Follow by Email

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Shack

Last week, I attended The Wildlife Society's annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I flew out
of Rochester, NY on my birthday (49 this year!) and looked forward to celebrating in my own way. The conference itself was full of highlights: two of my former students presented posters while
another gave an oral presentation on her doctoral work at Penn State. Another alum and I caught up over lunch and I got to meet fellow blogger "Trailblazer" and some of his students. I even gave a presentation myself on my critical thinking unit based on the mountain lion controversy in New York. But all of that took a back seat to the post-conference field trip to Aldo Leopold's shack.
Aldo Leopold's Shack
If you are unfamiliar with Aldo, his shack or the book A Sand County Almanac stop right now and open a new browser window and buy a copy on Amazon or run to the library and check one out. I cannot attempt to explain the book here other than to assure everyone that it is an enjoyable and educational read. This book is a real favorite of mine and required reading for all of the freshmen in our degree program. The first hundred pages are the actual almanac of the book, starting in January and progressing to December, with the stories focusing almost exclusively on activities in and around the shack and property.
I teach the Leopold units (first unit is about Aldo's life while the second is more about the lessons of the book) to the freshmen and over the years have personalized the content in a way that makes teaching the first unit a real emotional experience for me. I have read SCA dozens of times and it seems the more I read it, the more connected I became to the work and to the man. And when I say emotional, I do not exaggerate. I have a confession to make: a "secret" that I just don't discuss. One year, with no warning, when I reached the part of the lecture on Aldo's life where he dies fighting a grass fire, I began to cry. I couldn't stop it. I was embarrassed. I was worried how my students would react. Surely I didn't want them to be turned off by the material but I had little control at that point either. The tears just flowed and I finished the lecture amid a perfectly silent crowd. And every year since, that emotion wells up and I can feel it coming. And every year I wonder if I should just change the lesson, make it less personal or not get so wrapped up in the story. The truth is, it takes a lot out of me and with multiple sections, I am pretty drained. But each year I receive positive feedback from my students. Not all mind you, but enough to continue to teach this section with all my heart.
Grindstone near The Shack
So you can see that I would be pretty excited to visit Leopold's shack. I had been there before, but just as I have read the book dozens of times, I wished for multiple visits to the place that inspired so much of it.
I brought two copies of SCA with me to Wisconsin. One copy was the original copy I bought as a Freshman in college; the one that is now missing both covers, has a spine that has split multiple times and is held together by a rubber band. I just had to have the old girl with me. The other is a newer book, one I will discuss later. I spent most evenings reading passages from the book as a way to wind down from the day's events and get ready for the trip to the Shack. One day I attended several presentations regarding wolf reintroductions, so I read Thinking Like a Mountain before drifting off to sleep. I visited the natural history museum one afternoon where I vaguely recalled that Leopold had somewhere written about the potential loss of species and that future generations might have to learn about birds only from specimens in museums. After much searching, I found that reference in Goose Music. I even listened to the audio version of SCA on my ipod while using the hotel's fitness center.
So it was with great anticipation that I boarded the bus on a warm October day to journey to The Shack and the recently built educational center. Among the 30+ like-minded passengers was Alyssa from Nature in a Nutshell, a former student. The chatter on the bus was diverse. Everyone had just finished a long conference and some where talking about future conference sites while others shared viral videos via smart phones. I took the opportunity to read Illinois Bus Ride:
"I am sitting in a 60-mile-an-hour-bus sailing over a highway originally laid out for horse and buggy. The ribbon of concrete has been widened and widened until the field fences threaten to topple into the road cuts. In the narrow thread of sod between the shaved banks and the toppling fences grow the relics of what once was Illinois: the prairie." Leopold goes on to recount the conversations of his fellow passengers and what they see and fail to see on the drive. I smile at the familiar words and wonder what Leopold would make of the conversations surrounding me now.
The drive seems long and I am getting cranky. I had skipped breakfast and assumed I was just misjudging the time. But as we rounded a curve and were faced with an overpass with a clearance of only 12 feet, it was clear that we had taken a wrong turn. The driver apologized and protested that he had only done what the GPS had told him to do. I tried to remain philosophical and knew the perfect passage to read to maintain my patience:
"Then came the gadgeteer, otherwise known as the sporting-goods dealer. He has draped the American outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them. Gadgets fill the pockets, they dangle from neck and belt. The overflow fills the auto-trunk, and also the trailer. Each item of outdoor equipment grows lighter and often better, but the aggregate poundage becomes tonnage." Wildlife in American Culture
As I sit reading, the bus backs up farther and farther. I would guess we backtracked over a mile on that road until finding a suitable space to turn around. I remarked to the passengers "I feel like Leopold sawing through the Good Oak and traveling backward in time." The comment was met with only a few chuckles.
When we arrived at the new Leopold Center, we were nearly an hour over due. Our guide got to it
quickly and explained that he would do his best to show us both sites, the Center and the Shack in the time allotted. The Center is fascinating. Until recently, it was the greenest building in the world. Some of that distinction comes from the use of local materials in the construction. Highlights for me:

