"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Resurrecting a Legacy-Sand County to Carolina Clay

Imagine trying to somehow speak for a person that you admire--maybe some famous or well-known figure that has shaped your way of thinking--your mode of being. Aldo Leopold is one of those people for me. My parents, Martin Luther King, Rachel Carson--there aren't many more that I can name.  

Aldo was a human being, yes. I'm fully aware of the imperfections that come along with the tag of Homo sapiens as I'm riddled with all the holes that humanity brings with it. But then there are those humans that elevate the "being" to another level--above the flesh and bone--those we revere for some reason or another. Most who know me know my “religion”. That I lean heavily on the words of Leopold for guidance in my life as an ecophyte is no secret. Yes. Me--a black man born of southern clay with a dead white Midwestern man I never met as a mentor. Call me odd. Call me Drew.

Holding someone in such high regard means that speaking in any way to reflect their words or ways can be a daunting challenge.  Such a task lay before me a few days ago as I had the humbling honor of delivering a speech at Wofford College's dedication of a special place. Three ambitious Environmental Studies students, Steven Bearden, Rob Kennedy and Rob Richardson, decided to spend their one month January interim building a scaled-down version of Aldo Leopold's homestead shack in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  THE Shack is an international icon for conservationists. It is a symbol for reclamation and sustainability. It is the land ethic built of boards. 

While the Shoals Shack would represent the same thing it would do so in a different way. And so rather than trying to photocopy Leopold's effort  by reclaiming a rural site or sticking nail by nail to the blueprint, they chose instead to add their own touches and build  in the shadows of an old cotton mill, a place where the hand of man held heavy sway and nature  has been an afterthought for decades. Their goal was not so much to copy as to translate and bring a legacy forward to a new place and a different people.

One of the southern textile islands that spewed spun cotton to the world and contaminants into the air and water, Glendale Mill was the center of a community and a cog in the industrial machine that defined a significant way of southern life for a large portion of the twentieth century. Destroyed by conflagration a few years back, the place is being re-born as The Goodall Shoals Environmental Center. It is an example of nature's power to heal and reclaim. 

 I'm not sure there's been any event at which I've been asked to speak that has created more anxiety. How would I do anything reflecting what Aldo did-- justice? As I sat snow-stranded on a tarmac in Charlotte, NC sinking in the waxing claustrophobia and growing din of dissatisfied travelers (including a persistent peek-a-booing toddler and an understandably cranky infant testing the diaper-soiling-in-a-packed-to-capacity-puddle-jumper world record) my own frustration gave way to inspiration. I pulled out a pen, found an old envelope --and wrote. The words found freedom.  The feelings flowed.  

By the time the day for the talk rolled around, the words spawned in the snow-stranding seemed ready to be set free. A small crowd gathered underneath the chilly overcast. After  talking with  a few folks and a cursory inspection of the  little building,  I found a seat on a bench by the creek  trying to gather my nerve before the event. As I watched the water wind its way past over and down the rocky shoals, my thoughts spun in the rushing rapids and time slipped away with them. 

My good friend John Lane, a Wofford professor and the visionary whose passion for nature, the region and mill culture have helped the Environmental Studies Program and this place come into being, introduced the Shoals Shack—christened “The Aldo” --to the gathering. I call John the Poet Laureate of the Piedmont. 
John Lane at the "Aldo"

His passion for the region and rivers everywhere is well known through his poetry and prose. I think he probably introduced Aldo and the young men who built the Glendale version to the crowd. Maybe said something about how they took recycled items and persistently stayed on task until the job was done. Perhaps he spoke about the bonds that developed between them. I think that this is what was going on because all the while I was well on my way to the sea, lost in the water and the words I wanted to say.  

I’d wandered so far downstream that John had to send someone over to pull me away from the company of the birches to make good on the words I’d written.
I stood in front of the little building-- and let the words loose.  Quoting Leopold’s is always a heady thing for me. I mixed his words with mine and the rhythm somehow seemed right.  The smiles on the faces of those present let me know that maybe I'd done good enough. 

