A Monument We Won't Topple

A Monument We Won’t Topple

As much as we New Mexicans like to claim him and name wildernesses and schools in his honor, Aldo Leopold left his greatest legacy whilst living in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Though I cherish Sketches Here and There because they are so often set among my beloved Basin-and-Range country of the Southwest, Leopold won his converts with the twelve month-titled chapters of A Sand County Almanac.

He left another, lesser-known legacy as well, known to those who have made their pilgrimage to the little town about an hour north of Madison, Wisconsin. There one may encounter what may be the clearest expression of Leopold’s land ethic: the “Aldo Leopold Shack” and the 150 acres surrounding it. It is not the Aldo Leopold Homestead—a plantation manor in the tradition of Mt. Vernon and Monticello. When the Leopold pulled their car up to the front door for the first time, they cast their eyes upon a dilapidated chicken coop.

According to the Aldo Leopold Foundation, “In the winter of 1935, Aldo Leopold went down a two-track, sand road in search of land for a family hunting camp. Alongside the Wisconsin River, he found a worn-out farm available for eight dollars per acre. Running against all cultural norms, he bought the bleak, windswept place rather than seeking richer land someplace else. The decision proved pivotal to Leopold’s family, his relationship to the land, and the millions of readers who’ve since been moved by A Sand County Almanac.”

The Shack became an unofficial Center for Sauk County Phenology and a laboratory for land restoration. When Leopold purchased the cropless farm, the United States was plunged into an economic depression and stunned by an unprecedented ecological catastrophe, the Dust Bowl, which left half a million people homeless and 100 million acres of American land devastated.

The Leopold Family Experiment gave rise to Leopold’s most profound work, The Land Ethic. Its 26 pages constitute one of the 20th Century’s fundamental statements about the place of humans on Earth. In a sentence so simple in structure, so straightforward in meaning, he defines what may be the most important guiding principle for the 21st Century: setting limits. Writes Leopold, "An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.”

There it is—that word we Americans detest: limitation. We are the people who break limits, who harness the unmanageable atom, who land the first humans on the moon, who code the Alexandrian Library on a thumbnail of silicon. We eschew limits on our dreams, our guns, and our longevity.

Two million copies of A Sand County Almanac have been sold in the United States; naturally, far few have been read. I’m not sure we could find half a million who would agree to “limit their freedom of action.” The sentiment verges on the un-American. Some of us have spent our whole lives Being all that we can Be.

“An ethic,” Leopold continues—again with seeming simplicity—to define an ethic as “a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.” He doesn’t speak in terms of good and evil, but rather in terms of social and anti-social—which speaks to the essence of what we humans are: social animals. It’s not a perspective we’re used to embracing; I struggle with it myself. Some days I prowl, head down, like an anti-social animal.

Despite his disappointment with the way the world is tending, Leopold suggested that our land ethic is evolving. He harkens back to the world of Odysseus, then to Ten Commandments, examining the morality prevailing in each. In time, some began to live by the Golden Rule. Democracies represent a further evolution, whereby we “integrate social organization to the individual.”

In 1948, though, Leopold observed that “[t]here is no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property. The land relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.”

The shack and the 150 acres the family purchased, decade after decade, is a monument to obligations and what they can achieve on a plot of worn-out, economically “worthless” land. The family planted over 40,000 trees on the property; in the early years, only 5% of the pines they planted survived. They gardened, they chopped wood, they fastidiously recorded the arrival of birds and insects and rain each year.

Alas, I haven’t visited the Shack; it’s a stop on a pilgrimage I’ve been planning for my retirement from my classroom. Instead, I rely on The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s photos of the Shack and the land that radiates from its simple shingle roof. “The family persevered, and planting at the farm became a rite of spring,” their website rhapsodizes. “Thousands of pines and other plantings eventually thrived, transforming the landscape into the mosaic of conifers, hardwoods, and prairie that visitors see today.”

As monuments to generals and conquistadors topple, the Shack endures. The arrogant are passing away, along with our regard for their megalomania. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, I am convinced that Leopold’s Land Ethic has taken root and has begun to blossom in many communities—in pristine forests and on lands despoiled by our selfishness.

Aldo Leopold continues:

“In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating. Why? Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves.”

His words resonate not only for ecologists but for political leaders. There are neither inessential species or categories of humans.

Two paragraphs later in “The Land Ethic” emerges the most astonishing sentence of all: “The ordinary citizen today assumes that science knows what makes the community clock tick; the scientist is equally sure that he does not.” Gifted prose artist that he became, Leopold was above all and throughout his life a scientist. Here he admits, for all his learning, for all the 500 articles and reports he published, that “the biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may never be fully understood.” But exploring that complexity may become a life’s work, as it did for Aldo Leopold. For all he accomplished, for all he came to understand, he signed off on his monumental learning with humility. It’s his confident self-doubt that inspires me as an educator who longs to see Leopold’s Land Ethic flourish and evolve in “the minds of a thinking community.”