Return to the Shack

A pilgrimage to the epicenter of conservation—Aldo Leopold’s Sand County—and the rediscovery of the power of place.

by Erik Ness

(Wisconsin Trails, March|April 2003)

On an early April morning I pull the car to the roadside and clamber out to test the air. It hasn’t been a long drive, but I need to collect myself and gather the morning sign.

Dawn was spring cool, with a clear promise of warmth. Now the building sun burns mist off flat black earth. Raven ascends, concluding his investigation of something dead or otherwise delicious. In the distance, the Baraboo Hills are cleft by the river of the same name, rambling toward a rendezvous with the rolling Wisconsin. A few more turns of the road, and I’ll be at the river, too, at the Shack.

Not just any tumbledown rural retreat, but the Leopold Family Farm and Shack. On the map it is a small structure amid the 1,600 acres of the Leopold Memorial Reserve outside of Baraboo. The reserve is a cooperative agreement among six private landowners to manage their land in concert with each other. It is a diverse landscape, a patchwork of flood-plain forest, sedge meadow, prairie, savanna, oak woodland and working farm fields.

The Shack and the ideas it represents stand at the epicenter of this cooperation, a touchstone for conservation across America. For many, a visit to the Shack is a pilgrimage. Here, tending approximately 100 acres of overworked and underloved soils, Aldo Leopold—already an accomplished scientist, activist and manager—hit his literary stride, producing the volume that we now know as A Sand County Almanac. Like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond it is a place anchored in good writing, strong ideas, resilient earth.

Today’s visit is A conscious tribute to that legacy. Mike Dombeck, once head of the U.S. Forest Service under Bill Clinton, has come home to Wisconsin. He used to teach at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and would hold classes at Grey Towers, the former estate of Forest Service visionary Gifford Pinchot, in Pennsylvania’s Poconos. Dombeck left Washington and the Forest Service a few months after George W. Bush took office, and now has a joint appointment to the UW at Madison and Stevens Point. Today he brings his graduate seminar to the Shack for a tour, and a test. Policy briefings, to be precise.

We’re met at the Shack by Rob Nelson, communications guru for the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Before we’ve gone 10 yards he stops to point out some emerging greenery: invasive garlic mustard. It shouldn’t be here, and in the next few days somebody will be along to try to knock it back. Once this land was a working farm, but since the Leopold family took over it’s been an ongoing project in ecological restoration. In Aldo’s day the family planted—and often watered through drought—some 47,000 trees to anchor the withered soil. The work continues under the auspices of the foundation, which oversees prairie and oak savanna restoration and the removal of other aggressive invasives.

Meandering through those now majestic pines we come to a roadside cut, and an awkwardly angled plaque. “Anyone know where we are?” asks Nelson. The class is silent, either shy or behind in their reading. Or perhaps overawed, for here stood the “good oak” struck by lightning, and used thrice by Leopold: once to occupy a family afternoon, once in the hearth, once for a fine essay on ecological history in A Sand County Almanac.

Throughout the remainder of the morning we trundle along the sandy banks of the river and explore the dim interior of the Shack. Then we settle in for lunch, and policy briefings. Leopold used to hold his own seminars and would have appreciated today’s diversity of topics: the budgetary woes of naturalists in the state park system, ecotourism and community forestry in Mexico, fishery management, dam removal. He would have been at home discussing any of them. Leopold was so broad a thinker that his ideas still provide fodder for scientists and conservation activists alike. “As a society we are just now beginning to realize the depth of Leopold’s work and thinking,” says Dombeck. “He was right at the cutting edge.”

In the end, what seems to matter is context. The students aren’t likely to keep the finer points of tuna management at hand for long. But they will remember sitting under another good oak in the front yard of the Shack. Hopefully they aren’t so focused on getting the A that they miss the raucous duet of sandhill cranes in the distance.

Dombeck has an abiding respect for the power of place. “The public debates that we have on natural resource management in the statehouse in Madison or in Washington would be a lot easier if we had them right out here,” he says. “I think we’d find that people’s values are not that far apart.”

It was January 1935 when Leopold first visited the washed up environs of the Shack. It was a bootlegger’s farm, an outlaw fact that may have contributed to the burned-out farmhouse. The only structure standing was a chicken coop, complete with several barrow loads of manure. It was a sturdy building, perhaps a temporary residence of the original settlers. And it is now the only chicken coop on the National Register of Historic Places. For instead of calling out architects and builders, the Leopold family put down $8 an acre and turned that coop and its surroundings into a focal point of their family life, into the Shack.

It was a homecoming of sorts. Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, where he would hunt the Mississippi wetlands and record the comings and goings of small animals around the family home. Educated in the East, he received a master’s degree in forestry from Yale in 1909, then spent 19 years in the U.S. Forest Service. Working first in New Mexico and Arizona, he moved to Madison in 1924 to work at the U.S. Forest Products Lab. In 1928 he left the service to conduct an extensive series of game surveys across the country. In 1933 he took an appointment to teach game management at UWMadison, and by 1939 had transformed it into the new discipline of wildlife ecology. The family had a cabin in the Ozarks, but the Shack was intended as a more immediate retreat from the professional pressures of Madison.

