Homage to Aldo Leopold
August 3 – 9, 2016
“Grandpa, if we don’t go now, we are never going to go.” With these words, 13-year-old Leo admonished me to plan the trip we had talked about for several years, i.e., trekking to Wisconsin to visit the Aldo Leopold Center. This was for him to learn about the history and teachings of his namesake, Aldo Leopold, and for me to further my understanding of Leopold’s writings as they have profoundly influenced my feelings for the natural world. Because Leo’s parents, Jay and Ellen, and my wife, Jean, were off on a 3-week vacation to England, it was a perfect time for Leo and me to undertake our long-talked-about pilgrimage. So, in early August of 2016, Leo and I took a plane to Wisconsin and spent 6 days touring and visiting the country that inspired Leopold to write his environmental classic:
A Sand County Almanac.
We visited many attractions during our 6 days in south-central Wisconsin but the center piece and highlight was, of course, the visit to the Leopold Center.
The Leopold Center is committed to fostering Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic philosophy. In a nutshell, the Land Ethic is a manifesto for doing the right thing to land and its native biotic community. The center consists of two parts: 1) The Legacy Building and 2) The Shack. Trails emanate from both buildings and wander through the surrounding woodlots and open spaces. The recently-constructed Legacy Building is one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in the world. Utmost attention was given to construction methods, to the materials that were used, and to energy conservation features. It houses conference facilities; offices of the staff of the Aldo Leopold Foundation; and, especially, a display-area/museum honoring the conservation work of Leopold and his family.
The Shack, about a mile distant from the Legacy Center, is indeed a shack on 80 acres that Leopold purchased to pursue his personal interests in outdoor engagements. The shack grounds are a monument to what can be done to restore used-up land and return it to a state of health. The Shack is a restored chicken coop without plumbing, electricity, or gas - the Leopold family used it as a refuge and sleeping quarters during weekend visits. It is of minimalist design and never grew to embody more than essential pioneer-like simplicity. It is the place that inspired much of Leopold’s writings during his tenure as professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin. To the many who have read his writings and embraced his philosophy, the Shack is a shrine.
Leo and I signed up for a guided tour of the Shack. There were 13 people in the tour and Lyle Updike was our tour guide. Lyle, gray haired and roughly my age, was educated by a student of one of Leopold’s graduate students; he considered himself to be a 4th-generation Leopold student. His knowledge of all things Leopold was encyclopedic and he transmitted that knowledge with authority, enthusiasm, and reverence.
Using old photographs, Lyle showed how dramatically different the property now was compared to what it was like when Leopold first purchased it in the early 1930s. Then, it was a foreclosed, worn-out, useless farm. Now, it supports a healthy stand of pine/oak woods and robust patches of restored mid-west prairie. Indeed, in its current state, it is a premier model of restored land health.
I won’t attempt to cover the many topics that Lyle covered but, rather, describe a couple of particularly poignant moments that we experienced during the tour.
We had just come out of the shack where Lyle reviewed how the Leopold family restored the chicken coop into livable sleeping quarters using salvaged materials. Restored land, restored living space. Leo turns to me and says “This reminds me of the farm.” And indeed, there was a palpable resemblance between Leo’s Seattle farm and the Shack property.
About five years ago, Leo’s family (Jay, Ellen, Leo, and Ivan Mirro) purchased a foreclosed, neglected 34 acres of meadow/forest land near Seattle. In its early incarnation in the 1920s, it was a dairy farm. From there it morphed into a cabinet-making shop and illegal pot-growing operation. Trash, left-over counter tops, and granite slabs from the cabinet making days littered the place. Hidden underground bunkers and unmetered electrical connections for stealing electrical power from the utility company cast an aura of shady doings over the whole place. A dilapidated double-wide mobile home that had served as a house was now so run-down that it was unlivable. The many buildings on the place were in shambles and the assessor gave no value to these supposed improvements. The land was overgrown with invasive species, poorly fenced, and about to be consumed by the wild exuberance of unconstrained northwest vegetation. In the assessor’s eyes, all of the economic value was contained in the small portion of this property that offered a building site for a secluded rural home and in the timber in the 15 acre, douglas-fir forest.
