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“To Revisit a Wilderness”: Inside the Pages of Aldo Leopold’s Commonplace Book


It’s not often we catch a glimpse inside the minds of literary giants.  We only have access to the final product, to the published book, to the recorded lecture, or an occasional interview - something that has been edited, curated, or planned.  Luckily, for some enterprising literary minds, personal archives have been saved and preserved to be viewed by generations to come to view. 

In our first post in this series we introduce the concept of a commonplace book — collections of curated quotes and thoughts, often in handwritten journals.  In “Commonplace Book, She Wrote” we explored how record keeping and cataloging can hide some commonplace books from us. 

These often unassuming collections of thoughts and ideas offer readers a unique portal into the creative processes that have shaped the literary world and in this post we’ll share how a casual conversation led to a new, previously uncatalogued, discovery. 

As part of our independent study with Joshua Calhoun, Associate Professor of English and Faculty Affiliate with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, we meet biweekly to discuss our findings and ideas for how we’ll transform our research into upcoming posts.  

Originally, we were planning a post solely dedicated to authors and their commonplace books. We ran into a few issues during the research process: in trying to access the pages of Octavia Butler’s commonplace book, for example, we learned that very few of the 8,000 items in the Huntington Library's Octavia E. Butler Collection are publicly available for digital access. 

We debated where to go from there — Calhoun in an off-hand comment wondered if Aldo Leopold, an esteemed sustainability leader and longtime Madison resident, might have a commonplace book publicly accessible.  

We knew that UW-Madison Special Collections held an extensive Leopold archive including handwritten pages of notes from the writing process that led to Sand County Almanac.  And, we also knew parts of this archive — boxes upon boxes of materials — had been digitized.  

As we scrolled through the index of items we found a section called “diaries and journal” — though the section we studied wasn’t labeled a “commonplace book,” a description detailing a notebook of Leopold’s “quotations from books and articles” (Personal Notebook,Box 001, Folder 015) caught our attention.

The notebook, a six-hole leatherbound pocketbook Leopold maintained between 1914 to the early 1930s, holds hundreds of quotes with topical headings contained in jutted out side tabs like “Poetry” and “Bible.” 

Though Leopold handwrote or used a typewriter to inscribe many of his quotes, he inserted some as clippings from books or newspapers — like the poem pictured to the right, “Nomenclature” by Stephen Vincent Benet. We also noticed that Leopold’s handwriting is remarkably clean in the commonplace book, despite its scratchiness in his field notebooks — and speculated that he might have copied the quotes more intentionally than other scribblings.  

After perusing the pages of this notebook, we decided to spend some time learning more about Leopold and to focus our third installment on this discovery — to understand how this hidden commonplace book allows us to see what Leopold was reading and how he integrated other writers’ ideas into his own prose. 

Calhoun said the find provides insight into what Leopold was reading and how he integrated other writers’ ideas into his writing. For instance, in one of Calhoun’s lectures on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “Caliban’s Land Ethic,” he calls attention to Leopold’s subtle quotation of Shakespeare. 

“Now that I can look through Leopold’s commonplace book,” says Calhoun. “I find myself revisiting his essays and recognizing new ways in which his writing conversed with his reading.”

Who was Aldo Leopold and why do we care?

An Iowa-born graduate of Yale’s Forestry School, Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) came to Madison as a U.S. Forest Service transfer in 1924 and joined UW-Madison’s Department of Agricultural Economics in 1933, securing a brand-new professorship in wildlife management.

A Sand County Almanac, his most acclaimed and discussed work, was published posthumously in 1949 and legitimized the ecologic discipline among other sciences.  His research and policy work — particularly his human-decentered concept of “land ethic” — marked Madison and Wisconsin broadly. 

His admirers have noted how his prose bolstered understanding of sustainability in relatable, informal terms.

“Imagine, then, the novelty of reading A Sand County Almanac, a rural man’s earnest, exultant accounting of his life in the country. He’s not singing his praises to some untouched parcel of pricey wilderness real estate; it’s just a worn-out little farm,” environmental author Barbara Kingsolver says in the foreword to the 2020 reprint of Leopold’s book. 

In the decades (1899-1927) prior to the publication of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold maintained a commonplace book which provides a glimpse into the works and persons which contributed to his scholarship. 

