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

Monday, October 17, 2011


The first time I spied the curiously titled A Sand County Almanac  on my big brother Jock’s desk, I was maybe thirteen or fourteen  years old.  The three Canada Geese on the cover of the book caught my attention. Somehow the scene of the waterfowl, cast in green and honking under an overcast sky and the red-lettered title on the cover didn’t fit with the psychedelic covers of Carlos Castaneda and Kurt Vonnegut novels I was used to seeing in his room.   However, the printed birds –like the real ones--were an irresistible magnet and so I was drawn to the book in many ways because it just didn’t seem to fit who I thought him to be and it called to me, the birder and naturalist I was becoming.

As I flipped through the little book, its yellowing pages were littered with words that drew me in further- “nature,” “land,” “conservation” and “wild” came together in a magical formula that felt like my country life written down.  Edgefield, SC where I was growing up was filled with such ideas.  I lived them daily as I watched my father do his best to make a farm work while keeping things wild.  And then there were the illustrations of things that seemed familiar to me. The fine-lined drawings of wildlife jumped off the page and flew or scurried into my consciousness.  I stole the book from Jock’s desk and read it cover to cover.  I’m not sure I really remembered who the author of the book was but I knew the work spoke to me like none other ever had.  Later on I would learn of course that Aldo Leopold had penned the eloquent lines of prose that spoke of harmony, land, conservation and ethic.  His words would become like gospel to me as my conservation conscious evolved.  The more I read it, the more I believed the words and wanted somehow to see and be where the ideas ripened like autumn fruit in Leopold’s mind.  I imagined the shack he’d recovered from a chicken coop and the land he nurtured from negligence to a place of respite and respect.  I wanted to go there and feel the soil in my hands, see the river’s high mark and maybe be inspired to live the words Aldo wrote.  In the tradition of a great pilgrimage to some high and holy place, I had to visit the farm. And so when Jack Kloppenburg and Trish O’Kane invited me to Madison and the University of Wisconsin to talk about an article I’d written last winter in Orion Magazine (More than Birds; A Crisis in Birder Identification), I agreed to do so under one condition; I had to visit Leopold’s Shack.  With dates set and the conditions for the pilgrimage met, I traveled to Madison as autumn’s arrival here in the South is just beginning to gild the tulip poplars and hickories with yellow and burn the maples and sourwoods with scarlet and purples.

A dinner-party and discussion group hosted by Jack, Trish O’Kane (a PhD student) and several undergraduate students the night before my pilgrimage convinced me that I was among kindred conservation spirits.  As we talked about everything from the politics of deer hunting to the reality of Peace Corps work, I learned of Jack’s pioneering dedication to sustainable, local food production and how eager his environmental sciences students are to teach others about the natural world and the importance of protecting it. As I sat there, a stomach-full of homemade chili, cornbread, and Coca-Cola cake  my mind wandered to the expectations of the next morning.  What would it be like on the farm?  How would I react to finally getting to a place I’d envisioned as heaven on earth? 

Leaving the urban behind in a surprisingly short time, our little bus zoomed past fields and farms that used to be prairie. This is what I imagined modern Wisconsin to be like, rural and wide open.  After all, it’s where cows and cheese rule.  I knew that glaciers once scraped their icy bellies across the landscape leaving pits that became ponds and potholes in the prairie.  I was surprised at the rises though.  In places, high hills and bluffs rose above the former plains.  Although not much of what naturally was—was there, it was still an appealing scene; a leftover landscape that Aldo Leopold lamented in some ways but recognized too that humankind could find a place to belong.   

During the ride Jack offered commentary on culture and ecology as we paralleled the levee-tamed Wisconsin River.  We stopped to take a look at the waterway a mile or two from our destination.  On top of the dike, I wondered how different the scene would’ve been for Leopold.  The water flowed past, carrying life and things downstream as it did in Aldo’s time and presumably for eons before.  It had in fact brought him scrap lumber to construct the cabin he called the Shack. A great blue heron stalked a distant shoreline as ring-billed and herring gulls sailed overhead in a low, gray sky.  A student spied a bald eagle hiding its hulking form in a big cottonwood.  The overcast ceiling mostly hid the sun and the day seemed fit for contemplation.  I had been hugging a 1st edition copy of A Sand County Almanac   to my chest  like a holy tome as we stood there.  Somehow hoping I guess to have its words seep me into me as I soaked up whatever the day would offer.  I felt compelled to share “the word” and read a passage about the river bringing “possessions “that helped build the farm and the land.  The students stood in silence, sensing the moment of reverence.  It felt more sacred to me than time I’ve ever spent in any church.