Ellen and Jay saw it differently than the assessor. They saw the potential, with a lot of work, to turn the place into a viable, nature-friendly, family farm. Ellen, an architect, envisioned the restoration of the dilapidated double-wide into a decent living space but, given its run-down state and their limited budget, this restoration would have to forego some of the architectural niceties she delivered for her clients in her work. Jay saw in the land the opportunity to put into practice the conservation principles he advised small farmers to follow in his work as a farm planner in the rural/suburban Seattle area. Their dreams for this place were different than Leopold’s dreams for his shack property but I argue that the dreams were complimentary.
Like the Leopold Shack, the farm house was to be restored on a limited budget with virtually all the work done by the family. The list of things to do was long: remove the mold and the conditions that promoted mold growth; shore-up structural weaknesses; replace the roof, the plumbing, and the wiring; open up the interior and rearrange functional spaces; install windows everywhere; use the many granite slabs that littered the property for countertops and window trim; use second-use materials and appliances as possible. The goal was not to achieve pioneering simplicity in a shelter for week-end retreats as the Leopold’s had done but, rather, to create a modest home with a full slate of amenities for everyday living.
Although he followed the spirit of Leopold’s overall directive, Jay approached land use from a different angle than did Leopold. Rather than achieving ecological health by restoring the native community of plants that once occupied the land (i.e., ecological restoration), Jay sought to achieve ecological health by managing the land to maximize long-term ecological services (ecological services are outcomes from ecological processes that benefit humans, i.e., clean water, clean air, robust nutrient cycling through the human food chain). From an ecological services perspective, the role of humans in the ecological community is not only more active than in Leopold’s perspective but it also is a role with much greater responsibility.
Jay bought a used John Deere tractor and began mowing the meadows, clearing the invasive Himalayan blackberries that had overgrown everything, and fencing individual pastures to define select grazing areas. Because Jay’s job involved livestock, he chose to manage the land using sheep, goats, and cows. Jay strove for pasture health by careful attention to stocking rates, by rotating livestock from pasture to pasture at appropriate times; by mowing and grazing pastures to favor a preponderance of desirable grass species; by spreading manure to favor Nitrogen cycling through the pasture system; by fencing off the stream banks and riparian areas; by protecting the integrity of the wetlands; and by not allowing the livestock to concentrate to the point of beating down the pasture and causing soil erosion. With Jay’s careful attention to ecological health, water that ran off the farm into the creek carried virtually no sediment or pollutants and the lamb, mutton, and beef that cycled off the land into the Mirro family freezer and into the freezers of extended family and friends carried carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients that had been acquired and converted into foodstuff by healthy, free-ranging, grass-fed animals.
In implementing his farm management scheme, Jay is challenging Leopold’s critique of man’s tinkering with the flow of energy in nature’s Round River. He has diverted one of the river channels and routed it through conservationists, lawyers, and technologists as well as “farmers, flappers, and freshmen.” In the manner of the Leopold critique, he has substituted tame animals for wild ones in an essential link in the food chain. In doing so, he has putatively destabilized and reduced the diversity of the biotic community. But has he?
Jay is managing the meadows as livestock pastures but he is preserving the wetlands, the riparian zone along the creek, the timbered woodland, some overgrown fence rows, and selected thickets of alder and cottonwood that are scattered about the premises. All these habitat patches have wildlife-friendly edges and the linear feet of edges as well as the diversity of habitats have actually increased under his management scheme. The distance between habitat patches is short so isolation effects that doom some species when isolated patches of habitat are preserved don’t apply. He has created an ideal setting for wildlife and if a study be done, I suspect that the diversity and carrying capacity for wildlife has actually increased under his management program. Nature gets its full due on the Mirro farm.
As a measure of Jay’s success, his farm has become a model of responsible farm stewardship and is used by the local conservation district for demonstration purposes. With emphasis on preserving and enhancing ecological services, Jay’s goals differed from Leopold’s. However, if we use Leopold’s measure of doing right by the land – A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise. - I am sure that Leopold would approve of Jay’s land-use practices.
Thus, Leo, with the astute insights of a 13-year-old boy raised on a conservation-oriented farm, sensed that what we were seeing in Wisconsin was tangibly related to the life he leads on his farm home in Washington.