“If you look through his personal correspondence and through his professional work, you’d see him alluding to a lot of the things he was reading at any given time,” Dr. Curt Meine,  UW-Madison professor and senior fellow at  The Aldo Leopold Foundation, said. 

Meine noted how Leopold’s ordered reading habits mirrored his conservationist ideology and appeared throughout many of his works. One quote in particular, he said, exemplified Leopold’s approach to commonplacing and pattern-seeking — an interdisciplinary approach that helps us “weave together” traditions, philosophy, ethics, and history, per Meine: “Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search and the chance of finding order and meaning in events,” Leopold and co-author Sara Elizabeth Jones wrote in a 1947 monograph.

“Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search and the chance of finding order and meaning in events,” Leopold and co-author Sara Elizabeth Jones wrote in a 1947 monograph.

As we flipped through the pages, one mouse click at a time, we noticed quotes coming from throughout the centuries — those from literary figures like Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Jeanette Marks, Charlotte Brontë, and leaders in politics and philosophy.

Aldo Leopold's commonplace book serves as a testament to his thoughts on both human and ecological nature. Within its pages, Leopold often turns to influential figures such as John Muir, often referred to as "The Patron Saint of the American Wilderness," and Richard Cabot, the author of What Men Live by: Work, Play, Love, Worship. The recurrent themes in Leopold's commonplace entries revolve around the intrinsic connections between humans and the environment, echoing his pioneering ideas in the field of ecology. 

That phenomenon, Meine said, is at the core of sustainability. “Sustainability is all about simply recognizing the inherent connectivity of reality,” Meine said.

From the eloquence of Shakespeare to the monumental words of Theodore Roosevelt, Leopold's commonplace book reminds us that great ideas rarely emerge in isolation. These ideas turn up as a collection of wisdom exemplified in his commonplace. Meine said though Leopold treated the quotes and works he read as data, his utilization of them goes far beyond just a single point.

“[He had an] ability to see that we had to evolve this ethic, because once you start focusing on the connections you are no longer dealing just with the data,” Meine said. “You’re no longer dealing just with the dots. We're dealing with the relationships.”

“You’re no longer dealing just with the dots. We're dealing with the relationships.” 


In Leopold’s commonplace book, one gains the chance to trace the academic and literary thought and leading ecologic scholarship that led to A Sand County Almanac. To some degree, it’s a call for further tracing and logging during the process of gaining knowledge — what readers find in Leopold’s commonplace book is like a syllabus or a list of suggested readings that can help prospective environmentalists and conservationists understand where the burgeoning movement evolved from.

Leopold contemplates the balance required for coexistence and encourages responsible stewardship towards the natural world. His commonplace book is a repository of wisdom and reflections encapsulating his vision for a sustainable and interconnected relationship between society and the environment.

“After this reviving [?] experience, you should take a look into a few of the tertiary volumes of the grand geological library of the park, and see how God writes History.” John Muir, Yellowstone Park, page 5, entry 21 of Leopold’s commonplace book.

A commonplace book in itself offers a reader an environment in which texts — as commercial objects of value — become secondary to the interplay between works; it offers a holistic overview of authors and writings which often may have directly competed with each other in ideology and intent.

If you’d like to see these items, you can make an appointment to view them at UW-Madison’s Special Collections. 

About the Authors & the Project

“Real Commonplace Books: A Series” is a Spring 2024 Independent Study on commonplace books — many of which are contained in UW-Madison Special Collections.

Liam Beran, a fourth-year English major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has a passion for language and is seeking a certificate in French. Outside of school, he spends much of his time editing articles for UW-Madison’s oldest student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, and is an active distance runner with the Wisconsin Track Club. 

Libby Markgraf is a senior majoring in Economics with certificates in History and Data Science. Her interest in history began during a papermaking event on Library Mall with Holding History, and she further explored the field through Professor Calhoun's English courses, "Shakespeare, Sort Of" and "Spenser" which introduced her to Special Collections. 

Thanks to UW-Madison's Professor Joshua Calhoun (Assoc. Prof., English Department; Affiliate Faculty, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies), HH Co-Director Sarah Marty (Director, Bolz Center for Arts Administration; Affiliate, Division of the Arts) & to the Holding History program for hosting this bookish, bloggish conversation about Commonplace Books.

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