Tag Archives: Leopold Center

Listening with Leopold

In the blind

Many of the Greater Sandhill Cranes in Wisconsin gather each autumn on the sandbars of the Wisconsin River.  Happily, one of their favorite spots can be easily viewed near the Aldo Leopold Shack in Baraboo.  Not so happily, rain was predicted for the day I was to go see them.  Skies were gray and the wind was chilly as I drove to the Leopold Center.  But as a group of us hiked through the crunchy leaves to the blind along the river, patches of blue sky appeared.  It didn’t rain.

Instead, we got a rainbow.  Protected from the wind by the fabric of the blind, I wasn’t cold or the least uncomfortable, though we stood there for two hours.  With the streaks of the partial rainbow over the east bank of the river and the first hints of sunset behind us, it was a good place to be on an October day, whether we saw birds or not.

Wisconsin River

And we did see birds.  Geese flew in formations overhead.  A Bald Eagle flew by.  Sandhill Cranes came by twos and threes to gather on the sandbanks of the river.  I didn’t have a lens powerful enough to get a good picture, but I did have binoculars and I could sure hear their calls.  There was much hoopla as they arrived, bugling back and forth as they settled themselves among the dozen cranes already there.  Our guide, Stanley Temple, professor emeritus of University of Wisconsin and a scholar of bird conservation, called it “social chatter.”  The birds were talking with each other.

According to the fossil record, cranes are of ancient design.  In “Marshland Elegy” Leopold observed that “our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history.  His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene.  The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills.  When we hear his call we hear no mere bird.  We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.  He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

Each morning at the Shack, Leopold liked to keep notes on which bird species he heard and when he heard them.  From these notes, Dr. Temple recreated the likely soundscape of 1940s Wisconsin at this site.  In the bird blind, I heard some of them for myself, grateful to witness some of the enduring rituals of the season.

See (and hear) Temples’s work here: http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.html?programID=12-P13-00039&segmentID=7.      

Stanley Temple at the blind with a group from the Leopold Center

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