The Other Leopold

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Susan Fox Roger’s essay “The Other Leopold” appears in the Summer 2019 Issue of Michigan Quarterly Review


“He loved birds. Leopold.”

“Aldo? He was a tree man. Not a bird man.”

“No, not Aldo. The other Leopold.”

For me, there is only one Leopold: Aldo, the Midwestern environmentalist who wrote Sand County Almanac.

“Nathan.”

“Nathan Leopold?” This does not make sense.

“He loved birds.”

“Leopold and Loeb? The murderer?”

“Yes, the murderer.”

In this way, on a quiet spring evening, I learned that Nathan Leopold, famous for teaming up with Richard Loeb to commit the crime of the century by murdering fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks, was a birder.

The voice on the other end of the phone was the president of the small college where I teach. Leon, as we all call him, knows nothing about birds.

“Why do you know this?”

Leon had just had dinner with the Nobel prize-winning scientist James Watson, who co-discovered the double helix structure of DNA. Now eighty-seven years old, Watson had just published his memoir, which is really a tribute to his father. His father was a birder. Who birded with Leopold.

“Read Watson’s memoir,” Leon urged, “you’ll find it interesting.”
These bits of birdy information float toward me, spicing the day like the birds themselves. They add to the gifts of bird mugs and caps, owl-faced refrigerator magnets to make me feel like I’ve slipped on, like a perfect coat, a new identity: I am the bird woman. Fifty years old and for the first time in my life, I have the sense that who I am, who I think I am, and how people see me align. Like a juggler, I’m able to catch all three balls and send them back in a perfect arc into the air.

The transformation to bird woman happened so quickly in the past three years. Having my binoculars with me everywhere I go is surely the first clue that I’m always on the hunt. So on my morning walk, a neighbor stops me to ask what bird is killing the birds at her feeder (most likely a Cooper’s hawk, I say), and a student sends me an email gushing about a bird sighting (“It was so shiny, speckled”; I refer her to the European starling). But beyond the birds themselves, I get regular gifts by email or phone: Have you read Robert Frost’s poem “Ovenbird”? Or Theodore Roethke’s “The Far Field” (For to come upon warblers in early May / Was to forget time and death)? At a divisional party, a colleague is surprised I don’t know the Mel Brooks movie The Producers. “I’ll send you the link,” she says,“you’ll love it.” In the film, Max Bialystock is looking for the“Kraut” Franz Liebkind.“He’s up on the roof with his boids. He keeps boids. Dirty . . . disgusting . . . filthy. . . lice-ridden boids.”

And then a golden birdy tidbit: Leon calling to tell me that Leopold, whose story I know of mostly through films like Hitchcock’s Rope and the more recent Swoon, loved disgusting, filthy, lice-ridden boids…


Purchase MQR 58:3 or consider a one-year subscription to read more. Susan Fox Roger’s essay “The Other Leopold” appears in the Summer 2019 Issue of MQR.

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