The stone wall that holds the rain run-off from the roof and sends it to the native plantings is made from an old Civilian Conservation Corps building that had been torn down and saved. Our guide explained that a check of records revealed that Aldo had once lectured inside that very building. You can see some old cement adhering to the stones.
Much of the wood harvested to construct the buildings came from the original Leopold property with white pines having been planted by the Leopold's themselves. Here is a shot of the ceiling with red maple boards serving as material between the joists
But I was distracted. I was so close to the Shack! I wanted to maximize our time there. We boarded the bus for the very short trip to the shack and all exited. After a quick warning about the poison ivy, our guide told us of Aldo's purchase and the family's less than enthusiastic reaction at the condition of the Shack. We started down the path, the Shack obscured by trees that were not alive 80 years ago when Aldo purchased the property. And then, around a curve, it came into view.
We got closer and all stood in a semi-circle facing the Shack and learned of a few pieces of history. The Leopold's built an addition (left side of photo) for sleeping quarters. The chimney had to be rebuilt several times. Aldo was a bad cook.
Leopold's Shack
The first group went inside and the rest of us were encouraged to pick an apple or two. I didn't need to be told twice.
"These things I ponder as the kettle sings, and the good oak burns to red coals on white ashes. Those
ashes, come spring, I will return to the orchard at the foot of the sandhill. They will come back to me again, perhaps as red apples, or perhaps as a spirit of enterprise in some fat October squirrel, who, for reasons unknown to himself, is bent on planting acorns." Good Oak

I spent considerable time looking for bur oak acorns. Leopold writes about bur oaks several times and I really wanted to try to plant a few on my property. But those fat October squirrels (and other pilgrims to the Shack) beat me to them. I grabbed instead a handful of red oak acorns and chuckling, turned to the following: "I had a bird dog named Gus. When Gus couldn't find pheasants he worked up an enthusiasm for Sora rails and meadowlarks. This whipped-up zeal for unsatisfactory substitutes masked his failure to find the real thing. it assuaged his inner frustration." The Round River. If any of my acorns take root, I will think of Gus.

When it was our turn to enter the shack I sat at Aldo's table and listened intently. I was most curios about the artifacts on the walls, including Aldo's shovel:
"Why is the shovel regarded as a symbol of drudgery? Perhaps because most shovels are dull. Certainly all drudges have dull shovels, but I am uncertain which of these two facts is cause and which effect. I only know that a good file, vigorously wielded, makes my shovel sing as it slices the mellow loam." Pines Above the Snow

Aldo's saw:
"We let the dead veteran season for a year in the sun it could no longer use, and then on a crisp winter's day we laid a newly filed saw to its bastioned base. Fragrant little chips of history spewed from the saw cut and accumulated on the snow before each kneeling sawyer. We sensed that these two piles of sawdust were something more than wood: that they were the integrated transect of a century; that our saw was biting its way, stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime, written in concentric annual rings of good oak." Good Oak

Two saws were found in the Shack. The other is displayed in the Leopold Center. One of them is undoubtedly the saw used to process the Good Oak:

 Look closer at the photo above. That is Estella, The Leopold's youngest (and now only surviving)
child. I heard Estella speak in 2005 at the Wildlife Society conference in Madison, Wisconsin. And now I have another connection to Estella. Last year, I taught a brand new class called Wildlife Field Techniques. We worked hard as a group to create a class that was both educational and meaningful. No other group of students will be pioneers in the sense that these were. It was a great experience for us all and in appreciation, the students of that class arranged a gift for me. So on the last day of class the students presented me with the gift and I was genuinely surprised and appreciative. I opened the bag and found a copy of Sand County Almanac. I must confess that I was a bit confused. Surely these students knew I had a copy of this book and, seeing its disrepair thought I could use a new one. But just as surely they must know I would never give up my first copy. All confusion disappeared as I opened the book and found it pesonally inscribed to me from Estella. What an amazingly thoughtful gift!

I posed in front of the Shack on a Leopold bench with that very edition in my hands. And it was that book that I sat with and read Great Possessions while at the "holy land" itself. 

Gone now were the worries of late buses, missed meals and unfound acorns. There was only genuine happiness at my place in the sun. 


  1. John Morrison, my freshman botany professor at ESF began his first lecture by reading "October Gold" to us. Immediately after classes ended that day I went to the bookstore and bought a copy of "Sand County Almanac". That was over 50 years ago and that copy is still on my bookshelf to be opened whenever I need inspiration. It's good to read someone else who feels as I do about Leopold -- thank you.

  2. Great Stuff, JVN!!

    Great meeting you at the the conference! Wish I could have made it to the Shack....


Thank you for your comment! It will appear shortly...