I’m a nerd, always have been. I’ve never been one to shy away from that. I’m a music nerd, a book nerd, a Doctor Who nerd…and growing up with parents who are all about “the nature,” I’m also a nature nerd.
One of my favorite books is Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. I first read it in sixth grade, and then again as an assignment during my first summer of graduate school. I love the way this book is written, like you’re reading someone’s nature journal. I love the stories he tells and the images they conjure up in my mind. I loved reading about this far away ecosystem, so different from the only one I’ve ever really experienced here in the Pacific Northwest.
Last winter I received an invitation to my cousin’s wedding in Madison, Wisconsin. Hmm, Wisconsin. Never been there. But something went off in my brain. On a whim, I googled Aldo Leopold and realized why my brain had jumped—his shack, the geographic location of A Sand County Almanac, was about 45 minutes northwest of Madison. I called my dad. “We should go,” I said. “Come on, when will we get another chance to see Leopold’s shack?” He didn’t need much convincing. “Let’s keep this in mind so we can plan our flights around it,” was his response.
Fast forward to the end of August. My mom, my dad, and I are driving to a little Wisconsin town called Baraboo. We’re on our way to the Aldo Leopold Foundation. It’s hot outside. Our rental car has fancy air conditioning and we’re all glad for it. Us Pacific Northwesterners aren’t used to this weather.
Arriving at the Aldo Leopold Foundation campus, we walk around the native vegetation and an outdoor classroom building, then head into the office. The woman at the front desk gives us a map and explains how to get to the nearby Leopold property. I see a picture of Estella Leopold, Aldo’s youngest child and the only one still living, and wonder what it must be like to be Aldo Leopold’s offspring. Estella lives in Seattle and I was fortunate enough to meet her once at a gathering of the Natural History Network.
Plaque by the entrance to the Leopold Foundation building reads:
Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm
has been designated a
National Historic Landmark
This property possesses national significance as the outdoor laboratory for Aldo Leopold’s pioneering work from 1935-1948 in wildlife management and ecological restoration, and as the inspiration for his seminal work, “A Sand County Almanac.”
National Park Service
United States Department of the Interior
Parking by the side of the deserted road, we walk down a wide, short, grassy path through tall-grass prairie and I realize that I’m finally going to be able to see the Shack! I’ve had a feeling like this just one other time—when I hiked to the top of Sourdough mountain and was able to see the fire lookout where beat poet Gary Snyder spent time in the 1950s. Rounding a bend, I get my first glimpse of the Shack. A small, wooden structure that I know was originally a chicken coop that the family enlarged and made habitable for humans.
We can’t go inside without being part of an organized tour, but we peek through the windows. Two sets of bunk-beds take up one wall, a table and stove take up most of the rest of the room. There were seven people in Leopold family. How they spent their weekends and summers living in this tiny space remains a mystery to me…until I realize that they probably spent most of their time outside.
As we read up on Leopold family history and the history of unofficially-named “Sand County,” so named because of the vast amounts of sand that made up the landscape instead of soil, we learn that the seven Leopold’s planted thousands of pines each year, in the hopes of slowing down erosion and protecting the environment. Their grand total was 50,000 trees planted. Now, there are several kinds of oaks mixed in with the pines. There’s enough shade to be temporarily sheltered from the unforgiving sun.
The brochure we’re carrying sends us down the trail, stopping us at various points with numbered sign posts, to share some history of the place with us. We walk through dense forest, tall prairie grasses, and the open sandy banks of the Wisconsin River. History is coming alive in my head.
The Wisconsin River abuts the Leopold property. To think, the whole thing used to be barren sand like this… Photo by the author
Too soon, tired and baking in the heat, it’s time to leave. I’ll be back someday. I’m the kind of nerd who wants to share this with friends and family over and over again…
Ryan Weisberg is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Ryan grew up here in Washington, exploring the natural areas around Bellingham and in the Cascades. Passionate about writing since childhood, Ryan served as Chattermarks editor during their year-long residency at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Ryan continues to enjoy writing for the blog.