A Day at Leopold’s Farm

I don’t know but I’ve been told…

about a man named Leopold,

Wrote an ethic for the land,

Taught us how to understand.

 

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I just got back from a pilgrimage to Aldo Leopold’s farm in Wisconsin. It was incredible. In order for the story I’m about to tell you to make sense, I need to give you a little history. I promise to make it as short and interesting as possible.

About 100 years ago, at a a time when clearing wilderness and hunting without a bag limit was the norm, a man named Aldo Leopold was living a simple life in rural Wisconsin. As he took morning walks with his coffee and his dog (my kind of person!) he took time to contemplate the animals, rivers, trees and general nature of his surroundings.  During these daily walks, Aldo developed a theory–that the value of land was not simply its potential for something else to be put there, like a house, or a cornfield, but its provision of clean water, abundant game, and natural processes to humankind. He believed that man could take from the land–by hunting, fishing, logging, and similar activities–as man was an organism of the land himself. BUT, Aldo said, in doing so, man is responsible for not only using resources wisely but taking action to improve them, such as removing non native grasses, or planting trees in an area that had been cleared.

He wrote all of this down in a book, A Sand County Almanac. 

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It’s pretty much the Bible of conservation, and all this time later, still holds a lot of weight for land owners and managers and outdoor lovers like me.

All of this is to say, I was BEYOND beyond excited to go to Wisconsin this weekend and visit his farm! (Only after stopping for fried cheese curds.)

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As the story goes, Leopold heard this farm was for sale during a cold winter in the 1920’s. On a frigid day in February, he took his family, daughters and wife included, out to see the property. They parked their car and walked along this road, but it was so cold they had to stop and build a fire to warm up.

When they finally reached the farm, this is what they saw.

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Nothing but a clear cut open field.

Under the snow, they would find a very overgrazed and overused parcel of land. The Great Depression was forcing many people to eek out a living from overgrazing and overfarming the land.

But the Leopolds saw its potential and bought it, planting 1,000 trees a year.

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Today, the land looks like this–diverse plant life and thick topsoil.

One thing I love about the Leopolds is they were very focused on staying positive, seeing the land’s potential, not its past, and moving onward and upward.  That’s the attitude you have to have when owning and caring for a piece of property. Don’t regret the decisions of yesterday.

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As we walked through the pine forest Aldo had planted decades earlier, we read excerpts from his book. (Nerd alert.)

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“A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke {of the axe} he is writing his signature on the face of the land,” Aldo writes.

Looking into the dense pine forest, that had once been bare ground with little topsoil, brought that line to life.

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“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”

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Reading these passages along the way, we walked through the forest to an open meadow on a trail that eventually led to…drumroll, please…

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The shack. Behold, the place where Aldo camped out regularly and wrote down his thoughts. It was an incredibly powerful experience to be here at this place. I imagine it would be like sitting down at Beethoven’s piano or holding Picasso’s palette. Being at this shack reminded me of the first time I went to Italy and saw in person the statues and paintings I had read about in textbooks.

It was a surreal, overwhelming and a completely inspirational feeling to be here.

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Immediately, when I walked in the shack, I could tell this place had stories to tell.  There was a big stone hearth, which Aldo found himself. I could imagine the family huddled around a fire here during a blistery Wisconsin winter.

I sat in Estella, Aldo’s youngest daughter’s chair, and could imagine her sitting beside the fire and idly looking out the window.

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On the roof beam, the family’s pet owl would perch and keep a lookout.

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I can just imagine how full the shack would have seemed with Aldo, his wife, their four children, a pet dog, and a pet owl, all crammed in this little shack.

 

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Upon the shack wall hung an old saw, which was used to hew “The Good Oak,” an ancient oak tree struck by lightning one July night while the family was in the cabin.

Aldo wrote about his experience sawing it and it’s one of the more famous parts of the book. Here’s the annotated verison: The Good Oak.

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After getting our fill of the shack–and while I could have sat there all day, I don’t think it’s what Aldo would have wanted–we headed down to the sandy banks of the Wisconsin river.

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We could see for miles across this wide and deep river and there was not a soul in sight.

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In Texas, it’s hard to find a stretch of river that doesn’t have at least some small sign of mankind–be it something so small as a dock or piece of trash. But the Wisconsin river was still truly wild.

The only sign of life was a deer track!

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“The good life of any river may depend on the perception of its music, and the preservation of some music to perceive.” — Aldo Leopold

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Heading away from the river, we walked through a maple forest to the site of the good oak. After that, we did a little gift shopping at headquarters!

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Headquarters of the Aldo Leopold Foundation is, by the way, Platinum LEED certified. Only the best at Aldo’s place.

I left feeling inspired, motivated, sentimental, and hungry. Thank goodness Wisconsin is the home of cheese, too!

Wisconsin, I will definitely be seeing you again.

 

2 Replies to "A Day at Leopold's Farm"

  • comment-avatar
    Keri DuBose March 17, 2017 (9:17 am)

    This is a beautiful reminder of our wild things and the need for mindful conservation.
    I just found your articles and am thrilled!! Thanks and keep writing!!!
    You will inspire your generation and those to come! We need more of you!! =)

    • comment-avatar
      Whitney March 18, 2017 (12:36 pm)

      Aw you are so kind!!! Thank you Keri. I hope to hear from you again!!

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