Tag Archives: conservation

Wilderness Act Commemorated on Lake Superior

It’s Saturday, September 27, and we are boating from Bayfield.  I’ve never seen the Apostle Islands before, so I drove from Chicago to northern Wisconsin for this chance to have a cruise with fellow Sierra Club members and some knowledgeable speakers.  It is a beautiful day to see the fall colors and  the islands of Lake Superior.

Our ship, the Island Princess

Our ship, the Island Princess

The first speaker is Tia Nelson whose father Gaylord Nelson was a Wisconsin senator and governor.  Nelson established Earth Day and his daughter is a conservationist, too.  She explains how it wasn’t just her dad who created the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Act fifty years ago.  Many people worked together to protect this natural area.  Now, with a colossal Gogebic Taconite (GTac) mine proposed for nearby Penokee Range that will pollute land, air, and water, Tia urges us to work together again to protect our resources that are not only aesthetically pleasing but vital to our existence.

Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman

Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman

There are about 136 passengers on board.  We visit the snack table and talk with each other during our two-hour cruise.  Devon Cupery tells me about the film she produced about the mine issue.  Neil Howk, a park ranger with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, describes each of the islands we pass.  All but one (Madeline Island) of the 22 islands are part of our National Park system, so they are no longer clear-cut for timber or quarried for brownstone but are left for wildlife and people to enjoy.  The boat pauses by Raspberry Island so we can take pictures of its lighthouse.

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

Raspberry Island Lighthouse

The last speaker, Mike Wiggins, is a compelling storyteller, painting a broad, almost mythical picture of the issues at hand.  I stop taking photos out the window of the boat and listen to him talk about protecting this rich land of fresh water, forests, and wildlife.  Mike is Chair of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe whose 125,000 acres of reservation would be hugely impacted by the taconite mine.  Their wild rice beds and Lake Superior itself, the holder of 10% of the world’s surface fresh water, would be polluted by mercury and other run-off from the mining process.  Chris Cline of GTac and the governor of the state eliminated laws and rules regulating the disposal of toxic mine wastes, following Cline’s pattern of destruction in other states and countries.

Mike calls Cline a windigo, a ravenous giant from Ojibwe tales.  He always wants more.  “Chris Cline is so hungry, he ate the state of West Virgina!  After he ruined that place, he took bites out of Illinois and now he’s coming for Wisconsin,” Mike says, explaining that windigo is the spirit of excess and can be vanquished by the powers of love and cooperation for the greater good.  Both humans and Mother Earth, he says, are endowed with an energy from the Creator, and when we call on that, there will be no mine.  Mike and the other speakers are role models for challenging the motives of greed and profit.  We can do better, they tell us.

I remember the Gordon Lightfoot song about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.  The 29 lives on board that Great Lakes ship were lost partly due to greed.  The Fitzgerald was carrying 4000 tons more taconite iron ore than it was designed to hold, making it hard to maneuver when pounded by waves in a storm.  It sank in Lake Superior in 1975.  As the lyrics go, “That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed/ When the gales of November came early.”

Will our natural resources be chewed to the bone by  storms of windigos?  As Tia Nelson said, it’s up to us to appreciate and protect what we have.  And on this September day, what we have is spectacular.

Apostle Island sandstone formation

Apostle Island sandstone formation

Cormorant on the pier

Cormorant on the pier

Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend

Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend

Back to the Shack

Looking out from the Shack

The final section of A Sand County Almanac (1949) is called “The Outlook.”  In it Aldo Leopold considered various attitudes, from “the farmer for whom the land is still an adversary” to the urban dweller who “is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets.”  He worried in the 1940s that land had become, for some, merely “the space between cities on which crops grow,” though most people still lived in those rural spaces.  In our time, for the first time, more people in the world live in cities than in the country.

He also worried about the habit of viewing the land as a commodity.  For Leopold–outdoorsman, ecologist, professor of game management–it boiled down to valuing our natural environment for so much more than its economic value.  “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, admiration,” he wrote.  He saw himself as part of a community, integrally connected to the plants, animals, water, air, and the soil itself.

It was about a year ago that I biked to the Shack where Leopold wrote about the land ethic and practiced its principles.  The building was not open at the time.  (See my September 18, 2010 post.)  I went back last week for two days of Land Ethic Leadership training, with plentiful role models of the love and respect of which Leopold spoke.  We learned in large groups, small groups, and out on the land.  We hiked in silence to a prairie remnant at the top of a Baraboo bluff.  I lay on a slab of ancient red stone and watched the grass and sky.   We also removed invasive plant species around the Leopold Center buildings.  Mostly, we talked about how to talk about conservation and the health of the land.

A highlight for many of us was to go inside the famous Shack at the very end of our training.  It is hard to believe that Aldo, Estella, and their five children stayed inside the tiny, dim space that was once a chicken coop.  Well, they slept on the bunks there, but mostly, I suppose, they were outside–planting the trees and wildflowers I admired from the window of the Shack and generally enjoying their time together in nature.

