary of State to the Senate (Sayre, 2007).

SOURCE: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrying_capacity (from the 3/7/2008 version)

GREGORSKY: In your book, you resist the temptation to fast-forward and mind-read. As in: What would Aldo Leopold say about global warming? Would Leopold have taken up the cudgels against James Watt? What would he think about the tree-spikers of the '90s? Etc. etc. (fill in the blank). I am not going to ask you to do any of that here. But, now and then, others must do so. Do you humor them at all? Do you have a flat prohibition against such speculation?

NEWTON: I don't like to answer such questions. I'd rather think of something that Leopold actually said or did, or highlight the kinds of timeless questions he addressed -- like how can people live prosperously and also keep the land healthy -- and let people take ideas [for today and tomorrow] from there.

GREGORSKY: What is your next big writing project -- and how come you are currently living in my state of Virginia as opposed to New York [where the John Burroughs Institute is based]?

NEWTON: I have an appointment at Washington & Lee University – Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies. There's a lot of interest and passion among this rising generation to make the world a better place.

As for the next project -- I have another book in mind. It has to do, very generally, with the question: What kind of world do we want to live in?

A Sand County Almanac remains Leopold's most popular work, and it survived 1970s zealousness...

As the conservation movement metamorphosed into the environmental movement, and ecology became a catchword, Leopold's modest book of essays became both stimulus and beneficiary of a broad social awakening [and the] urge to canonize was difficult to resist. In books and articles, Leopold became the "priest" and "prophet" of the environmental movement. In the irony of ironies, Leopold, who had rebelled all his life against dogma, orthodoxy, and "thinking in grooves," became lodged by many of his own readers in a considerable groove, ignoring his own first rule of critical thinking. The science of wildlife ecology and the practice of wildlife management would have developed without him, but not with the same degree of integrity or sense of direction. As a teacher, he inspired hundreds of students to see and understand land, to study it rigorously, and to care for it. As a thinker, he gave the conservation movement philosophical direction. As a poet, he enriched the nation's bookshelf of nature writing [and all] of the Leopold children became accomplished naturalists and dedicated conservationists in their own right.

     -- Curt Meine, Aldo Leopold, from the Epilogue (pages 526-27)