My attention, which had digressed to Washington to ponder Leo’s comment, was brought back to Wisconsin during the short walk from “The Shack” across the flood plain of the Wisconsin River to the river’s sandy banks. While Lyle held court on the river’s banks, a mature Bald Eagle flew upriver close by the tour group as if his appearance had been staged for our benefit. As I listened to Lyle tell of the ice-age floods that created both the region’s sandy soils and the wandering river channel and, further, tell of Leopold family recreation in this river during their visits to The Shack, my mind wandered to a passage in one of Leopold’s essays. Looking out over the river to the sand bars and cottonwood trees on the opposite shore, I wondered if what I saw was the image in Leopold’s mind as he wrote the final paragraph in his essay entitled “Goose Music”:
I have congenital hunting fever and three sons. As little tots, they spent their time playing with my decoys and scouring vacant lots with wooden guns. I hope to leave them good health, an education, and possibly even a competence. But what are they going to do with these things if there be no more deer in the hills, and no more quail in the coverts? No more snipe whistling in the meadow, no more piping of widgeons and chattering of teal as darkness covers the marshes; no more whistling of swift wings when the morning star pales in the east! And when the dawn-wind stirs through the ancient cottonwoods and the gray light steals down from the hills over the old river sliding softly past its wide brown sandbars – what if there be no more goose music?
The theme of Leopold’s essay was about the value we can ascribe to wild things. The lyrical meter of this final paragraph and the images it brought to my mind established for me an emotive context for wild things that I have carried ever since I first read the passage 50 years ago. Now, with my visit to the place that inspired those words, that emotion has been reinforced and maybe even refined – I can say unequivocally that I ‘love’ wild things.
From the river, Lyle led us to places on the Leopold property that inspired specific essays: the glade that inspired “Draba”, now surrounded by mature woods; the stand of tall white pines that grew from the plantings described in “Pines above the Snow”; and the monument where once stood the oak that was bucked-up into firewood as described in “Good Oak”. As we walked the trail through the woods back to the parking lot, I was thoroughly stimulated by the Leopold story. I couldn’t help but reflect on my own efforts to create a similar story at my home on the Washington/Idaho border.
In the 1990s, I purchased 45 acres of steep brushy canyon hillside adjacent to Idaho’s Clearwater River. I call it the “River Place”. It is a rough, wild, inhospitable place and woe to any who attempted to take it on terms other than those dictated by the place itself. Nobody had ever tried. Outside of some invasive species, the River Place stood resolutely unchanged from its historic, natural condition and I was not about to attempt to alter any of its basic personality. In its inaccessibility, untrammeled thorny brush fields, rocky ravines, and steep, ponderosa pine studded canyon sides, it offered the opportunity to experience wildness like few places I have ever encountered. I wanted to give it a go.
The River Place is only 50 minutes from my home in town. Thus, it is readily accessible as a weekend retreat and I regularly use it for that. I have no objectives for the River Place other than to engage the land in a way that fosters intimate bonding with and understanding of the natural world. And so, for 20 years I fought invasive species; planted native and (slightly) non-native trees; built a site-friendly, habitable shelter; and took copious notes with considered reflections on the meaning of each of a never-ending succession of wildlife encounters. There were encounters of every kind: from trout fingerlings to adult salmon, from house wrens to golden eagles, from skinks to rattlesnakes, from meadow voles to buck deer, from shrews to mountain lions. I pondered what it meant to share environmental resources with these beasts and with life’s larger community; what it meant for evolution to distribute genetic material among populations and communities such that there was an endless variety of living things; what it meant that there be organizational patterns that are common to all of life, patterns that can be seen both at the microscopic level within individual organisms and at the macroscopic level within biological communities; what it meant to confront a scope of existence and grandeur so big and complex that it exceeded the capacity of the human mind to comprehend it.
The trip to Wisconsin confirmed and reinforced what I have learned in my life-long pursuit to understand my proper role in nature. I have come to know that the only truly satisfying way to engage nature is through knowledge, appreciation, caring, and spiritual veneration all at the same time. Those who have thought about these things stand before the natural world with awe, humility, and reverence and find a sense of fulfillment. I learned this from reading Aldo Leopold and found it first-hand at the River Place. The trip to Wisconsin was the capstone lesson.
I have Leo to thank for encouraging me to complete the study of the lesson plan.
September 1, 2023
It has been eight years since Leo and I took that trip to Wisconsin. Leo has grown beyond his teenage years and has taken assignments with the Army at places far away from the farm where he grew up. In contrast, by perhaps a predictable set of circumstances, life’s vicissitudes and aging’s infirmities have separated me from my beloved River Place and brought Jean and I to live next to Ellen and Jay on Leo’s boyhood farm.
Here, we see the outcome of practices in-line with Aldo Leopold’s land ethic every day. Jay’s stewardship practices have manifest in a model of land use and conservation that Aldo Leopold would approve of. Stimulated by what has been accomplished and by our future goals for the farm, we have endless kitchen-table conversations about conservation, preservation, restoration, and stewardship.
