A Land Pilgrimage to the Home of Aldo Leopold

Canopy with pines planted by the Leopold family near the Shack

A pilgrimage is defined as a journey to a shrine of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith. A recent late-June trip to the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, WI and the UW-Madison Campus and Arboretum in Madison, WI, was a land pilgrimage for me indeed.

The trip was spurred by the opportunity to give a couple of presentations at the Building A Land Ethic Conference at the Leopold Foundation. Aldo Leopold’s famous “land ethic” concept basically stated that people and land are of similar importance in a vibrant community.  The conference carried this theme consistently throughout its programming and especially focused on how we should seek to build bonds that heal our current urban-rural divide.

Leopold Foundation education buildings and reconstructed prairie

LEED certified buildings with solar panels and rain water collection aquaducts moving water to a rain garden

Meaningful symbolic artwork for the conference was a patchwork quilt, where seemingly useless fragments and pieces are bound together to form a rich, vibrant and very useful network.

2017 Building A Land Ethic Conference theme artwork

Stimulating lectures on land, water, art, and food, mini workshops about land ethic leadership, field trips to the Shack, and networking opportunities with people from around the world were all important parts of the conference.

“The Shack”, a dilapidated chicken coop turned into a weekend and summer getaway along the Wisconsin River in the 1930s and 40s is a centerpiece of the Leopold Foundation grounds.

The Leopold Shack: Except for some chimney repair, the Shack exists nearly as it did when Aldo Leopold died in 1948.

Aldo Leopold and his family camped, hunted, fished, played, cut wood, grew food, planted trees, and restored prairie at the Shack for more than a decade.

One of two saws likely used to cut “The Good Oak” (a chapter in A Sand County Almanac)

Aldo’s observations and writings were compiled into the book A Sand County Almanac and published in 1949, a year after Aldo died of a heart attack fighting a wildfire near the Shack. The Shack and grounds are now a National Historic Landmark and the eloquently written book featuring the Land Ethic has become one of the most famous pieces of literature in the conservation movement.

Memorial site where Aldo Leopold died fighting a wild fire

Family experiences at the Shack must have been foundational for Aldo’s five kids, because they all went on to earn advanced degrees and pursue careers related to ecology and conservation. Estella Leopold, now 90 years old and the only living Leopold child, recently wrote Stories from the Shack, a delightfully detailed set of memories from her childhood days along the Wisconsin River.

Estella Leopold recounts in her book many childhood memories around the construction and enjoyment of this fire place in the Shack.

For most of the people attending this 2017 conference (the majority were from outside of WI), the teachings of Leopold and the lessons from A Sand County Almanac have been profound. I studied botany and ecological restoration at UW-Madison 20 years ago and Aldo’s words were important in the development of my ideals, vocational directions, and views of how humans should care for the land. After reading A Sand County Almanac again this spring and just finishing Estella’s new book, I was eager to return to and soak up the stories and landmarks of the Shack again a couple of decades later.

The world’s second oldest reconstructed prairie – one of many Leopold Family labors of love undertaken while at the Shack

Aldo Leopold taught wildlife management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UW-Madison, the same college where I did my graduate work a half century later. A significant part of my botany, ecology, and plant propagation studies as well as work internships happened at the UW-Madison Arboretum where Leopold was the first research director. After the conference, I rounded out my Wisconsin pilgrimage with a quick trip to Madison to walk through campus, hike the prairies, savannas and woodlands at the UW-Arb, and spend a bit of time visiting old friends.

Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest reconstructed prairie, at UW-Madison Arboretum

White wild indigo in Greene Prairie at UW-Madison Arboretum

Marsh milkweed and Ohio spiderwort in Greene Prairie at UW-Madison Arboretum

Eagle Heights Gardens near UW-Madison Campus – where Sara and I tended our first vegetable gardens

The iconic UW-Madison Terrace along Lake Mendota, one of the best places to enjoy Wisconsin’s finest food and drink offerings

To finish this story, I got back to Kansas just in time to join our Dyck Arboretum staff in hosting Aldo Leopold Biographer, Curt Meine, as our Summer Soirée speaker. Curt’s message about how Leopold’s land ethic ideals are fitting in Kansas today more than ever was a nice wrap-up to our year of events celebrating our 35th anniversary. He finished his talk with the following quote:

“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.” The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac.

