Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sacred ground: A visit to the Aldo Leopold Shack and Center in central Wisconsin

Visited the Aldo Leopold Foundation last fall while my sons had a few days off school. It’s an amazingly accessible place just north of I-90/94 in central Wisconsin less than four hours from the Twin Cities.
Author, academic, parent, outdoorsman, Aldo Leopold  inspired a modern land ethic in generations of Americans (and beyond) via his writing, most notably in A Sand County Almanac. Those of us who believe all modern conservation highways lead to Leopold consider a pilgrimage to his famous “Shack” mandatory. I’m embarrassed to say I’d never visited before.
The Wisconsin River country northwest of Madison runs a little smaller than the Mississippi River bluff lands where I attended high school, but the rolling landscape still contains some wild, charming character. Leopold grew up in Burlington, Iowa, a Mississippi River town, so perhaps the call of the lower Wisconsin River valley held the same sway over him.
The five children of Aldo and Estella Leopold established the Aldo Leopold Foundation as a not-for-profit conservation organization in 1982. The building and displays at Foundation’s headquarters northeast of Baraboo, Wis., are simple yet informative. Opened in 2007, the Leopold Center proudly proclaims it was “built using pines the Leopold family planted in the 1930s and '40s, and implements a wide spectrum of green building techniques and technologies.” My family enjoyed the displays, including a short video interviewing environmentalists in other nations (like Russia and China) citing Leopold’s writing. Then my clan tromped around the relatively new 21/2-mile trail network surrounding the Leopold Center.
The cool, overcast October weekday kept crowds away, so we had the facility to ourselves. We then paid the $7 per adult to head back up the road a mile to see the famous Leopold Shack.
Leopold bought the property where the boarded-up shack still sits, a worn-out farm next to the Wisconsin River, in 1935. The shack is a re-built chicken coop where the family stayed during weekend retreats from Madison. He wasn’t kidding about the sand. It’s a short walk down to the Wisconsin River from the shack, and it leads you through some incredibly sandy soils. All that sand again reminded me of the Caledonia prairie – an old Mississippi River floodplain – in western Wisconsin where I lived in the mid-1980s.
The lousy soils didn’t stop the Leopold family from planting thousands of trees, prairie, and generally just nurturing the landscape on the property they purchased during the Great Depression. Those experiences helped spawn the collection of essays that became A Sand County Almanac, arguably the most important environmental tome ever published. Any hunter or wanna-be conservationist who hasn’t read A Sand County Almanac must do so. The Foundation says more than 2 million copies have been printed, and it has been translated into nine languages. While visiting the center I paged through a copy printed in Chinese.
The author and his family at the Aldo Leopold shack
just a stone's throw from the Wisconsin River.
(There’s something you don’t see every day.)
Near the shack, we picked up a few acorns on the property that, on our return trip in the Twin Cities, my boys planted on their grandparent’s farm in southeastern Minnesota. Maybe old Aldo himself planted some of those oak trees, and maybe someday their offspring will be producing acorns for the deer and turkeys on our hunting land.
Leopold had five children, three boys and two girls, all accomplished scientists and conservation advocates in their own right. (My wife, Annette, pointed out that we have three boys and one girl, so we’re one daughter short of the Leopold clan. I think we’ll be keeping it that way….)
Many conservationists in the Upper Midwest met or heard Leopold’s oldest daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley, speak and advocate for the Foundation’s causes untill her passing in 2011 at the age of 93. Her sister, Estelle, is the only surviving sibling. She lives in Seattle as a retired University of Washington professor emeritus of botany, forest resources and quaternary research, and she serves on the board of the Aldo Leopold Foundation as lifetime director.
Whether you consider the Leopold Shack sacred ground, or you’re just looking for a quiet piece of wild country for a peaceful hike, visit the Leopold Center the next time you’re passing through central Wisconsin.
The center holds special events and workshops throughout the year, or you can enjoy the facilities at your own pace.
For information, view the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website.