Leopold knew that our attitudes toward nature are always shifting, as his certainly did.  The land ethic is not a static thing that he could capture in words, because it is evolving.  Being in the woods and prairies, feeling the presence of Aldo’s daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley who died just a few months ago at the age of 93, and warmed by the light of the people at the Center, I was changed. Somehow my outlook from the window of the Shack took me beyond the pines, beyond the Wisconsin River, and back up to the top of that bluff.  I could see for miles.

Gathering at the Shack

Land Ethic

How did a hard-boiled forester, hunter, professor, and fisherman become one of our most eloquent spokesmen for loving and caring for the land? Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was a pioneer conservationist who is well known for his book of essays, A Sand County Almanac.  He credits a wolf in Arizona and a shack in Wisconsin for his personal transformation and the evolution of his ideas.

As a young forester in Arizona, Leopold killed a wolf.  In a section of his book called “Thinking Like a Mountain,” he remembered, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes–something known only to her and to the mountain.  I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.  But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”  Part of his transformation in the Southwest was that he ceased to merely act on his environment and began to act with it, listening to wolf and mountain, tree and stream.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”  To enter the community Leopold made his own, at least on weekends when he could get away from his work at the University of Wisconsin, I drove to the Aldo Leopold Center near Baraboo, Wisconsin (www.aldoleopold.org).  At the Center, a gorgeous pine and stone building with two kinds of geothermal systems, I talked with an intern named Anna and she gave me directions to the secluded Shack and loaned me a bicycle to get there.  Following a paved road and then a grassy path, I arrived at the place that inspired so many of the essays in A Sand County Almanac.

When Aldo, his wife Estella, and their five children bought their property in 1935, it was a sandy, over-farmed field near the Wisconsin River, with only an old chicken coop left on it.  The family shoveled out the dirt and manure and made that coop livable for their many visits from Madison.  (One son built an outhouse they called the Parthenon.)  For Aldo, it was an experiment in renewing the land.  He and his family planted thousands of trees and wildflowers, making it a lush, green place.  A place to listen to the land.

“A land ethic,” Leopold wrote, “reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.  Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.  Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”  He did that with his own hands, and died trying to extinguish a brush fire on his neighbor’s land.  His daughter, Nina, still lives near the Shack and has kept the green fire burning.

In 2012, look for the documentary on PBS, “Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic in the 21st Century.”

I biked to the shack where Leopold wrote Sand County Almanac

Muir Musings in Marquette County

At John Muir Park 2009

Barb at Ennis Lake, John Muir Park

Sun is breaking through the morning mist as I arrive at John Muir Park on October 27.  I walk down the hill to what the Muirs called Fountain Lake, now known as Ennis Lake, and see streams of holy light raking the fog-shrouded waters.

Though no structure remains, I know the Muirs’ farmhouse, built in 1850, was somewhere nearby.  I picture young John getting up on a day like today with the inside of the house about the same temperature as the outside: 34 degrees.  The one stove in the house was only for cooking, according to John’s father, Daniel.

The Scottish family made a farm here in central Wisconsin, their first home in America, when John was 11.  He and his brother attended school in Scotland, but in Wisconsin they were too busy doing farm chores and building a house.  Later, when the land wore out, the family moved to nearby Hickory Hills and John dug a well by hand through 90 feet of soil and stone.  He was almost worked to death, but the land and trees always revived him, as he wrote, remembering, “Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkly lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together!”

As the mists lift, so do flocks of small birds, moving from shore grass to lofty treetops all gold and red with autumn leaves.  A marsh hawk flies by and I hear Sand Hill Cranes calling from the Fox River across Highway F.  I’ve come to commune with nature–and the spirit of John Muir.  As offerings, I have two of his favorite foods: bread and apple slices.

Moving away from the lake, I follow a mowed path.  A section of the Ice Age Trail goes around Ennis Lake, kept up by volunteers in order to highlight the history of the glaciers in Wisconsin.  I go over a hill and down to two spreading oak trees, still hanging onto their leaves.  As the sun brightens the sky, the tan leaves glow as if fresh-baked and buttered.  The trees are so big, surely they were around when young Johnnie Muir was here.  I offer chunks of spelt bread and Fuji apple.  I throw in an almond for good measure.

Driving home, north along Tenth Road, I finally see some Sand Hill Cranes.  There are dozens of them milling about in an open field bordered by corn.  Usually the cranes pair off in separate fields, but at this time of year they gather to prepare for their migrations to Texas or points further south.  They call to each other, a deep chortle like rusty hinges on a creaky door.

With almost no traffic I am free to linger along the side of the road, watching.  Three cranes glide by my car window, sailing along just to stretch their wings.  In the field, two elegant, gray cranes face each other and bow.  One flaps its wings, then the other.  Then there is bobbing all around followed by a minute’s rest.  Then more bobbing and flapping.  It is quite a dance.

I drive home to the cabin, munching the remains of the apple I shared with John Muir and the oak trees.  During his lifetime, Muir helped create national parks such as Yosemite, but he was unable to preserve this patch of land that had been so dear to him as a boy.  He tried, but it wasn’t until 1957 that it became John Muir Memorial Park, where anyone can visit and make their own connections with the natural beauty that helped form a passionate conservationist.