“' 'There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot'. In that declaration of the 'delights and dilemmas'  to come, Aldo Leopold set us down  a wandering  path of wonder  where  A “good oak” spoke ; the call for “intelligent tinkering” gave us permission to horde biodiversity and “thinking like a mountain”  became the mantra for generations to think before they act against nature.  As the Father of modern wildlife conservation recounted his own evolution from an accountant of natural resources to a conscience for seeing the value in all wild things, he and his family reclaimed an old chicken coop and nurtured the burned out farm to a place with possibilities. The family’s reclamation in Sauk Wisconsin, one of the sand counties, became the birthplace of a movement; the crucible in which the Land Ethic was born. That ethic is one that '… simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land... In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.'

Conservation, Aldo said, 'is a state of harmony between men and land.' It was in that elegant and simple phrase that the golden rule vined up and out to embrace wild things and to make humans part, parcel and responsible to nature. It meant that a mutual respect—a thing that some might call love—would came to mean something when we glory in  fallow fields  flashing golden in the filtered fall sun-- or when we try in vain to describe the beauty of a bluebird’s auburn breast burnished against its own brilliance.  Leopold’s claim that 'A thing is right if it tends to preserve the stability, integrity, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends otherwise.' was his gospel. It should be ours too.

I took the pilgrimage to the Wisconsin River mecca a couple of years ago and as I entered Aldo's aura--his space--water welled in my eyes and a smile creased my face. My heart slowed to some imperceptible beating in the calm of the place but somehow my pulse quickened in the knowledge that I was sharing sacred ground. Bits and pieces of the book kept ringing in my ears. I had a first edition copy of A Sand County Almanac with me, clasping it as a parishioner might a holy tome.  At times it seemed to writhe in my hands—struggling like some wild thing to be free--begging to be heard in unfettered flight.  I couldn’t help but gather the students around me to set the words free. I preached the gospel according to geese and rivers, sunsets and Silphium. I hoped that the words would soar round their heads and roost in their hearts as they had in mine. For some, it seemed so. I ventured into the shack, touched the cold stone of the hearth and felt the worn wood of the mantle. It was no grand place but I felt small in it. I looked through the glassless windows to see things that Leopold only imagined--trees grown to maturity, maple leaves --scarlet and gold--shining in the October overcast like stars; a wounded landscape recovered with prairie grass and wildflowers. On a short hike to the river, I heard the “goose music” and my heart leapt even though the now ubiquitous waterfowl have lost so much of the wild reputation that Leopold lauded.  I knelt and scooped up a handful of soil and let the loose conglomeration slip through my fingers. Sand though it was, it might as well have been gold to me.  I knew that I was holding something that Aldo's boots had surely tread. Maybe at some point he’d fingered the same soil and pondered the possibilities.  I tried to absorb it all-the sights, sounds and smells —the palpable spirit of the place. It wasn’t possible. Just as I find new beauty each time I read Sand County, there will have to be more visits to absorb what the seasons have to offer.   I'm sure I will visit the shack again one day but I will never do so again for the first time.

And so today, as we stand here, for the first time, I hope that you feel a tremor, a pulse, a beating of something that quickens and calms. For this is now sacred ground too. It is sacred because it deems nature to be as important as ourselves; as essential as soil, as sustaining as water or sun. 

As we gather here at Glendale Shoals and the Goodall Environmental Studies Center--here in this fractured Piedmont place—a place where more often seems broken than whole—a place where the soil slicks orange to sticky clay  because the richness was lost long ago to plow and rain and callousness.  A place where the rivers have been corralled and flow slowed to tame the water for our purposes.  A place where forests were broken to become fields of cotton- cotton that would be picked by hands that weren’t part of society’s less than intelligent social tinkering; cotton that would find its way to mills –mills like Glendale --where workers toiled like ants for not much more than bread crumbs to make the looms and shuttles sing with industry--industry that fed the families waiting up on the hill --industry that clothed the world.

