Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The sweetest fish ever eaten

‘Fried lake trout for breakfast were positively the sweetest fish ever eaten. All the trout on stringers were dead. Have never yet found a way to keep trout alive, short of a tight pen in the water. A fine chorus of white-throated sparrows when the sun came up. Their note sounds like ‘Ah, poor Canada!’ This is from the journals of Aldo Leopold, the great American ecologist/conservationist, born 130 years go today, who introduced and propagated ideas and procedures for sustainability in wildlife and wilderness management.

Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, on 11 January 1887, the eldest of four children. He was educated locally, but his father taught him skills of the outdoors, woodcraft and hunting. He attended The Lawrenceville School, New Jersey, and Sheffield Scientific School in preparation for studying a masters at the newly established Yale School of Forestry. After graduating, he joined the U. S. Forest Service and was given his first field assignment in Apache National Forest in southeastern Arizona. He rapidly gained promotion becoming supervisor at Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico in 1911. The same year he launched the Carson Pine Cone newsletter; and the following year he married Estella Bergere with whom he would have five children.

Leopold remained in New Mexico for more than a decade, becoming the Forest Service’s assistant district forester in charge of operations. During this time, he developed the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon, wrote the Forest Service’s first game and fish handbook, and proposed the Gila Wilderness Area, the first such national wilderness area in the Forest Service system. In 1924, he moved to the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, becoming an associate director; but, in 1928, he left to conduct game surveys of Midwestern states, funded by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute.

By the 1930s, Leopold had become the foremost expert on wildlife management, advocating the scientific management of wildlife habitats by both public and private landholders; and, in 1933, he published Game Management, setting out revolutionary principles for sound management of wild areas that had suffered the kind of adverse conditions he had observed during his Midwestern surveys. That same year he was appointed Professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the first such professorship in wildlife management.

Thereafter, Leopold was influential in setting up the Wilderness and Wildlife Societies; he was appointed chairman of the Department of Wildlife Management at the University of Wisconsin; he initiated cooperative ventures between farmers and sportsmen to improve habitats; and he served on the Wisconsin State Conservation Department’s game and fisheries committees. He also purchased 80 acres of once-forested land in central Wisconsin, where he put his own theories into practice, and which provided the inspiration and experiences for A Sand County Almanac. He died of a heart attack in 1948 while battling a wild fire on a neighbour’s property. Further information is available from Wikipedia, The Wilderness Net, The Aldo Leopold Foundation, an article in Minding Nature available at Centre for Humans  & Nature, Environmental Education for Kids, or Americans who tell the truth.

A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s most famous book and one that is considered a landmark in US conservation, was edited by his son Luna and not published until the year after his death. A few years later, in 1953, Luna also edited some of his father’s diaries which were published by Oxford University Press Inc (New York) as Round River, From the Journals of Aldo Leopold (available to preview at Googlebooks). In fact, Leopold was an inveterate keeper of journals, all (or certainly most) of which are held today in The Aldo Leopold Archives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries.

The Aldo Leopold Archives places Leopold’s diaries and journals into three groups: United States Forest Service Diaries and Miscellaneous, 1899-1927; Hunting Journals, 1917-1945; Shack Journals, 1935-1948. Many of the Archives’ holdings have been digitalised including the diaries and journals, so all can be freely read online - although only in the original handwritten text, i.e. there are no transcriptions available on the Aldo Leopold Archives website.

Here are several extracts from Round River. (I have placed a screenshot, taken from the Aldo Leopold Archives website, of part of the diary entry for 27 November 1926 next to the text as found transcribed in Round River.)

15 June 1924
‘Fried lake trout for breakfast were positively the sweetest fish ever eaten.

All the trout on stringers were dead. Have never yet found a way to keep trout alive, short of a tight pen in the water.

A fine chorus of white-throated sparrows when the sun came up. Their note sounds like ‘Ah, poor Canada!’ Thank the Lord for country as poor as this.

We had a laundering and sewing bee around camp. Then explored the lake and found tomorrow’s portage into Trout Lake. Trolled to the sand beach, where we found fresh moose tracks and had a fine but brief swim, the water being cold. Coming back to camp we photographed the mallard nest. The nest consisted of a hollow pushed into the dry litter under the overhanging branches of a little spruce. It had a perfect circle of a rim consisting of the gray down of the hen. The behavior of the hen was entirely different when approached from the water instead of the land - from the land she played cripple, whereas from the water she sprang directly into the air and hardly quacked. Only eight eggs and nest full.

