There was mistletoe 12 million years ago. Walnuts and birches. Elms and hickories. Estella Leopold found the pollen to prove it.

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There was mistletoe 12 million years ago. Walnuts and birches. Elms and hickories. Estella Leopold found the pollen to prove it.

For that, and a lifetime of other accomplishments, Leopold, 83, was just named the recipient of the International Cosmos Prize by the Expo ’90 Foundation, a Japanese organization that honors “Those who have, through their work, applied and realized the ideals which the Foundation strives to preserve how … we as human beings can truly respect and live in harmony with nature.”

The award pays 40 million yen, about $460,000.

“I nearly fell over, right out of my chair,” Leopold said Monday, sitting in said chair in her office at the University of Washington, where she has been teaching and conducting research for more than 35 years. “It’s an unexpected delight, but at the same time, I am duly humbled.”

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Leopold pioneered the use of studying fossilized pollen and spores in North America to better understand how plants and ecosystems respond over eons to things like climate change. No wonder, then that she wants to spend part of her cash award on a microscope for her lab at the UW.

The rest will go to the Leopold Foundation, named for her father, Aldo Leopold, author of the environmentalist’s bible, “A Sand County Almanac,” and the first to propose a “land ethic” that believes individuals are responsible for the health of the land.

Estella Leopold has made a career of following that credo and, literally, fighting to let nature take its course.

She was one of those who kept the Department of Interior from flooding the lower part of the Grand Canyon in the mid-1960s.

“It was a national park!” she said, still steamed at the idea. “Once it is a national park, we have an ethical obligation to maintain it.”

And Leopold was one of those who fought to keep private landowners and the Bureau of Land Management from planting grasses and trees over the lava-coated land around of Mount St. Helens in the wake of its 1980 eruption.

Leopold and others wanted to keep the place not only a national monument, but a research area run by the U.S. Forest Service.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is seeking to have the park put under the auspices of the National Park Service, because it has more money, but Leopold will fight that, too. Last month, she visited Mount St. Helens, where she watched a naturalist explain the eruption and its aftermath to visitors.

“I was spellbound,” she said, “and just delighted to see how people can see a natural succession, interrupted.”

She is especially eager for children to see such things. They’re scared of the outdoors, she said. Their parents don’t let them just wander the day away, as she once did. She worries about technology stealing people’s attention, and jamming their ears.

“They don’t hear the birds singing, the sound of the wind, and that’s a shame,” she said. “We miss a lot.”

As a child, Leopold played in the woods around her father’s Wisconsin “shack” — a rebuilt chicken coop along the Wisconsin River. The family had 80 acres out there, and over the years, planted about 40,000 trees, some of which her sister used to build a log house. Others were used to build the Leopold Center, at one time the greenest building in America.

Now, as an older woman, she sees things like overdevelopment and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and cries.

“How this culture got turned like it is … ” she said. “The Native Americans must have been devastated. They … loved this land.”

So, obviously, does Leopold. And it’s a love that has lasted a lifetime.

“Love is very important in conservation work,” Leopold said. “If you don’t love it, how are you going to work to protect it? And to love it, you have to know it.”

Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or

She’s always had a thing for sunflowers.

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