And so here we stand on soil that like Aldo Leopold’s, has been worn thin by time and toil. We stand in earshot of Lawson’s Fork Creek, the flow that brought power to the mill and took the dye and dirt downstream.  Aldo saw the possibilities in the tree-bare land as he set forth with his family to re-plant and re-claim the wild things swimming, flying, bounding and burrowing through it.  Someone too, saw the possibilities of this place after all those years of cotton coming and going. Someone saw the possibilities after hell’s fire took brick and timber back to dust on that mid-March night. Someone saw the possibilities for making good on the promise of bringing harmony back to land where the clamor of commerce had been quieted.  Someone saw the possibilities in building this shack, a tribute to reclaiming an ethic to ecology and an oath to the land and the community of wild things and humans. Look around you. See the sycamores—splotch barked and bone white waiting for spring’s permission to burst bud? They are the plant pioneers laying first claim to the integrity of letting nature take back what it lost.  Hear the mockingbird’s triplets claiming the day? There are other feathered things—warblers and maybe one day a woodcock—Leopold’s sky dancer-- waiting to claim the forest and thickets that await redemption.

The water running the shoals sees in this piedmont place what the Wisconsin river saw on that Sand County farm. It is hope. It is possibility. It is something good going and growing to something better.

And so here we stand at the Glendale shack.  More than a building it is the long vision of John Lane drifted like flotsam downstream to dreams swirling and a final rapid falling into a deep pool of reality. In that realization of a place being re-born to different purpose, a passion for this special piedmont place fledged in the nurturing.  The fledglings--nearly fully feathered and out of the nest, took on Professor Lane’s charge to practice conservation with the head and with the heart.

The young men that came here to these Shoals—to the Goodall Center grounds— Steven Bearden, Rob Kennedy and Rob Richardson —came with hammer and saw and purpose and passion.  True to Aldo’s way, they reclaimed what they could—even managed to find old boards from a chicken coop-- to keep the winds at bay and secure the inspiration that will help others see what was, what is and what might be.

We stand not in the midst of wilderness here or on an abandoned farm. No, this is place of human doing—bricks and mortar and metal--triumphs and failures.  We gather in the shadows of what remains--towering chimneys that no longer belch smothering smoke but invite twittering chimney swifts from tropical Peru to stay awhile.   

There is little loose soil here to claim as sandy but the southern piedmont clay on which we stand is no less parent material for rebirth than Sauk County sand. Here within the earshot of children playing, traffic going to and fro and a community’s pride growing, Big Rob, Little Rob and Steven came in the rain and endured the wet and cold. They hammered with nails and screwed and bolted to put the mechanical pins in place. It began with plans and schedules but ended with something else--an emergent something—a life and purpose greater than the sum of all the boards and nails that comprise the structure.
L-R: "Big" Rob Richardson, Steven Bearden, "Little" Rob Kennedy

And yes--there is a heart in this place. What truly holds this “Shoals shack” together is the passion and camaraderie that these three men gave freely and abundantly with a vision borne of love of nature. This love is what an artist’s eye sees in sunsets, what a waterfowler’s ear hears in wheeling, squealing flocks of teal and what a conservationist’s heart feels for saving a living, breathing Piedmont place. It is what visionaries dream of---saving something wild for the next ones that come along. 

Yes, 'there are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot..' We here so gathered at the shoals in the shadow of this place, are kindred who cannot."




  1. Absolutely moving and lots to think about! Too often we define nature as something both remote and pristine instead of what we have before us here and now. I'm a Masters student up in NJ, so I spent a lot of time everything from reading research articles to birding blogs. Today's entry is one of the more thought-inspiring pieces I've read in a long time. Thank you so much for sharing, not just your final product but the heart and effort that went into crafting it.

  2. Beautiful! Thanks!

    I expect you're familiar with it, but I read this book last summer, and enjoyed Connors' writing about "the forester turned prophetic ecologist Aldo Leopold."

    "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." Gospel indeed.

  3. Drew,
    What a nice tribute to "The Shack" and to a new shack in South carolina. Sand and clay, reclamation, letting nature return a land to its older self.Thank you for your thoughtful words.
    Ross(Wisconsinite and one time South Carolinian)