Creativity, Technology and Stewardship: The Legacy of Aldo Leopold on the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

On this day, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we often miss a narrative that is just as crucial as considering mankind’s negative impacts on the environment. I believe this sentiment first entered my consciousness in high school when my father suggested I read “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s contemplative works hooked me; and when I read his statement, “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot,” I had chosen a side – the side of chickadees, salamanders, trillium, box turtles and oaks. However, like Leopold, I do not suggest that we wholeheartedly disavow the human element from wilderness. In his landmark text, “Game Management,” Leopold stated that wildlife, “can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it – ax, plow, cow, fire and, gun.” This statement struck me with wonder, hope and optimism. We already have the tools to do the job, Leopold asserted, we just need to change our methods and favor innovations that enable us to work along with the earth rather than against it.

And, this can be done. There are countless examples, from utilizing controlled burns to altering the course of streams. Rather than by the hand tools of Leopold’s day, our modern work is accomplished by chainsaws, excavators and the like. The work can be messy, and perhaps unpleasant to witness while in process, but the resulting impact can be a triumph of biodiversity and habitat restoration.

I began my environmental education career at The North Carolina Arboretum nearly 15 years ago and was delighted to call the site my classroom and laboratory – complete with trout streams, woodlands, cultivated gardens and meadows. My background was in ecology, and my thirst for learning how to be the best environmental educator I could be led me to complete the North Carolina Environmental Education Certification (offered by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Environmental Education and Public Affairs) in just under a year. My passions were further ignited by becoming an active participant in our state’s community of environmental educators. I completed workshops, attended conferences and enjoyed the networking and connections the certification program provided.

Early in my days at the Arboretum, I found myself driving up Frederick Law Olmsted Way toward the Education Center. It was one of those warmer February days that encourages us to take heart that spring is not too much farther off. To my surprise and delight, I heard the distinctive duck-like quacking of wood frogs out my window. At that time, I wasn’t aware of any pond within the Arboretum’s borders, let alone one so close to our main parking lot and the site that would later become our Baker Exhibit Center. I pulled over, walked downhill and cut through a tangle of briars and deep brush to discover an unassuming pond brimming with aquatic life. A treasure trove of biodiversity right there waiting to be discovered!

Of course, I was no Magellan. The pond was known by others within the organization as was the fact that it was created to retain stormwater prior to entering Bent Creek during the construction of the Arboretum’s early assets. But my enthusiasm and exuberance were humored and our wonderful horticulture team, along with a volunteer crew, used shovels, mattocks and rakes “a la Leopold style” to carve a trail to the site, clearing a small area by one end of the pond and sinking a few log steps in that would allow an educator to step down into the pond to share the tadpoles, newts and dragonfly nymphs that could be revealed by just a single scoop of a dip net. This arrangement served the Arboretum’s Education Program and its participants well for many years. To our delight we found a special resident that began to call this human-made refuge home: the state-listed mole salamander, Ambystoma talpoideum. With the help from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission we were able to determine that this pond was being utilized as a breeding site for the species and featured hundreds of untold chunky amphibians in their larval stage before they left the pond for more terrestrial ventures.

While the pond site fit the needs of the mole salamander and their companions for the time being, its design was never intended to provide a permanent home for these creatures. As such, the pond was filling in with sediment at an increasing rate and its ability to provide a refuge for these rare salamanders was in jeopardy. In a feat that would make our friend Aldo proud, the Arboretum utilized corporate and public partnerships, as well as the generosity of a multitude of private donors to implement an ambitious project to reshape the pond – now known as Willow Pond – with the mole salamander’s needs in mind. This included creating a series of three ponds of varying depths that feature a wide variety of native wetland plants. I’m happy to report that this project is nearing completion and insect and amphibian inhabitants have returned and are thriving. This fall, the Arboretum plans to re-open the newly reconfigured Willow Pond site to students of all ages utilizing a teaching pavilion, boardwalk and accessible exploration spots for young and old to marvel in the wonderous biodiversity available for study and appreciation.

Aldo Leopold’s philosophy in utilizing unlikely tools as a means of cultivating wild things is a tenant that I have visited over the course of my career in environmental education. We and our planet face many challenges, and this has become abundantly clear in the impact we are witnessing as climate change threatens our health, our homes and our lives. The populous has – perhaps unwittingly –  overwhelmingly chosen the path of those who can live without wild things. In our rush to complete multiple tasks for fear of missing out on life, we are perhaps missing the most central premise of what it means to be human. to feel a sense of belonging simply by being present and in nature.

In addressing what I see as a critical issue of connectedness to nature I have, as Leopold did, found an unlikely ally to be a powerful tool – the smartphone. Over the past four years, children and families have contributed nearly 15,000 photo observations to the iNaturalist online network via the Arboretum’s ecoEXPLORE youth education initiative. Rather than staring blankly at a screen, children are chasing butterflies, crouching before wildflowers and peering up at trees with their smartphone in hand - charged with a mission to help scientists document our state’s biodiversity in the name of citizen science.

Many of these young digital natives turned naturalists will aid us in documenting the return of mole salamanders to Willow Pond. It is my hope that as they become adults they will also document the return of other species as awareness inspires actions and ethics of conservation in our population. Prior to Leopold it was Thoreau who proclaimed that “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I agree, and wholeheartedly believe that with smartphones in hand and a burgeoning connection to the natural world around us, the next 50 years will see a resurgence in Leopold’s legacy and Thoreau’s philosophy.


Jonathan Marchal, Director of Education at The NC Arboretum