After this pilgrimage journey, now more than ever I look forward to carrying on this land ethic conversation with our local and wider thinking community.

Double rainbow in Madison. What I have found at the base of this rainbow is way more valuable than a pot of gold.

A Land Ethic is Alive and Well in Kansas

On Saturday, March 18, we held our 11th annual spring education symposium entitled Living the Land Ethic in Kansas, and learned how much we have to celebrate in Kansas. This symposium was many months in the making and it went smoothly thanks to our four staff, help from a number of board members, the assistance of many volunteers, and underwriting support from Kansas Humanities Council.

The speakers were top-notch and their messages were filled with immense knowledge and passion. Those among the 85 registered attendees were literate, engaged, and full of great questions. The homemade baked goods for breakfast, Lorna Harder’s venison stew for lunch, and nice day outside to enjoy during breaks all helped round out a perfect day.

Rolfe Mandel

Craig Freeman

Michael Pearce

Jason Schmidt

Pete Ferrell

Brian Obermeyer

Erin Dowell

Wes Jackson

I gave a brief introduction of how this symposium developed as part of our year-long Dyck Arboretum 35th anniversary celebration with a focus on Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic chapter in his famous book A Sand County Almanac. We then heard presentations about the essential Kansas natural elements of “The Land” from educators and writers, Rolfe Mandel (soils), Craig Freeman (vegetation), and Michael Pearce (wildlife) and how these elements are foundational to our Kansas natural history, agriculture/ranching-based economy, food systems, and land-based enjoyment and recreation. Land stewards Jason Schmidt, Pete Ferrell, and Brian Obermeyer told their stories of how being a land caretaker is not only a way to make a living but that it is part of a cherished way of life through which one strives to sustainably pass along stewardship responsibilities to future generations. Elementary school teacher, Erin Dowell explained how critical it is to instill a land ethic in our children that will be our future land stewards. And visionary, Wes Jackson, rounded out the day with a presentation about how we as agricultural agents must steward the land as part of a living ecosphere.

The day was filled with dialog and rich with a variety of science as well as humanities topics about the important interplay between the land and people. Thank you to all participants!

Planting Trees: When Visions Become Legacies

“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” – Greek Proverb

A group gathered at the Dyck Arboretum this past Monday evening to remember all that has been accomplished on this plot of land since 1981 – the plant and wildlife communities that have been established, the beauty that has been added to the community of Hesston, the lives that have been impacted, and the lessons learned.  All of these fruits came from a vision, a dream, a notion of what was possible – AND a lot of hard work and determination.

And though a 35th anniversary may not seem as notable or momentous as a 25th or a 50th anniversary, this celebration is particularly special to us. It is the first significant celebration we’ve had without both Harold and Evie Dyck, our founders. In the past, we’ve had their words and ideas and presence here to help guide us. Now we, the Dyck Arboretum staff and board, volunteers, as well as the Dyck family members, continue to realize their vision through our work.

35th anniversary tree planting

On Monday, October 10, 2016, Arboretum staff and board members planted a black oak sapling in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the first tree planting at the Dyck Arboretum. That first tree, a bur oak, is shown in the background of this photo.

Aldo Leopold: Visionary and Legacy Maker

On Monday we learned about the life and work of another visionary. Aldo Leopold, a towering figure in the world of land conservation, devoted his adult life to studying nature, being in wilderness, and documenting what he heard and saw. (You may recognize Leopold’s name from several of the sculptures along our walking path.) Most notably, Leopold tended a piece of land with his wife and his five children and restored it to its most natural, most wild, most harmonious state.

