Aldo’s Farm

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.

On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere. It is here that we seek, and still find, our meat from God.” Aldo Leopold

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.

“When we hear his call we here no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” Aldo Leopold

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.

“Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I’m glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on a map.” Aldo Leopold

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.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Aldo Leopold

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.”

Michael Muir looking out of the Leopold cabin window.

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.

Highway into the Apocalypse

When we turned from 172 onto the intercontinental Northern Tier US Hwy 2 from Washington’s Lake Chelan, our view to the east was a plain of nubby sage and a highway cresting toward a smoke-filled horizon. The distant mountains were hidden in the haze. In a field across the remote junction stood a crumbling, long-weathered cabin continuing it’s descent into basalt enriched earth. 

Were we about to turn onto a highway into the Apocalypse? Was the deteriorating cabin a metaphor of the future? This tunnel of bluish-gray smoke made us seem like we were hurtling toward a fiery end, and a New York Times illustration posted on a social media site highlighted the wild fires of the West as if this corner of the country was an arm of an 11-year-old with measles. 

Two weeks earlier we had left on our trip from Minnesota driving toward the smoke-filled horizon from the other direction; this, after weeks of distressing beautiful sunsets featuring a reddish globe of a sun in the western sky. Smokesets? Through much of our 2,000 miles to the Oregon coast we continued to face into the smoke. There seemed to be no relief. Then we hit Spokane and amazingly, gorgeous blue skies gave us some nice clean air to breathe. It felt like a miracle, like a long, slow rain after weeks of being parched by intense heat. As it turns out, the areas near the coast were the only clear skies we would see … even now that we’re home.

Just to the north of Highway 2 the distant mountains were enveloped in smoke from the wildfires in Northern Washington.

Two summers ago we were here visiting friends who have a home on a mountainside plateau above Lake Chelan and the smoke from the wild fires was as thick as a Minnesota winter fog. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived this year to find smoke-free skies. That all changed by late Friday afternoon, and by Saturday the smoke was nearly as thick as it was two years ago, likely from the fires in Northern Washington where the well-traveled but temporarily closed Highway 20 meandered through tall mountainous forests aplenty. On a fishing expedition for cutthroat trout Saturday morning the smoke hovered mere feet above the surface of Lake Chelan. 

We would not escape the apocalyptic looking skies on the rest of our drive across the country as smoke blanketed us through the plains of Eastern Washington through the Idaho Panhandle. Sometimes you wonder if this will ever end, and I was reminded of my trepidation about this trip while viewing one more reddish global sunset on the eve of our departure. Were we placing ourselves in danger, not just from being caught in a wild fire, but about our ability to breathe healthy air? Should we cancel this trip we’ve planned for nearly a year? 

The small cabin just below the intersection.

These fires are resulting from a nearly nationwide drought blamed on global climate change. In Lauren E. Oakes’ book, “In Search of the Canary Tree,” she explored the broad scope of deaths of yellow cedar trees within the old growth forests of the Alaskan coast. Global warming had significantly reduced the amount of snowfall, which would blanket and protect the delicate root systems of the yellow cedars. She also concluded from her research that humans, even those most affected by the die-off of the trees, are more willing to adapt than to change.

Apparently the loss of the yellow cedars was no more of an “ah, ha” moment to encourage human-wide change than these smoke-choked skies. As a race, we’re adapting rather than seeking serious habitual change. And, I am humbly aware of my own contribution by driving on a multi-state vacation! 

Two weeks earlier this was a hay meadow, but on the return trip it had been converted into a fire camp with hundreds of individual tents, an infirmary and mess hall along with ample space for helicopter landings.

Traveling home we stopped at Beavertail State Park in Montana. In what two weeks before had been a picturesque hay meadow was now a fire camp with countless two-man tents, a tented mess hall, a tented and air conditioned infirmary and ample space for helicopter landings. There would be no escaping the heat for the fire fighters with temperatures still hovering around 96 degrees as the sun, settling into another red ball sunset, slowly slid behind the nearby mountains.

And, there would be no escaping for us, either. All across the 2,000 mile trip home, temperatures would be reaching into the mid-80s by mid-morning, and by noon, into the 90s. There was no avoiding the drought, the heat, or the smoke. We are still facing nearly a half-summer of a nationwide drought and wildfires from the Pacific coast eastward even into Canada. Yet, it seems we are, as a species, still awaiting some magical “ah, ha” moment that will spark actual change rather than adaptation; for us, and for the good of the planet. Driving into the apocalypse does tend to make you wonder.