I left Arkansas as soon as I could, headed off to a state-funded math and science residential high school at fifteen and then to college in St. Louis at seventeen. I studied biology because it seemed like what I should study, because pursuing the pre-med track was what smart kids like me did. Science was the path laid out for me. But my eyes began to wander toward the sociology, anthropology, and environmental studies descriptions in my university’s course catalog. I took on a second major in environmental studies. One fateful semester, I took a history of life sciences course for my biology major and a separate environmental history class. I had never really studied history, had skipped my high school’s intensive world studies and American studies courses by fulfilling my requirements in less demanding (and less engaging) versions at my local small-town college. But here I was thinking about the natural world, not just as it is but how it came to be. And I loved it. Asking my professors about their backgrounds led me to the University of Wisconsin–Madison for its PhD program in the history of science, one of the oldest and best-known of such programs in the nation.
In our regular phone calls, my parents expressed some confusion regarding my path: But I thought you loved biology? What is history of science anyway? How do you get a job in such a field? Isn’t it too cold in Wisconsin? Are you sure you want to do this?
In our regular phone calls, my parents expressed some confusion regarding my path: But I thought you loved biology? What is history of science anyway?
I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know what it meant to get a PhD or what doing historical research even looked like. Still, an internal compass led me in this direction, some pull that told me studying the history of science and the environment would help me find the thread that, if pulled, would unravel all the puzzles I saw around me. I wanted to understand why my creative friends at college wanted to major in the humanities or arts, and thought science was boring. I was fascinated by the scientific rhetoric used in reporting on pressing environmental issues. I sensed that the key to understanding confusions around issues I cared about—like nutrition and climate change and breastfeeding—lay in thinking about the how science is funded, practiced, and communicated.
Coming to Wisconsin also brought me back to Aldo Leopold. In my second year of graduate school, one class field trip took me through southwestern Wisconsin, where I saw the quartzite bluffs at Devil’s Lake State Park, the spectacular gorge and moss-covered walls at Parfrey’s Glen, the historical crossroads of the city of Portage, and, significantly, Leopold’s historic farm and famous shack in Sauk County. This landscape had inspired Leopold’s defining work, his “land ethic,” published in 1949, which powerfully argues that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” This formidable and unambiguous statement influenced generations of environmentalists, ecologists, and environmental historians. Foresters, too, as it would turn out.3
I toured these places then, took photos of the conifers and hardwoods standing tall on Leopold’s land, the outcome of the restoration he had practiced some seventy years earlier.
I wove his land ethic and his other professional work into my master’s thesis on the history of conservation education in 1930s Wisconsin, and Leopold’s role in it. I spent many days leafing through the Leopold Papers in the dusty basement archives of Steenbock Library, admiring the loops and whorls of the man’s handwriting as I sought to understand what drove and challenged him, what occupied his days.
Through all of this, I talked with my father frequently, sometimes giving him updates on my research, but often leaving out the details, as I still felt his bafflement over the path his daughter had taken. I don’t remember any flash of recognition from him, any sense that he connected my work with his own.
A year after I walked on Aldo Leopold’s land, my parents sold and moved away from theirs. The Arkansas acres that had nurtured me, that had been an extension of my father’s self, that held the sky and the trees that defined Papa’s life and work, were no longer ours. My father was retiring from his professorship, my brother and his wife in Atlanta were about to present my parents with their first grandchild, and my mom’s sacrifice of living in the backwoods for so many years had caught up with her. And so, my parents moved to a northern suburb of Atlanta.
Papa may have retired from his official position, but he continued to produce scholarship and to walk in the woods every day, this time in the forests surrounding Kennesaw Mountain, which was adjacent to my parents’ new backyard in Georgia. His attention had turned away from forest mensuration and toward a unifying theory of the science underlying forestry. His wide-ranging reading moved into history and philosophy of science. In 2008, the Journal of Sustainable Forestry devoted its entire fourth issue, all 128 pages, to Papa’s book-length article titled simply and audaciously “The Science of Forestry.” In it, he sought to “make forestry a science by consistent reasoning from first principles,” based on what he called his “1-2-1 method,” which “defin[es] one problem, designs two opposing explanations, and then fuses them into a single solution.” In working on this, he radiated intellectual stimulation. It was his life’s work, and it animated him. In our conversations throughout my time in graduate school, he tried urgently to convey to me why his method would apply not only to forestry but to anything I was working on. After he died, I found among his papers a handwritten sketch of his attempts to organize my dissertation topic—a history of the canning industry—in accordance with his method. His brain was always whirring, trying to make connections across vast fields of inquiry.4