I was particularly amazed to learn that, over the course of several decades, Leopold’s family planted nearly 50,000 trees on their land, restoring a small farm, with deteriorating sandy soil and a scarcity of wildlife, back to wilderness. When they first acquired the land, one of the Leopold children shared, it wasn’t much to look at. But as they all began to pitch in and work hard, their father’s vision took hold in each of them. Can you imagine – over a period of sixteen years, they planted 3,000 trees EACH YEAR? They had a vision and dream of what that land could be, but it required commitment and lots of hard work to realize that dream.

Leopold quote

Visions and Legacies

As a part of the celebration this week, we also planted a tree, a tiny black oak sapling, grown from an acorn that was collected from Leopold’s land in Wisconsin.  As we planted this tree not fifty yards away from the first bur oak that was planted here in 1981, it got me thinking about the difference between “vision” and “legacy”.

At what point does someone’s vision or dream for the future become their legacy? Is it when that person is no longer living? Is it when certain milestones or goals are reached? Does it happen slowly, over time, with each acorn or seed that is planted or sown, or with each visitor or student who learns something new? Is it when the vision is passed on, capturing the imagination of a new generation?

To play on a metaphor we use frequently here at the Arboretum, if planting an acorn represents a vision, what part of a tree’s life cycle represents legacy? Could it be when the tree that grows from the acorn drops seeds of its own?

The Dyck Arboretum pond in 1984

The Dyck Arboretum pond in 1984

Leaving our Own Legacy

When the Dycks first shared their vision with their family, friends and community members, they didn’t have much to show others to illustrate what they were dreaming of.  They only had an empty piece of land, once a couple of fields where wheat and alfalfa grew. But they planted that first bur oak tree, and the vision began to spread.

That tree is now on the eastern edge of our parking lot. It is easy to miss, but for the many acorns it drops on the pavement in autumn. Many who visit here will not notice it, nor the small plaque at its base that reads “Bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa. The first tree planted in the Arboretum, October 10, 1981.” It is only one of many trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses that have since been planted here, all playing a part in creating a living, breathing, dynamic landscape.

Meanwhile, in the median of the parking lot, there now also grows a small “Leopold” black oak sapling, the shade under which our children and grandchildren may take refuge. It is a piece of Leopold’s legacy and a reminder that our work isn’t done yet. It begins a new legacy for us here at Dyck Arboretum.

 

“We mourned the loss of the old tree, but knew that a dozen of its progeny standing straight and stalwart on the sands had already taken over its job of wood-making.”  – Aldo Leopold, “Good Oak” from A Sand County Almanac

Six Lessons I Learned from the Farm

Over the past several months, I have been reflecting on my time growing up on our farm and how those experiences prepared me for the work at the arboretum.  It is a privilege not everyone has the opportunity to experience and was a time in my life that I have taken for granted.  There was always something to learn, always something to do, whether for work or play.  Inherent danger lurked around every corner or piece of equipment.  There was planting, growing, and harvesting.  Experiencing those things were the best childhood times. They were so simple – at least that’s how I perceived them.

 

Here are some lessons I learned from the farm:

  1. Work hard at whatever you do. Then enjoy the fruits of your labor.
  2. Always beware of danger.
  3. The product is a result of planning, timing and a little luck.
  4. The land is a finite resource and should be cared for properly.
  5. Never give up, but persevere through challenges.
  6. Problems can be solved with a little creativity, a little ingenuity, a little time, a little common sense and/or maybe even a little bailing wire.

Certainly, there are more lessons than these six that I took from my time on the farm.  I was always exposed to something new.  A new way to plant, a new way to grow, a new way to harvest.  Sometimes there was pain that resulted in growth.  I don’t farm anymore – at least not on that level – but those experiences shape how I work and play today.  They even shaped how I think about the land and maybe even helped develop my “land ethic”.  I think each of us has formative moments in our lives that change us.  What are those moments for you?  Do those highlights impact who you are today?  It’s something to think about.