Among the topics of our conversation is the conflict between land use for human purposes vs. land use for nature’s purposes. Examples of this conflict occur daily on the farm. For instance, our farm animals are subject to predation by coyotes, mink, racoons, bobcats, and eagles. How do we maintain farm animal meat and egg production in the face of this ever-present predation pressure? In addition, the garden and fruit orchard are under constant attack by deer, rabbits, and racoons. How do we protect the garden and fruit production from these native animals who, as long-time dwellers on farm property, have basic inherited rights to this land’s productivity? And further, the farm’s hay fields are flooded by water impounded by beaver dams on the creek that runs through the center of the farm. How do we drain and dry the fields to allow hay harvest when the beavers rebuild the dams as fast as Jay can alter them to allow drainage?
Jay and Ellen have found a quasi-satisfactory solution to each of these conflicts.
1. provide a secure barn in which livestock and chickens can find safety from predators; especially, at night;
2. keep a goat in the livestock mix and encourage the farm’s three dogs to guard the grounds against predators and pests;
3. grow enough so that there is some for the wild animals as well as some for us (this entails extra expense but we value the predators and native pests as much as we value our domestic animals. So, the cost of rebuilding the chicken flock, losing the sale price of one or two lambs, and missing out on some of the garden produce each year is that of having it both ways, which we willingly shoulder);
4. manage the impoundments behind the beaver dams in late June when the flow in the creek has subsided for the year below that needed for the beavers to re-establish standing water behind the dams. This entails extra work for Jay but it gives enough time for the fields to dry and for the hay to be cut in August and September. By this, beavers and beaver habitat remain in local abundance in the upstream origin of the creek just north of the farm in the outflow from Spring Lake and, similarly, in the downstream continuation of the creek just south of the farm in the inflow into Pederson Lake. Again, we have it both ways, i.e., we have beavers and their valuable pond habitat during much of the year which supports otters and mink and waterfowl nesting and raising of young. Plus, we have productive hay fields that supply the feed that carries the sheep, goats, and cows through the winter.
With the preceding conflict resolutions in full operation, with pastures now fenced to protect the creek and its immediate riparian areas, and with a pasture rotational grazing pattern well established and in operation, ongoing topics that receive discussion include: set-aside of select un-mowed, un-grazed areas for insect pollinator food gathering, minimal use of herbicide with reliance on mechanical means for control of invasive species, use of barn yard waste for soil amendment and compost, discovery of the patterns of wildlife use in the farm’s varied habitats, awareness of how our farm practices affect its biodiversity, and endless other topics.
I have brought to the farm my techniques for wildlife watching that I employed and refined during my time at the River Place. This includes: i) an effort to identify all the animals on the grounds and estimate their relative numbers; ii) a heightened awareness with documentation of seasonality in the behavior and the comings and goings of these animals and how this relates to plant cycles; iii) a recording of predator-prey events as we detect them; iv) the use of trail cameras to document animal actions at stations in the different farm habitats, i.e., forest, transition edge between forest and pasture, beaver pond, fruit orchard, and game trail crossing from the alder woods on one side of the driveway to the brambles and woods on the other side; and v) a continuous monitoring of birds at the bird feeder. The concomitant wildlife observations complement the overall farm conservation narrative.
We share our farm experiences with those who may be interested in the blog on the farm’s web page - soggybottom.farm. We also share the farm with the public through an open public trail that traverses the forested part of the farm and continues through adjacent county park lands. In addition, Jay and Ellen often conduct open farm tours on a regular basis. And school children and those with an interest in conservation are always invited to visit.
Thus, the Aldo Leopold legacy that Leo and I explored in Wisconsin is honored every day in every possible way on this little farm in the Pacific Northwest. We pay this legacy due homage through our goals and actions and we find solace in knowing that we are doing right.
 Later I learned that Leopold wrote the ‘Goose Music’ essay in 1924-25 prior to his move to Wisconsin and the acquisition of The Shack. The scene that stimulated the words of the last line was the scenery he witnessed along the Rio Grande River in southern New Mexico rather than the Wisconsin River near the Shack. None-the-less, the words fit perfectly the scene I saw during our visit.
1. Conservation in action at Soggy Bottom Farm. Jay speaks at a farm tour.
2. An image of Leopold's Shack from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.