While we were boiling tea for lunch, Starker caught another trout. After a nap all round we engaged in the very serious occupation of catching perch minnows to be used as bait for the evening fishing. Later I made Starker a bow of white cedar. In the evening we caught a few trout, one of which we had for supper. It was a female and had pink flesh, whereas the previous ones had white flesh. Only small fish were caught on first casts, indicating that big ones get used to a spoon and no longer get excited about it. The first three minnows also drew bites, but later minnows wouldn’t work.

Carl and I learned something while casting in a bay behind camp. The water was covered with willow cotton, which gummed up the line and the ferrules so as to make casting nearly impossible.

At dark a solitary loon serenaded us with his lonesome call, which Fritz imitates very well. This call seems to prevail at night, while the laughing call is used during the day. Carl remembers the laughing call at night, however, on the trip we made to Drummond Island with Dad about 1905.

The Lord did well when he put the loon and his music into this lonesome land.’

27 November 1926
‘Arrived Van Buren 9 a.m. and hit the river at 10:30. A fine sunny morning. The river is very fast for a mile or so below town, then calms down somewhat. About noon we had our first excitement when 30 mallards came up the river and began to circle the timber a hundred yards to our left, settling down in a little backwater. We sneaked them, only I going all the way. I got within 30 yards but got only one on the rise; alibi: dark background and brush. They circled and came over us. Everybody missed; alibi: too far. Just as we were leaving five came back, but seeing our boat they went on. We landed again to wait when eight got out unexpectedly below us, one big drake passing within easy range of Carl and me. Alibi: none. We named this Bungle Bay.’

6 December 1926
‘Our last day of hunting. All shaved in the hope of improving our shooting a bit. It is cool and cloudy.

Tried the quail above camp on the west bank. Found the canebrake covey and did a little better with them, getting three. Hunted a lot of new country that looked ideal but found no birds. Saw a large flock of doves but couldn’t get near them. Coming back I unexpectedly flushed a big mallard drake out of the head of the buck brush lake. I shot through some saplings at him but failed to connect. This is the first mallard we have seen since leaving the cove camp.

In the afternoon we crossed the river and while we were cutting mistletoe for the girls, Flick put up a beautiful covey out of the tinkleweeds but nobody had a loaded gun. We got two, however, out of a belated rise and later a couple of scatters.

Next hunted some lovely ragweed patches to the south and found a nice covey. Had a hard time finding them again because we overestimated the distance they flew. Finally got them out. Carl put five right over Fritz and me and we scored four clean misses overhead as they pitched down into the cane. Later we retrieved our reputation a bit by killing some singles.

It now began to rain and we regretfully left the whistling birds behind us as we hit for camp.’

8 November 1929
‘A bright fine morning. Up in dark at 4 a.m. and when sun came out started dolling up camp. We are under a big spreading alligator juniper on the edge of a pretty park full of fine grama grass. It is 200 yards down to Evans’ stock tank for water. There is enough oak and juniper wood within 200 yards of camp to furnish the U. S. Army, only they wouldn’t appreciate its fine qualities.

In the afternoon we de-horned a big dead juniper only 50 yards from camp and piled up half a cord of fragrant wood - also brought in some oak. Also started the sourdough and other similar ceremonies, including a pot of beans. Dined on beans and cornbread in a fall of snow which started in the middle of the afternoon and by bedtime was two inches deep. This will make fine prospecting for deer tomorrow. Had music in our snug dry camp after dinner while all the rest of the world outside was white and cold.’

27 December 1937
‘Floyd took us over the Perdita Mesa and back down Turkey Ridge. Saw one buck near the Chocolate Drop but few other deer. Much turkey sign on the hogback leading up to Perdita from the west and also a good deal of deer sign on the north rim of the mesa bordering Smoke Canyon. No shots with either bow or gun.’

28 December 1937
‘Explored the Crack Canyon region for the first time. Saw a large number of deer and the country looks very workable. No turkey sign.’

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