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Happy to exit the car after a long drive, I inhaled a sweet lungful of damp leaf perfume. A giant oak towered above the trailhead as we sauntered into the forest – eagerly, but also thoughtfully. We continued through a tall, damp meadow full of weed seeds and a mist so fine it swirled rather then fell. The brown, wooden shack with a white painted door stood in a small clearing. Although quite humble in appearance, there was a certain dignity about it, as well as an aura of wisdom.
“Every farm woodland, in addition to yielding lumber, fuel, and posts, should provide its owner a liberal education. This crop of wisdom never fails, but it is not always harvested.”
This shack was the weekend escape for a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor named Aldo Leopold and his family. On a worn-out, abandoned farm in the “sand counties,” Leopold set out to see if he could return health to the abused land. He also harvested--many times over--its crop of wisdom.
The liberal education provided by Leopold’s farm resulted in his writing of “A Sand County Almanac,” and the idea of a “land ethic.” I still remember the first time I read and underlined one of his most powerful quotes: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
I love that Leopold includes beauty as a value of nature. As we stood in front of the Shack, chatting with an educator from the Leopold Foundation, she waved her hand toward the elegant silhouettes of mature pines. “The Leopold family planted thousands of pines every spring,” she said. This forest is their legacy, their work of art.
“To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree-and there will be one. If his back be strong and his shovel sharp, there may eventually be ten thousand.”
While Leopold may understate his role as an artist, the loveliness of his land boasts for him.
“Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed by successive generations, in each of which are likely to be found a few appreciative eyes.” By the popularity and success of the Leopold Foundation’s program and message, it is clear that this shack, its farm, and their message is finding many appreciative eyes in successive generations.
On this damp, fall afternoon, two generations of conservationists explored Leopold’s legacy together. My parents were born just before “A Sand County Almanac” was published in 1949. In the 1990s, my dad traveled with a box of those books; always ready to give one away with the recommendation “I think you should read this.”
Chickadees chattered from the boughs. The leaves of sharp-lobed hepatic glistened in the understory. Lilacs, geese, “red lanterns,” of blackberries, birch, and the winding Wisconsin River – the characters from Leopold’s writing – all surrounded us on our walk through the autumn pines.
“All [pines] write the same thing, in the same tawny yellow ink, which by November turns brown. Then the needles fall, and are filed in the duff to enrich the wisdom of the stand. It is this accumulated wisdom that hushes the footsteps of whoever walks under pines.”
Walking quietly, we reflected on the accumulated wisdom of this special place. Wisdom from the past that is needed for our future.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Lake Alive!” opened May 1, 2015, and will remain open until March 2016.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.