Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Visit to "The Shack"

When I first graduated from high school, I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I started a Bachelors of Arts communications degree program at a very small, private college in the Finger Lakes, and I was not successful. Although I completed about 75% of that degree (barely), I left before I started my senior year. I just wasn’t in the right place, and was wasting time and money. After several years of hopping around from job to job, all horrible, yet another blow came: my laptop died- the “blue screen of death”. I had no money, was living at my parents, I was 24, and pretty miserable with my life. Friends were getting degrees, getting married, buying homes, having children, and I was not doing any of those things. Luckily, for me, my mom devised a bribe. She’d buy me a new computer, but I had to enroll in at least one class, somewhere. So, I spent some time looking online at local community colleges, and what appeared to be “fun”. At the time, I was working full time at a very large retail store, and if I was going to take a class, it couldn’t be boring. On the Finger Lakes Community College website, I came across a class called “Introduction to Environmental Conservation: CON 100″ which totally seemed interesting and fun! I enrolled, and began taking night classes a few weeks later.

When I walked in that first night, I was nervous. I had repeatedly felt stupid with my last go around of college, not because I was, but because I hadn’t been invested. But at the time of starting this new class at FLCC, I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to keep up, or other students would be way smarter, or whatever. I had a million scary thoughts. I met the professor, sat through the first lecture, and was hooked. Not only was the content fascinating to me, because I have always loved the outdoors, camping, hiking, wildlife, etc, but the other students were just like me. A variety of ages, backgrounds, and interest levels. Of course there were those who were disconnected, uninterested, rarely came to class- and I commiserated with them. Then on the other end, there were moms and dads who were coming back to school after years or decades of being out. I was right in the middle of those extremes, and I felt so welcomed. But the piece of this that has really been the driving force for me, and almost 4 years later still is, is that professor of CON 100. I won’t make this entry a fan club submission, it’s just that this field trip to “The Shack” cannot be discussed without the inclusion of John.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.
Image courtesy of
John introduced Aldo Leopold to me.

In CON 100, we had to read excerpts from A Sand County Almanac, which is a collection of essays written by Leopold. Leopold is considered the father of wildlife management, and his views changed our country’s ways of conservation and dealing with wild animals. He participated in predator eradication as a young man. He was commissioned to shoot wolves, for example. Less predators= more game, right? Through time, Leopold realized that what we were doing, was not increasing prey species (like deer), but totally disrupting ecosystems. He developed a “land ethic” that gave us ideas about conservation of natural resources (“wise use”), and preservation (no use). This man was also an incredibly talented writer, who meticulously documented everything he observed. Some of these writings were eventually turned into a collection of essays which is now A Sand County Almanac. I would wager that all environmentally-focused students are required to read at least sections of this book. We must, as wildlife managers, stewards, biologists, enthusiasts, understand how it all came to be.

A few weeks ago, I attended the 20th National Wildlife Society Conference that was held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although Leopold did not personally found TWS, his actions and movements, along with others, inspired the need for a professional organization of like-minded scientists. Leopold also lived and worked much of his life in Wisconsin, not far from Milwaukee. In fact, the area where he wrote A Sand County Almanac, which is fairly “famous” among us wildlife and conservation folk, was only about a 2 hour drive from Milwaukee. And the final cool piece of this trip is that John also attended, and we got to take a field trip with other conference-goers to Aldo Leopold’s summer and weekend abode, or The Shack.

The day after the official conference ended, was when we found ourselves on a Coach bus headed to Baraboo, Wisconsin. Leopold was the United State’s first professor of Wildlife Management at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. This is interesting to me, since most of my classes are taught by his academic descendants and disciples, and he even wrote the first wildlife management text book. When he wasn’t teaching and working in the city, he wanted a place to escape to, as I’m sure we all do. He bought about 80 acres of agricultural land out in the country along the Wisconsin River. It even had a standing structure on it, which has been termed The Shack. This Shack was actually a tiny chicken coop that he moved his family of a wife, 5 children, and various pets into on weekends and whenever he wasn’t teaching.

