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There’s just something about this place. Each fall, we take our GreenHouse students on a Saturday excursion to the Leopold shack followed by an afternoon at a local state park.
The three docents for the Aldo Leopold foundation are all friends, all retired, all volunteering. Two are widely known Leopold scholars and the third was our campus historian. Our GreenHousers have no idea of the deep granular knowledge about Aldo Leopold’s conservation legacies embodied in the amiable graying men.
The Shack is a former chicken coop, rehabilitated by the Leopold family after its depression-era owner abandoned the exhausted and beaten farm to the state. It’s where much of Leopold’s iconic “Sand County Almanac” was birthed, if not in actual writing than certainly in inspiring Professor Leopold during years as a refugium from the academic world and the internecine battles for conservation we always seem to be fighting.
It’s all organized and running smoothly. As faculty director, I float independently, circling back to the shack when each of the three groups arrives to hear each docent’s take and to observe GreenHousers’s reactions.
The humble shack is a focal point. It’s ground-zero of environmental restoration, pioneered and practiced by the family; a milepost in environmental history, practice, and education; and a well-spring for the intersection of literature and sense of place.
It’s a lovely fall morning for poking around. Walking in, I skirt the restored prairie, turning fall-brown but for pointillist sparkle from late season asters. I savor shade and wind-rush of pines planted by the family. Goose music through the trees. In the floodplain, the Wisconsin river moves with gravity and permanence. There’s an eagle on the far shore and a brace of cranes overhead. Beaver trails in the sedges. Green warblers in the trees, the primal pull of migration building. A hairy woodpecker. Coyote scats on the trail. The students are enchanted. Chickadees, chickadees, chickadees. It’s no wonder why Leopold so treasured the shack. Here, deep ecology burns off academic fog-brain, drawing out the pellucid attention and creativity that so animates Sand County Almanac.
Out front are two muscular oaks, planted to commemorate Charles Elton’s travel from Oxford to Wisconsin and a friendship that developed. Elton’s theoretical ecology met Leopold’s applied conservation and two disciplines melded became greater than the sum of their parts.
Stan says there’s a great story there, waiting to be told. Beneath the oaks, a crude table is succumbing to mosses, lichens, and fungi. It faces the firepit and likely held Leopold’s Dutch oven while his ranger stew cooled. Black wood tells me that its softening, melting into the damp understory, nails rusting through. The way of all flesh. Behind the shack, I peer in from outside, chin on arms on sill, listening to docents’ stories. I scratch the board and batten siding with my fingernail and the soft surface wood scuds and crumbles. How long? How long before this shed softens in this humid forest and falls in on itself? I worry.
Normally this is easy, even serene, but normality now smells a little sour. The iconography of conservation holds this place sacred, but we peer backward through a lens of depression-era sensibilities. Key human players in the drama; Leopold, his students, his professional contemporaries were nearly all male, white, and European. The Landscape staging in southern Wisconsin is one of farms and forests, husbanded (yes that’s a verb we sometimes use) by farmer and forester men – mostly a generation or two removed from a northern European homeland.
There is and remains a deep and often tragic cultural connection to Wisconsin’s indigenous peoples in the land itself, but they and their stories are missing in the canon. The broad-shouldered University of Wisconsin benevolently hulking on the southern horizon has its own origin story mired in the 1862 Morrill Act’s unjust dispossession of native people – a fruit of Manifest Destiny and its gloss of Christian righteousness. We should know, at a minimum, their names. Locally, they’re Ho Chunk.
Wander even earlier into conservation history and one finds among the hoary pantheon of forefathers occasional outright racisms, sexisms, and elitisms, persistent stubborn stinks. We either search them out and deal with them or we become inured. And I stand convicted. Weed them out.
And today, I stand convicted at the shack, on a peerless fall morning graced by dozens of young people who care hopefully about sustainability, and who themselves are much more diverse than the students in the black and white photos, collars pulled up against the cold while Professor Leopold explained some fine point at the arboretum.
The urgency of the moment, the climate crisis, the extinction crisis, the human and non-human injustices, cannot be overstated. More so than most of us, they get it. More of them are women and people of color and from urban backgrounds and I try to see things through their eyes, trying harder this year. We need them to see themselves here. We need them to own it.
I’ve taught this history for years, and I love it. My faith and my vocation merge over considering sparrows. And while I’ve always sort of known of roots tapping an exclusionary culture, I let that fact fade into what I thought was a benign soft focus of history. Time to love it enough to probe the hard questions. Time to do better for them. I am the student now.
We plant our own seeds at the shack. Sowing into a complicated history hoping to grow from it a wisdom for a critical moment. Some parts we nurse to grow robust and strong and important while others should be left molder and fall and be subsumed by new growth.
Ecclesia semper reformanda est.