On to the Shack, we drove through woods and wetlands designated as refuge to protect the wild things Leopold loved. Through a tunnel of trees, advanced in the Fall flush of color beyond what I’d left back home in Seneca, a recent rain lent a glistening gravity to an increasingly spiritually charged morning.  Our farm host, Dr. Stan Temple, met us at the farm gate.  He’d just witnessed migrating Northern Leopard frogs across the narrow blacktop and shared the wonder of that scene with us while lamenting the death of so many under the careless wheels of  a  “progress” --a phenomena whose scale Leopold  probably foresaw. Stan seemed like one of the pines Leopold had planted, solid and unpretentious but happy to be at home in the place.  As we walked the trail into the property, I lingered behind trying to soak in something, anything—everything up through the soles of my boots.
Northern Leopard Frog
Stanley Temple is a world-renowned ornithologist and respected for his seminal reports on the devastating impacts of feral cats on bird populations in North America.  Retired now from the University of Wisconsin, he held the same chair of wildlife ecology that Aldo Leopold did. Having competently followed in the footsteps of the Father of Wildlife Management and Conservation Ethic in the Ivory Tower, he now embraces his role beyond the academic to deliver the conservation word in a different way.  Humble, knowledgeable and gracious, his gentle manner and casual yet respectful attention to every detail of the place was inspiring.  As he explained the past practices—Leopold’s love affair with pines and the current battles to eradicate invasive exotic plant pests among them, I began to absorb the place. There was a meadow. Once a fallow field it was full of switchgrass, bottlebrush, purple-blooming asters and sunny black-eyed Susan's.  A pileated woodpecker’s call cut through the sounds of feet shuffling through the leaf litter and multiple conversations.  I still couldn’t believe I was there, trodding the same ground as a hero I’d never met but revered like a saint.  As we rounded the bend “it” was suddenly but subtlety there, a little gray and brown streaked wooden structure with a white door.  It just sat there, humbly waiting in understatement beneath a towering pine on the right and guarded by a huge maple with each leaf glowing like a miniature sun in the mid-morning glimmer.  I was really here. I stopped; stood there in some act of unconscious meditation.  I think I mumbled a few words of disbelief.  Perhaps only I heard them.  I’m not sure how those who travel to Mecca or Jerusalem or whatever place they deem holy feel when their eyes meet their expectations.  I can tell you that I was left speechless with a very large lump lodged snugly in my throat.
Dr. Stanley Temple- Keeper of the Faith
As we walked forward, the Shack grew in physical size but not by much.  The perspective of proximity didn’t lend much to the former chicken house’s measurable dimensions. However, it grew to gargantuan proportions in my soul.  Each plank in the construction became clear. Lumber, nails, screws, hinges, shingles, windows, latches—all had come together  to be this place that thousands now trek to in reverence. The simple white door glowed with invitation.  The Shack breathed as the leaves fluttered and blue jays and black-capped chickadees flitted around it.  The front yard held a fire ring and a few of Leopold’s famous benches.  The simple seats looked more like saw horses than chairs but were testament, like so much here, of Leopold’s economy. An old-timey hand-operated water pump stood looking new and blue in the shadow of the antique architecture.  I snapped photo after photo somehow trying to capture the essence of the place but it was like trying to catch the last glimmer of fading light shifting through the remains of the day.  The perfection of what one sees in certain things and at special times is fleeting and impossible to capture.  The present perfect is always past and therefore never  to be held again. There was no angle or perspective from which to do what I felt justice. 
 The Shack fits perfectly into a landscape that Leopold never saw.  The mature trees standing watch over the place, the recovered meadow, the planted pines that now guarded the entrance were all figments of Aldo Leopold’s informed imagination.  They were things that might be if the land was respected and revered—a tired parcel nurtured to paradise. I sat on a bench and felt the sound hardness of the oak that Leopold must’ve sensed recording birds in the dawn chorus.  I inhaled deeply to see if I might somehow take some of the inspiration into my being. The students milled around and talked. Many were just as inspired as I was  but I think the difference in years and experience may have not given them the same opportunity to fall so deeply in love and headlong obsession with the ideas that grew from the acres Leopold treated as respectfully as one might treat a wayward teenager  struggling to become something more. 

Stan unlocked the door and invited us inside.  It was almost too much ---but I did go in.  If the outer dimensions seemed small, the  inside was comfortably cramped. That Leopold brought  his wife and children to build and live here is testament to his devotion to both family and the farm.  That they willingly did so is testament to their devotion to him and his ideas of treating nature as an entity to be loved and lived in with reverence.   Beyond the artifacts of their lives here, I saw through the shutters of the thrown open windows, Aldo Leopold’s vision of the Land Ethic. Stan’s words informed my inspiration as he showed photos of the Leopold family’s farm life.  We left the cabin to visit the place where the good oak fell and again, I loitered behind, selfishly wanting to somehow live in the moment alone. I wanted to gather all of it up and hoard it in my heart. 
As we walked back past the cabin, past the "Parthenon"  (really an outhouse) and down towards the river, we passed through patches of ground trying to become prairie again.  Chest high grasses and fall flowers were doing their best to make the transition to be something Aldo would have waxed poetically about.  A family of eastern bluebirds warbled softly in an oak woodland that used to be a sandbar on the Wisconsin river and a "V" of Canada geese, rare in Leopold’s time but abundant now, honked their way down the river.  Cedar waxwings, ever the sociable songbird, lisped their thin songs on the breezy day now nearing the noon zenith.  The footing was unsure and I knelt to put my hands in the shifting purchase.  I plunged them deep into the heart  of the place, trying to somehow leave some seed of my soul in the sand. I imagined that Aldo himself at some point did the same to feel what this place was and what it could be. The coarse, chocolate colored soil yielded itself to me readily, fell through my hands, resisting my attempts to make it stick together like the clay of my southern home place would.  The curiously titled book that had drawn me in was now clear as spring water. I had come full circle to the place where an idea of ethic and morality to nature evolved and perhaps some of me, was reborn on that day.


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful! This is a truly wonderful reflection. I work with Jack at the GreenHouse, where I serve as the food intern, but I am also a graduate student studying environmental history. So, I've been lucky enough to go out to the Shack with Leopold's biographer, and can testify to the power of that place. Thanks for putting it into words, and I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet you while you were in Madison.