When Tennessee-based storyteller Jim Pfitzer took his mark inside The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s Home Range Hall, the Southern lilt to his voice disappeared. He took on the gait of a man much older, work-weary and clutching his cane.
With the floor-to-ceiling windows of the building open to the majesty of nature, and a replica of Leopold’s famed shack at his back, Pfitzer transformed, seeming to become the noted conservationist.
Pfitzer, who hails from Chattanooga, first performed his one-man play “Aldo Leopold — A Standard of Change” at the foundation last year. But the inspiration for the work has been brewing for quite some time.
Pfitzer was given a copy of Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” in his late teens.
“It immediately changed my life in huge ways,” he said.
He said the conservationist’s words seemed to answer the call of his own inner voice.
“It was like an old uncle put his arm around me,” he said, adding that he often felt powerless as he saw the landscape around him being built up, changed by industry and sprawl.
“I never quite knew what to do with all those feelings, I never saw adults speaking to those issues,” Pfitzer said.
When he started his storytelling career in his 20s, he knew he wanted to tell the tale of Leopold. A few years ago, he was asked to recite his favorite Leopold essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” at a conservation event.
The recitation moved people to tears, Pfitzer recalled, and he knew it was time to do something more. He sought out the foundation for help.
Pfitzer spent time at the Leopold Legacy Center, developing a relationship with the staff and walking in the places the conservationist had walked, touching the land he had loved and occupying the spaces in which Leopold had found his own inspiration.
One evening, while he spent the night in Leopold’s shack, some tourists dropped by. Pfitzer let them in, and their interaction provided some inspiration for his play.
“After they left, I heard a sandhill crane, and I ran down to the river with my almanac and my journal and my pen and my binoculars,” he said. “And I counted 200 cranes across the river from me. In the time it took me to read ‘Marshland Elegy,’ that 200 had swelled to over 1,000.”
The conservationist had estimated before his death in 1948 that there were fewer than 100 of the birds left in all of Wisconsin, said Pfitzer. The sight further inspired him.
“That’s something Leopold never saw,” he said.
Pfitzer said he also found inspiration for his play in the idea that Leopold wasn’t afraid to admit his mistakes or to learn something from his critics, contemporaries and those who had gone before.
“Some of his greatest works were the about people challenging him,” said Pfitzer.
Jeannine Richards, the foundation’s communications coordinator, said it was a special experience to host Pfitzer’s play for the second time.
“I think it’s really neat,” she said. “Listening to it tonight, it’s really a nice, well-rounded representation of Leopold, and it really conveys the message, in a form that, I think, is a lot more palatable to people than sitting down and reading dense books.”
Richards said she hoped people would take away a “different way of thinking about it, maybe considering the idea of a land ethic a little bit more and looking at the world through slightly different eyes.”
Leopold’s “land ethic” also is an important fixture in the play.
“That land is a community, that is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected, that is an extension of ethics,” Pfitzer said during his performance, reciting Leopold’s own words.
Don Ferber of Madison attended Wednesday’s performance. He worked as an intern at the foundation about 25 years ago and recalled working with Leopold’s daughter Nina Leopold Bradley, her husband, Charlie Bradley, and senior fellow Curt Meine.
Ferber remembered evening programs at Leopold’s shack that featured guitar music, togetherness and the chance to reflect and enjoy nature.
“It was really magical,” he said. “This brought back some of that same magic and connection.”
Ferber does work with the Sierra Club and said he hopes to invite Pfitzer back to do another performance.
“I thought it was really good,” he said. “I think he captured a lot of the essence of Leopold and his teachings.”
Pfitzer said he’s performed the work in a number of places, but he gets the most nervous performing it in Leopold’s former community.
“So many places where I go, I’m introducing people to Leopold, but to be here where he was known and loved … I feel like I’m with his family here,” Pfitzer said.
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