“It changed my life in every possible way,” says Nina Leopold Bradley, who now lives just down the road from the Shack. “It established a web of relationships between our family members and between ourselves and the land.”

Aldo’s wife, Estella, had been raised Catholic, and was a regular churchgoer, but the Shack didn’t cause a conflict. “Church wasn’t even mentioned, because this became their church,” says Leopold Bradley. More than that, it was a tool for a good marriage, and a healthy family life. Indeed, all five Leopold children embraced their parents’ love of nature, pursuing one branch of natural science or another, a fact Leopold Bradley attributes to their years at the Shack.

“I think the reason we loved it was that it was never forced on us. Dad would say, ‘Your mom and I are going to the Shack this weekend. Anybody want to go?’ He never even asked us to do any work, but Mother would say ‘There goes your dad, somebody better go give him a hand’ and pretty soon she wouldn’t have to tell us.”

In a series of projects over the next decade the family added a fireplace, an outhouse—the Parthenon, as they nicknamed it, for its sturdy construction—a wooden floor and a low-slung annex for a few bunks. The styling is strictly salvage, and though the fireplace is magnificent, with an enormous mantel, it lacks in the circulation department. Adding bricks to the chimney became a regular project, in the hope that somehow the fireplace below might learn to breathe.

There is at least one structure missing from the property: a treehouse, high atop an old elm. “Our treehouse was particularly good, away from adults, tough to get into. When company would come to see Mom and Dad we would all go up into the treehouse so we didn’t have to be gracious,” says Leopold Bradley. “We were all just teen-agers. It was just one heck of a lot of fun. I remember my brother, who was two years younger than I was, who was invited to the prom by his best girlfriend, and he said, ‘Sorry, I’m going to the Shack.’ He finally did marry the gal.”

In a day when most of us pack for a week in preparation for our own adventures upcountry, the Leopolds approached a country weekend with remarkable simplicity. “One little suitcase,” says Leopold Bradley—for the whole family. If you weren’t certain to need it, it didn’t make the journey. One exception: the kids’ schoolbooks and Aldo’s writing equipment. On principle, they were lugged along, she says. “But that was a place of action, and nobody ever got to either one.”

It’s still a place of action: In 1982 the Leopolds’ children—Starker, Luna, Nina, Carl and Estella—created the Aldo Leopold Foundation to serve as caretaker of the lands and legacy of the family. From a small family foundation it has evolved into a professional membership conservation organization that collaborates with dozens of partners in government, business and conservation as well as private landowners.

“The sweetest hunts are stolen,” writes Leopold in the October entry of A Sand County Almanac. “To steal a hunt, either go far into the wilderness where no one has been, or else find some undiscovered place under everybody’s nose.”

So it is that a few weeks after Dombeck’s class I return to the Shack, a day stolen from my family to reach a better understanding of the relationship between book and place. In theory, spring should have been even further along, but in fact it is cold and snowing, a wet, driving sleet that encourages fire building and a certain proximity to radiant heat. My companion and I build up the fire for later, but cannot confine ourselves indoors.

On the path to the river lies a large dragonfly dusted with snow, victim of the tug of war between winter and spring. The river has clearly already risen and receded in the weeks since my last visit.

We each have rods, and despite the gloomy weather feel drawn to try our luck in the hurried tea-brown waters. I soon give up, but my companion persists, eventually landing himself a rather good-sized willow for his efforts. At first the lure seemed irretrievable without risking a slippery climb with good odds for a hypothermic plunge. We cut the line and feel sheepish, then reapply ourselves; leaving it just doesn’t seem right. Leaving trash—however unintentional—would feel disrespectful.

Walking along the shifting sandbanks I nearly step on our first and only wildflowers: tiny, white, huddled close to the ground. My companion’s eyes rescue them from their camouflage of sand and snow. Later, we identify them with help from Leopold’s almanac entry for April: “He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eye steps on it, unknowing. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance.”

Returning to the Shack we find that the fireplace’s reputation is indeed well-earned; the air inside is thick with smoke. I laugh, wondering whether it was the poor ventilation that kept the Leopolds out-of-doors, or if they were out and about so much that this obvious defect was simply an occasional inconvenience.

It’s freezing out, but we open every window and escape once again to the woods outside. This time our meander takes us along the ridge behind the Shack, thinking to make the area where the good oak once stood. But our eyes spot a more interesting tree, long dead but still standing, with a variety of cavities and crevices for small living things. This diversion brings us to the lip of the ridge, and the discovery of a deer path leading down, faintly, beckoning to a stronger path cut into the steepness below.

We take it, and soon are rewarded by a fascinating deadfall lodged down the slope. The tree blocks the path, not just literally, but with a striking festival of texture, lines and color. It is not a single trunk, but multiply branched, at odd angles to itself. Jutting toward the sky, one branch is filigreed with a brilliant orange fungus. In counterpoint, the next branch hugs the slope, fairly upholstered in a shelf fungus of another shade of orange, more subdued. Though snow has been falling for several hours, and there is a gentle wind, there is as yet none in the shadow of the tree.

