It was a pilgrimage of sorts. A place I knew but had never been. A shrine to some. For me, a place of historical and inspirational context. The Leopold Shack was my destination.
Thirty years after it was first published, I read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Required reading, it was one of three books as part of my introduction to the world of wildlife conservation. The others were Wildlife Biology by Raymond F. Dasmann and Our Wildlife Legacy by Durward L. Allen. Forty-five years later, ASCA is the only book of the three I kept.
Since replaced with a couple hard cover versions, my original was passed on to a young forestry student a few years ago. And recently, I passed along a copy to a gentleman who really needs to read it, whether he knows it or not. I’m hopeful.
Now my aim here is not to proselytize, but I have read ASCA multiple times and will likely read it again. I have also read other Leopold writings and various scholarly interpretations of his work and thinking. Curt Meine’s biographical tome, Aldo Leopold was especially informative; my copy has many dog-eared pages. I’ve rooted around the Leopold archives searching for tidbits and insights, and I’ve been fortunate to cross paths and share space with several folks who had more than a passing affiliation with the man and his legacy. From Iowa to Wisconsin to Missouri and beyond, his reach was significant.
For the introduced, I’m not saying anything you don’t already know when I say Aldo Leopold was unique. I’m not talking legend or mythology. This is real stuff. The man was a thinker. An observer. A researcher. A prolific writer. Trail blazer. And of course, a philosopher. Even today, in words that may no longer carry the weight they once did, Leopold’s ability to see, connect, and extract meaning is evident. His ability to help others understand the nature of nature remain unsurpassed.
For all these reasons, and more, I travelled to Leopold’s “refuge from too much modernity” to see and feel for myself this one place which influenced him and subsequently, his thinking and writing of ASCA. This place along the Wisconsin River where the soil is sand. A worn-out farm where a chicken coop was converted into a retreat - The Shack. A place where the Leopold family would gather in close quarters to work and play and be. All the while leaving behind a legacy of life and restoration, deep reflection, and natural beauty.
On a warm spring morning, my wife and I walked the path where lupines bloomed in a prairie created and restored by the Leopold family and maintained by the keepers of his legacy, The Aldo Leopold Foundation. Fittingly, pines planted by the Leopold’s were being harvested and milled on site using a portable sawmill which sat idle on this day; Leopold benches will be made from the pine boards. And a two-man crew quietly worked removing worn cedar shingles from the roof of the shack as part of the Foundation’s effort to maintain the property.
A three-minute walk from the shack through deep sand brought us to the bank of the Wisconsin River with a long, stunning view of the river and its sandbars. Wildlife tracks and the sign of two canoes marked the sand along the water’s edge. A Leopold bench was nearby for use by the contemplative.
As we walked, we thought about life in the 1930s and 40s and the decidedly primitive and earthy accommodations of The Shack – modern meant a roof, fireplace, well water, and an outhouse (aka the Parthenon). I imagine campfires and wood smoke. Mattresses filled with marsh hay. Morning goose music and evening sky dances.
On the way down the trail, returning to the truck, we passed the marker where the good oak once stood – Rest! cries the chief sawyer (the chief was wife Estella), and we said our thanks and good-bye, and I thought about the place here too, a short distance from the shack where Aldo Leopold died, unexpectedly. A neighbor’s fire was spreading into the fields, threatening the Leopold plantation. Hurrying with a backpack pump to wet down vegetation to slow the fire’s advance, he would succumb to a heart attack. Laying down with hands folded he would pass away - the fire “swept lightly over his body.”
I don’t believe in ghosts. But I do look for signs. Signs of past life. Signs of intent. Signs of purpose. My neighbor says I look for signs of yesterday. I look for the story and the mark left behind. I look for ways to bring things together - the past, the moment, the future – into something tangible and useful. A common thread of existence and being. Something beyond coincidental.
When we first arrived at the Leopold Center an hour earlier, high schoolers disembarked from a yellow bus, arriving for an extended field trip to explore all things Leopold. I asked the group leader, “Where are you from?” She said words I had not heard another voice speak in decades. They were from the same high school from which I graduated 51 years ago. What are the odds?
As we drove away, I watched the students standing on the edge of the Leopold prairie, examining vegetation. Wondering, if I could command one lesson to those students, one lesson to learn from Leopold, one thought to carry with them forever, what would it be? Probably this:
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac.