Aldo Leopold’s naturalist message is made into rootsy music: Sand County Songs by Tim Southwick Johnson
One brooding afternoon I walked along Dunn’s Marsh in Fitchburg WI when a chilling cry pierced the rustling breeze. It sounded like a call of the wild through time, echoing the ancient history of life cycles. I looked up and saw an array of long, craggy wings floating on air. The majestic creatures descended in a rhythmic sequence and skated onto the pond surface, their vast wings shuddering close. Nine sandhill cranes and me. I felt frozen in time, and its unfathomable depths.
Tim Southwick Johnson refers to a similar unforgettable encounter with cranes below. A far more observant witness than me has shaped his viewpoint — and held his artistic life in thrall the last few years. That man is the great Wisconsin naturalist Aldo Leopold.
Every Wisconsinite — every person who cares about nature and humanity’s troubling relation to it — should know Leopold and his legacy.
Johnson is doing something about that. Some years ago, the Lake Geneva–based singer–songwriter–instrumentalist encountered Leopold’s classic journal A Sand County Almanac and, like the moon eclipsing the sun, it changed the way he saw the world around him.
Over time, he thought the revelations, insight and poetry of Leopold’s classic text could be set to music. He began writing songs to connect more deeply with Leopold. He visited the Leopold Shack, where the naturalist stayed, a la Thoreau, amid the Wisconsin nature he was studying, contemplating and describing in his almanac.
“I got to sleep in the shack in June, the (Leopold) foundation just gave me the keys to the shack and there I was by myself,” Johnson recalls over a meal of Vietnamese food at the West Bank Café in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, shortly before performing at The Art Bar, a few doors down.
“It was really cool. It was almost dark by the time I got out there and there is no electricity, so you open the place up and it sends you back outside,” he laughed, describing the humble converted chicken’s coop.
“So I went down to the river, and watched the cranes come home. I got back and birds were chattering overhead. I started a fire, hung out and went to bed.”
“The next morning I woke up really early and got outside and did a recording of Red Lantern with my little digital camera video, at 5:45 in the morning.”
The purity of experience in this natural setting helped Johnson continue reworking Leopold’s evocative prose into song lyric and music. Johnson is an unpretentious and humorous man who doesn’t presume to do literary justice to Leopold’s writing. But as music directly inspired by the naturalist, this recording holds up like a great old pine enduring the harshest of winters. There are times when his lyric hews close to Leopold’s actual text.
One example is “Crane Song.” Johnson quotes Leopold from “Marshland Elegy”: “A dawn wind stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass. Like the white ghost of a glacier the mists advance, riding over phalanxes of tamarack, sliding across bog–meadows heavy with dew. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon.”
In this song and elsewhere on Sand County Songs, Johnson’s innate rhythmic sense and musicality capture the movement of Leopold’s prose, its intense awareness and fluent oneness with the rhythms and secrets of nature.
Leopold’s biographer Curt Meine said of the album, “Sand County Songs is wonderful. Tim Johnson has combined creative musicianship with a keen appreciation of Aldo Leopold’s writing and experience.”
Johnson’s original music for video and film includes the Governor of Wisconsin’s fire prevention video and the independent film Wisconsin Barns — A Touchstone of the Past, which aired on PBS nationwide.
But at The Art Bar, Johnson hardly comes across as a tree hugger. He sings a variety of songs in a bright, high baritone and plays a bevy of string instruments with glittering virtuosity and a powerful rhythmic thrust, moving from acoustic to tenor guitar, mandolin, ukulele and Dobro. At one point, the largely young crowd gets a bit boisterous.
Johnson pauses and quips, “Would you all lie down on your mats and take your naps, so I can have some peace and quiet?”
He’s trying to find musical commonality with them without being didactic. He admits that the album’s prologue and epilogue might come across as a tad preachy, but overall it’s an utterly engaging experience.
Nevertheless, the album underscores why there’s plenty to consider and even act on, whether you make a living in nature, or simply care about the future of the state and the planet.
