The Heartland of American Environmentalism

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, J. A. 2009. “An opportunity lies before us.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (November 11): 11A.

Ten days ago I visited Aldo Leopold’s childhood home in Burlington and wandered through some of the places he tramped as a boy.

Who is Aldo Leopold? In brief he is one of the five or so most important people in the history of American environmentalism, renowned especially for his 1948 book, A Sand County Almanac. Rich and enlightening, the Almanac is best known for its ethical claim that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise.”

I was thinking of Leopold’s Almanac while sitting on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. To my front left stood a large Red Oak reputedly planted on the day Leopold was born. Through the trees I could see a distant train pulling a long line of coal cars across a bridge, no doubt heading for some coal-fired CO2-producing power plant.

The sight of the coal train reminded me of a passage in Leopold’s book: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm,” he writes. “One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” Spot on, I think. If we heat our homes with electricity, the heat is coming from coal transported by train from Wyoming, or from uranium mined in some other part of the world. Danger lies in either direction.

But Leopold doesn’t quite get it right. Writing in 1948, he was thinking of small-scale diversified farms. Viewed from the present, his praise of the small farms feels anachronistic. When people buy their food at the grocery now, the food is likely to have been produced at industrialized “farms,” grown in ways that risk public and environmental health, and transported a thousand miles before getting to the store.

He was also thinking of a time when far fewer people were living in the U. S. and in urbanized areas, and when the population was far less diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. The 161 million people present in 1950 have now become 307 million, and the 64 percent that were living in urbanized areas have now become 81.

But I come less to condemn the contemporary industrialized agricultural economy or Leopold’s nostalgia for rural life, and more to suggest that a great economic development opportunity lies before us. The opportunity is simply this: to recognize that Aldo Leopold’s childhood tramps in Burlington can be woven into a pilgrimage route through the heartland of American environmentalism. If well designed, such a route could attract interest around the world while also stimulating creative thought about how to transform our region’s economy in a more sustainable direction.

Ideally linked by bike and foot paths (as well as auto routes), the route would pass through sites that have contributed significantly to the story of American environmentalism, including perhaps: the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, Black Hawk State Historical Site near Rock Island, John Muir Park near Portage (Wisconsin), the new (Platinum LEED) Aldo Leopold Legacy Center near his “Shack” just outside Baribou, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen near Spring Green, Military Road Trail southwest of Madison, Dubuque’s Mississippi River Museum, and Pike’s Peak State Park and Effigy Mounds National Monument.

In my imagination, Iowa City would be a key stop on this pilgrimage route, not so much for its past efforts but for its future ones. Recently designated a UNESCO “City of Literature,” Iowa City could become known as the place where the pilgrimage to the heartland of American environmentalism begins. In my Big Dream, the focal point of the city’s contribution would be a new Museum of American Environmentalism located in the emerging “River Crossings” neighborhood just south of downtown.

 

Like the idea? Get your pencils out and begin mapping.

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