In one of his finer novels, Sackett (1961), Louis L’Amour has the narrator, William Tell Sackett, observe, “A mountain man tries to live with the country instead of against it.” The context was Sackett having seen a grizzly bear “scooping honey out of a hollow tree.” Sackett, Tell to family and friends, saw no threat from the bear and so moved on. “That bear was minding his business,” Sackett explains, “so I minded mine.”
That sense of limits to human interaction with the natural world found eloquent expression in the writings of Aldo Leopold and has been represented by a cartoon character, Mark Trail. With origins in the first half of the twentieth century, Leopold’s most famous work, A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays, appeared posthumously, in 1949, and in 1946 Mark Trail made his debut in American newspapers. Both Leopold and Trail have been honored with thousands of acres of parkland, Leopold’s in southwestern New Mexico, Trail’s in northern Georgia, and the Mark Trail Wilderness is so far the only such reserve commemorating a cartoon character.
After serving along the Arizona and New Mexico border in the United States Forest Service, Leopold (1887-1948) moved to rural Sauk County, Wisconsin. There he refined his ideas about “land as a community to which we belong,” rather than it being “a commodity belonging to us.” Conserving land and its many inhabitants, from ants to oaks, believed Leopold, would “reap . . . an esthetic harvest . . . under science, [capable] of contributing to culture.”
For him, the hours before dawn were most congenial. “Getting up early,” he wrote in his Almanac for October, “is a vice habitual in horned owls, stars, geese, and freight trains.” Birds and stars and trains and Leopold shared a bond of reticence. “Early risers feel at ease with each other,” he suggested, “perhaps because, unlike those who sleep late, they are given to understatement of their own achievements.” For example, that horned owl, “in his trisyllabic commentary, plays down the story of the night’s murders.” Likewise, the railroad, though loud, “has a kind of modesty: his eye is single to his own noisy business, and he never comes roaring into somebody else’s camp.” As have so many others, Leopold found comfort within earshot of the rails. “I feel a deep security,” he admitted, “in this single-mindedness of freight trains.”
An avid hunter and fisherman, Leopold spent long hours smoking his pipe and mulling over the role of humans in the natural world. He once thought of wolves as vermin, threats to the deer he liked to hunt, but after shooting a she-wolf and seeing “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he rethought his prejudice against those creatures. He also reconsidered the value of plants usually destroyed as weeds. Over time, he developed a coherent ethical approach to land and all it sustains, whereby a living thing’s worth is not contingent upon its usefulness.
While Leopold was writing and lecturing on the ethical use of land, water, animals, and plants, in the May, 1936, issue of The Forum, Father John K. Ryan published “Are the Comics Moral?” Ryan, later known for his translations of Saint Augustine and Saint Francis de Sales, objected to newspaper comics and their “lurid melodrama, told by pictures of brutal men doing brutal deeds.” His argument recurred in Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954), with its claim that overt violence and subliminal homoeroticism in comics like Batman lead to juvenile delinquency.
According to The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (1977), in the mid-1930s some comic strip artists began drawing in a realistic style and with ongoing narration, and “the aim of the new narrative strips was at the audience for boys’ adventure stories.” After the Second World War, several new comic strips followed suit, Mark Trail among them. Mark Trail was the creation of Ed Dodd (1902-1991), and Dodd’s work has been continued by Jack Elrod (1924-2016) and James Allen (born 1967).
Mark Trail is a perpetually fit and trim thirty-two, and he resembles a young Gregory Peck. In seventy years the one change in his appearance came in 1983, when he quit smoking his formerly ever-present black billiard pipe. He lives in mythical Lost Forest and spends much of his time outdoors, his occupation being a writer and photographer for a fictional magazine, Woods and Wildlife. Often accompanying him are his faithful Saint Bernard, Andy, and his long-time girlfriend and later wife, Cherry, and their adopted son, Rusty.
The weekly comic strip features slow-paced adventure, tending to culminate in Trail confronting the bad guys and giving them a right to the jaw. The Sunday version of the strip has always been a free-standing educational piece, wherein Trail presents facts about various flora and fauna, as well about the status of endangered species. While the measured pace of the daily strip might not appeal to kids, the Sunday installment can keep their interest by conveying information without coming across as classroom tedium.
From 1956 to 1987 that educational role also occurred in Mark Trail’s Outdoor Tips, a daily single panel strip, usually in sports sections. In addition, since 1997 Mark Trail has been the official spokes-character of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Special cartoons show Trail giving safety instructions for dealing with severe weather, and they also depict him urging people to buy NOAA radios.
Although Mark Trail has steered clear of partisan politics, in 2006 the strip addressed a recent political situation. The catalyst was a United States Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. City of New London (2005), the Court’s leftist majority ruling that eminent domain allowed the state to transfer private property to another private owner for the purpose of economic development. Enter Mark Trail defending property rights and challenging a casino owner’s scheme to use eminent domain to cut a road through Lost Forest to his casino.
Like a bear scooping up honey, forests can respectfully be left alone and appreciated. As Tell Sackett recalled, “Pa, he always advised us boys to take time to contemplate.” In another of L’Amour’s novels, The Proving Trail (1978), Kearney McRaven mused, “To ride fast, to travel far, these were empty things unless a man took the time to savor, to taste, to love, to simply be.” Life lessons with which Aldo Leopold and Mark Trail would concur.
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B., is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.