Johnson has performed for Leopold Weekend, the first week of every March, at public libraries and schools. He’ll often read from Leopold’s almanac and play the corresponding songs.
Some think that the whole environmental topic shouldn’t be a politically partisan issue; it’s our planet and we all have to live on it. But Johnson thinks Leopold anticipated our current polarization on issues like global warming, deforestation and mining.
“He makes a lot of references to what (the fossil fuel industry and developers) are trying to accomplish and it all comes back to the dollar,” the musician says. “When I was out in Iowa recently I talked to farmers and some have 6,000–acre farms. They’re out there in their OshKosh B’Gosh and these guys are conservative Iowans. Even they are starting to come around because they’re realizing that satellite technology was showing them how much topsoil they were losing. And they say, hey, that’s our livelihood. So they’re being forced to see it, through almost 100 years of people like Leopold talking about our way of living.
“One guy told me he’s starting to see wildlife again that he hadn’t seen even when he was a boy. He lived on a 1,000–acre farm and there was no deer or bobcats. So they’re just starting to replenish the natural order.”
Leopold himself owned 80 acres in Sand County in central Wisconsin. Once richly forested, the region had been ravaged by repeated fires, over grazed by cattle.
He developed an ecological ethic that replaced the earlier wilderness ethic of human dominance. He realized the importance of predators in the balance of nature.
Leopold championed an ethical sensitivity to understand that human relationships need to extend beyond our own species, toward relationships to society as a whole, relationships with the land. Exploitation and expediency regarding natural resources needed to be rethought.
Leopold saw wildlife management as a means of restoring and maintaining environmental diversity rather than primarily as a way to produce a surplus for sport hunting. He proposed expanding the concept of sport to wildlife research, and helped advance ornithology, mammology and botany as amateur pastimes and as value systems.
“Why cannot our concept of sport grow with the same vigor as our list of gadgets?” Leopold wrote, with uncanny prescience in 1949.
By the 1930s, he was the nation’s pre–eminent authority on wildlife management. In 1933 he was appointed Professor of Game Management in the agricultural economics department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the first such professorship of wildlife management.
He put his theories to work in the field and eventually wrote A Sand County Almanac (1949), finished shortly before his death. He died of a heart attack while battling a wildfire in a neighbor’s property. The book eventually sold 2 million copies, and presaged Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmentalist classic Silent Spring .
Leopold is today considered the father of wildlife conservation in America. Yet his great book may have fallen into the category of a more espected–than–read classic. Johnson sensed a way to extend the book’s message and meaning.
“I kind of wanted to convey the beauty of the book by adding music to try to further spread the message, in that nice lyrical way that he did,” Johnson explains. “So it’s a soft–sell approach.”
There is a winning quality to Johnson’s singing, which sometimes recalls Paul Simon, and avoids any self–righteous harshness. It strives to cultivate the listener to the Leopold viewpoint.
“It takes a certain maturity to come up with a project like this,” he admits at age 54. He’s performed in 30 states and is a former member of Mercury/Columbia recording artists Heartsfield and was a founding member of the band Famous Vacationers.
Johnson considers himself first and foremost an instrumentalist.
On Sand County Songs his instrumental prowess conveys the strength of the message and experience as much as anything. When Johnson double–tracks, he creates textural layers that sometimes evoke natural life forms.
“Yes I think there are some areas when you start to do two–guitar tracks and mandolin and things just happen, in a sense, that take a little bit of a life of their own,” he says.
“There’s a lot of little animals hidden in the fields, things that you can’t see. They’re just kind of hidden in the underbrush scurrying about.”
Leopold would’ve heard them too.
Tim Southwick Johnson and his axes hangin’ at Aldo Leopold’s famous Shack near Baraboo, WI.
Photo by Jennifer Johnson
Pioneering naturalist and author Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold (ca. 1940) outside The Shack, which is now a National Historic Landmark.
Courtesy citywire.com Photo by Carl Leopold
This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine and the blog Culture Currents (Vernaculars Speak).