Early on Claude Monet introduced me to the variances and uses of ambient light. Then Aldo Leopold taught me about earth ethics and the beauty of writing in ways your words might come alive and hopefully create a visual image for your reader. Though both are obviously long passed, a touch of their souls exist with Monet’s Giverny Garden in France and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County cabin near Baraboo, Wisconsin. For a few weeks, at least, there was a possibility of visiting both “shrines” within a month’s time.
Then Covid concerns wiped out our planned trip to France, prompting a friend from France to say, “Giverny isn’t going anywhere. You can come visit another time.” Perhaps, although at my age “another time” is a precarious promise!
Making it to Leopold’s sand country nestled within the heavily wooded Baraboo Hills, one of the most ancient rock outcrops in North America, remained doable. An old friend, Micheal Muir, of Dubuque, was up for a trip to the sand farm, one we’ve discussed doing for a few years, so once again the worn pages of Leopold’s iconic Sand County Almanac was pulled from my little library. Like with Muir, who reconnected with me some 50 years after I left Dubuque, this reading was a rekindling of an old friendship. I’ve long wished to visit Leopold’s hideaway, to see his old cabin which is perhaps 20 minutes from the hideously touristy Wisconsin Dells — a place as different from his quiet Sand County farm along the Wisconsin river as his land ethic is from today’s corporate agriculture.
My suspicions are that Leopold would be as shocked to see what has happened with both the Dells and the transformation into corporate farming since his death in 1948, mere months after the publication of his essays in the Sand County Almanac. Both perhaps serve as metaphors of a distant time. It was here the University of Wisconsin professor escaped from campus and humanity from nearby Madison to commune with nature and pen many of his essays.
Although his stake in environmental consciousness may have weaned over time, many of us still honor and respect his contributions. Indeed, we saw “GRN FIRE” license plate on a parked Audi, referencing a documentary on Leopold and his land ethics. A few weeks ago I mentioned the trip to friends by explaining that Leopold was considered the “father” of the environmental movement only to have a someone argue that Rachel Carson was the main influence of the movement with her “Silent Spring.” Perhaps, yet Leopold was reportedly a major influence in both Carson’s life and work. Neither should be forgotten nor disrespected.
A narrow paved road eases through the woods and infrequent fields of native prairie en route to the Leopold Foundation. Two sandhill cranes frolicking in a field served as a prelude not far from his sand farm, which Michael and I noted would have been a proud moment for Leopold. “My own farm was selected for its lack of goodness and its lack of highway, in fact my whole neighborhood lies in the backwash of the River Progress,” is how Leopold described this entry into his small world. The Foundation itself is a grouping of several cedar-sided buildings weathering perfectly in symmetry with the adjacent woods and prairie. Indeed, some trees are being harvested to make room to extend a native prairie, a spokeswoman at the Foundation told us.
After walking the grounds and checking out a small museum, we ventured over to the farm site although we were too late to get a place on one of the two afternoon tours. Seconds after we parked, a young mother backed in next to our car with her elementary aged daughter. She was providing a lesson, she said, explaining that her daughter was attending the Aldo Leopold Elementary School in Green Bay. We two old guys followed behind as best we could and soon lost sight of them as we neared the shack. Micheal told of once coming here and finding the windows and the door propped open. Leopold’s great grandson and his family was using the cabin and invited him inside, a privilege granted us a bit later by one of the tour guides.
An apple tree stood alone in a clearing, and paths led off in different directions. Some into the woods, some toward the Wisconsin River. You could almost envision Leopold’s footprints in the sand, especially on the path that broke through a clearing of the woods and led to a wide bend of the river. In the fall visitors crowd into a blind just downriver on this same bank on the Leopold farm to witness congregating flocks of sandhill cranes on their migration south. The sand was deep and taxing to walk through, much like sand untouched by ocean tides, then we broke through to find a seating bench on the bank of the bend. We sat there for nearly an hour alternating between conversation and meditation, mesmerized by the slow flow of the river while being sheriffed by several cedar waxwings.
Eventually we returned to the shack where one of the tours had settled in, and thankfully we were granted entry. Two feathers and a grouping of turtle shells on a makeshift shelf centered the one free wall across from four rudimentary bunk beds, a suet stained stone fireplace, a small wood stove and basic, unostentatious kitchen area. Kerosene lanterns and ironware cookery were still in place, along with a couple of his hunting guns. Nestled between the only door and two windows was his writing table. It appeared as if nothing much has changed in the nearly 80 years since his passing. It seemed Leopold could simply still settle in and feel right at home.
Throughout the farm were sitting places, some with weathered and even falling apart wooden benches. We overheard one of the tourists ask a guide if a bench nestled next to the cabin was used by Leopold’s. The guide smiled and said, “No, for it is highly unlikely such a bench could weather 80 winters … 80 years. But it’s a good thought.”
I found it hard not to remember some of his passages and philosophical thoughts while looking around the cabin, or stopping at various points on the different trails. While I have accumulated at least three copies of Sand County Almanac, my favorite is illustrated with the drawings of Charles W. Schwartz, who in my youth was an artist with the Missouri Conservation Commission. I was fortunate to have met Schwartz a few times while I was in college, and his son, Bruce, lived a few doors down from my first dormitory room at the University of Missouri.
As for Leopold, when I worked for the Denver Post I covered a conference in Crested Butte and gave Nina, Leopold’s daughter, a ride to the Denver airport. On our drive through the mountain passes, parks and valleys, she admonished me for driving too fast for the birds to lift safely in flight from the highway. “Yes,” I said, “but you have a flight to catch.”
Nina reached over to pat my arm and said, “There will be other planes to catch!” A father’s daughter.
As Micheal and I stood outside his cabin for a moment before heading out I thought of Leopold’s worry: “Someday my marsh, dyked and pumped, will lie forgotten under the wheat, just as today and yesterday will be forgotten under the years.”
Thankfully that has not happened.