There are features around the Shack and on the property that I’ve read many passages about, and the most influential piece was entitled “A Good Oak”. I’ll try to explain what that meant for me, and why I’ve remembered it. A Good Oak begins with a description of Leopold warming by the fire on a cold, winter day. He begins to asks the reader to consider the following:

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from a furnace.”

A glimpse of The Shack across the meadow, with a white oak framing the picture.
I do not consider myself particularly high maintenance or naive, but I definitely did not not grow up planting and weeding a garden, or heading out to hunt to fill the freezer, or even sewing. My family had a small hobby garden for end of the summer tomatoes, rhubarb, sweet corn, and pumpkins. I fished for “fun”. I learned to sew because I was in 4-H and I think that’s somehow one of the H’s. My mom went to Wegmans every Saturday, we went back to school shopping, and while we did have a woodstove, I was rarely part of the fuel collecting. My dad would call a guy, he’d dump already-chopped wood in a huge pile in the driveway, and sometimes my sister and I would be forced to help stack it and fill the rack in the garage. I was an outdoorsy kid though, I liked camping and the idea of “living off the land”. I just was born into the 20th century in a 1st world country, so I didn’t HAVE to live off the land.

Leopold reminisces with us about that Good Oak. With each pass of the saw through the growth rings, he speaks of what happened in the world that year.

The saw that cut the Good Oak.
Now our saw bites into the 1890′s, called gay by those whose eyes turn cityward rather than landward. We cut 1899, when the last passenger pigeon collided with a charge of shot near Babcock, two counties to the north; we cut 1898 when a dry fall, followed by a snowless winter, froze the soil even feet deep and killed the apple trees; 1897, another drought year, when another forestry commission came into being; 1896, when 25,000 prairie chickens were shipped to market from the village of Spooner along; 1895, another year of fires; 1894, another drought year; and 1893, the year of The Bluebird Storm,‟when a March blizzard reduced the migrating bluebirds to near -zero.(The first bluebirds always alighted in this oak, but in the middle, nineties it must have gone without.)

Of course I brought my copy of A Sand County Almanac with me to visit The Shack. And I also had the pleasure of eating an apple from a tree Leopold himself planted.
The Good Oak is of course long gone, but perhaps relatives of that oak are sprouted around the property. There was a large group of us visiting the Shack that day, so while some were actually inside the building, others of us wandered the grounds. I stopped to collect a few leaves and acorns for my journal that I try to keep when I travel. The acorns, perhaps, I’ll get to plant some day, when I own my own slice of land.

It was a terrific trip for me, a budding biologist, to take with her friend and mentor. Back in CON 100, John imparted the words of Leopold to me, and gave me a solid appreciation for the man who “paved the way”, and for delving into a hard read. If you haven’t read Sand County, please do, but realize that Aldo Leopold was a BRILLIANT man who had certainly had a way with words. The passion in which John read us excerpts in class, and they way he explained what it meant to him, has stuck with me these past 3 years. I’m now in my senior year at SUNY Cobleskill, and about to hit the ground running in May. I am glad to have Aldo Leopold’s book in my back pocket, should I need a “reality check”. John has his own blog entry, The Shack, where he details our trip in his own words. Please click over to see!

The Shack is also on the National Register of Historic Places, which gives it federal protection. Check out this document (Aldo Leopold Farm and Shack) for some great pictures of the property and shack from recent times, and while it was in use by the Leopold Family. If you ever find yourself in Central Wisconsin, make a point to stop at the Shack. There is also the Aldo Leopold Foundation visitor center just down the road, which has great information about stewardship, living green, and history of the family.

Thanks for sticking in for a long entry, this was a really fun entry for me to write!

Myself in front of Aldo Leopoldo’s Shack.

Aldo Leopold shown in front of his shack in ~1940. Photo borrowed from: UW Digital Archives

1 comment:

  1. Alyssa, you have achieved so much, and this May, we will all celebrate with you in grand style. Whatever our passion is, working at it is so much easier than what we dread/.hate/dislike/or have no interest in. That last photo, the year I was born, and what a wonderful man, and your tutor, he could pass on his passion to you all. Thanks for sharing this, I could so easily be there enjoying a restful time at " The Shack". Greetings from Jean .p.s. you sitting in front , the door open, one to keep in your archives, a wonderful memory.


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