It is the kind of visual awakening that completely opens you to the potential for beauty of any natural landscape—not just the Yellowstones and the Apostle Islands of the world, but the overgrown alleys and overused parks. This ability to open the mind’s eye was one of Leopold’s gifts as a writer. Whether it’s his famous tale of watching the fierce green fire die in a wolf’s eyes or the more mundane observations of morning bird song, reading his best work is almost like being there.

Our destination forgotten, we descend to the dark, braiding maze of sloughs near the river. Wet to our knees we are never cold, warmed by boisterous, wandering spirits. It is impossible not to wonder what games his children may have played in the shifting dusk, or where Leopold might have gone and what insights he might have read from the land today. Not that I’d dare to break his train of thought. “He did not compose on paper,” remembers Leopold Bradley. “He composed in his mind. Taking a walk with him was very quiet. We could feel that things were happening. You didn’t interrupt unless it was very important.”

When finally we return to the ridge-top trail the light has almost failed, but we do see something important: fresh turkey tracks, laid only minutes ago, heading toward where the good oak had been. The turkey was exceptionally rare in Leopold’s time, and its presence is a good sign.

The snow has reached that perfect malleable place between solid and liquid. My boots pick up pads of snow, and the swing of my legs launches them to land at odd angles, curious vertical footprints.

Back in the Shack we play a game my college friends enjoyed with good books, opening them to random pages and reading aloud, searching for message and meaning. Not all authors can take this sort of contextual abuse, but Leopold holds up well. When I asked Gaylord Nelson, the former Wisconsin senator who helped initiate Earth Day, about Leopold and his influence, he immediately paid homage to the quality writing: “I’ve never found a word that I could strike out of a quote of his without depreciating the quality of what he said.”

Indeed, Leopold is so quotable as to become sound bitten. The problem here is that we might fool ourselves into reducing Leopold’s legacy to a few ideas. Surely you’ve heard this: “If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” The quote is from “The Round River,” an essay not included in the original version of A Sand County Almanac, but an integral part of the 1966 edition that set Leopold’s star in the literary firmament.

It’s a great quote, but Leopold’s tapestry was much richer. Short of reprinting the entire essay, consider the depth of the argument in these two paragraphs:

“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and co-operate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the co-operations. You can regulate them—cautiously—but not abolish them.

“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little is known about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

In this broader argument, you can see the seeds of many different disciplines. Leopold had a hand in the development of forestry, outdoor recreation, range management, sustainable agriculture, wilderness protection, conservation biology, restoration ecology, environmental history, environmental ethics, environmental education and literature. This list was compiled by Leopold scholar Curt Meine, who wrote perhaps the most definitive biography.

Meine has been thinking lately about the many uses—and users—of Leopold. “Leopold defined challenges that remain at the core of conservation thought and practice more than a half-century after his death, even as conservation concerns increasingly overlap other issues in contemporary life,” he says. “Leopold the human being belongs to the ages. Leopold the source and symbol has been and will be shaped according to the ideas, questions and requirements—and also the fears, blind spots and prejudices—of subsequent generations.”

As a result, Leopold is readily cast as a prophet, a hero, a naive interloper, an environmental radical or as an ecofascist. It all depends on who we are and what we need him to be for us.

Then there are those who have no ability to read or interpret Leopold but nonetheless depend on him. As I read aloud in the dim firelight of the Shack, my eyes are suddenly drawn upward. There, on 10 feet of gossamer thread, hangs a spider who has rappelled down to see what’s happening. Whether she is drawn by the light, or the warmth, or is just trying to hear better I don’t know. For the next 10 minutes I watch as she pulls herself slowly back up into the rafters. To her, the Shack matters because it is her home. But to her offspring, and to the larger web of life entangling her, how we interpret and utilize the legacy of Leopold is the real question.

The next morning we awake before dawn, dress in shivers, sip tea and head back outside. The snow has stopped, but enough fell to leave the landscape mostly white. Still, we can feel spring lurking beneath the sluggish veil. We head back down to the sloughs, and tread our way farther into the wetness of spring. Overnight the water levels have dropped an inch or so, but we still need to pick our way carefully across log bridges and seek out the solid root masses in the marshy terrain. Once again the fish are not biting, so we sit under a pine and enjoy this morning’s entry into the almanac of days.

Fast-forward through a muggy summer of mosquitoes and a golden fall and we reach November. Leopold wrote this for that month: “I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.” He goes on at length as to why, when faced with a pine and a birch side by side, he will cut the birch.

It’s a question of some meaning at the Shack. “The big question is what does that landscape look like in another 50 years,” says Aldo Leopold Foundation Executive Director Buddy Huffaker. “That’s quite a challenge, because the site now is as much a cultural landscape as a natural landscape. How do we balance those values to maintain the integrity of the site? Do you replace the pine trees? A more ecologically appropriate community would be dry prairie, oak savanna.”

But Leopold loved his pines, and they provide a vivid example of the connection we all have to the land. “That can’t be ignored,” says Huffaker. “Science only goes so far. It’s that personal commitment to the land that really ultimately results in the land ethic continuing to be implemented.”

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Copyright 2005 by Erik Ness

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