I’d not realized the significance of Aldo Leopold until my recent exploration of the Leopold Center and the Aldo Leopold shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin. I’d read commentators who said that his book A Sand County Almanac was a pivotal book in American environmental writing, along with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and I’ve enjoyed my way through three quarters of the pleasant-to-read and conversationally insightful Almanac.
But it was at the Leopold Center where
information posters educated me that A Sand County Almanac culminated the lifetime work of a man who—during years of study and writing of plants, animals, land, and their interconnections, and of exposure to their eradication—realized that to save wildlife we also needed to conserve their habitat. We accept that now, but both saving wildlife and conserving habitat were not always part of the American psyche. His “Land Ethic,” or how must protect land and its ecosystems, is now integral to modern conservation thinking. As Leopold said, “Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”
I was fortunate to stumble onto a tour of the Aldo Leopold shack that was led by a university biology professor from Iowa who volunteers his time annually at the Leopold Center. The shack is on what had been a corn stubble farm that Leopold purchased near the Wisconsin River. There, he, his wife, and their five children (and visiting graduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison) vacationed and restored the land—a sort of living laboratory of his conserving-land-that-renews-itself philosophy. Their plantings transformed the stubble into the trees, bushes, and prairie grass that we appreciate today.
The Leopold Center and the Aldo Leopold shack are off the main route for those exploring America’s parks and refuges, but visiting them is a great day trip for those wishing a pleasant drive through Wisconsin farmland, insights into one of America’s conservation greats, and a copy of A Sand County Almanac, a classic of American conservation literature.