Nina Leopold Bradley (1917-2011)

Nina will be remembered as a scientist, conservationist, philosopher, and humanitarian by an international community of colleagues.

She was the senior author of a 1999 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that analyzed decades of phenological records demonstrating that climate change was affecting the region and its native ecosystems. She and her second husband Charles Bradley built the Bradley Study Center on the Leopold Reserve in 1976, serving as the hub of a graduate ecological research program created in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin.

The work of Nina and Charles was instrumental in the establishment of the internationally recognized Aldo Leopold Foundation and the construction of the Leopold Center.

Nina died at age 93 at her home in Baraboo, Wisconsin in May 2011.

Family Remembrances

Testimony for my sister Nina

by Estella Leopold (Nina's sister)

“Every July” my Dad wrote, “ I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm.   It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event”. . . . .

Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of Wisconsin gives birth each July to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cut-leaf Silphium,   spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling  sunflowers.   It is the sole remnant of this plant along the highway---and perhaps the sole remnant in the western part of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered --and perhaps not even asked.”

However, my dear sister Nina did ask that question.   She became a prairie architect.     She, with Charlie Bradley’s help, found a way to nurture Silphium seeds, and a host of other dear prairie plants in that 2-acre side yard of the Bradley Study Center at the Leopold Memorial Reserve.  And yes, every spring these splendid Silphiums burst into bloom, man-high and elegant,  waving in the breeze!

That colorful prairie is a beautiful living testament to a beautiful Nina Leopold Bradley--- to her cleverness in developing what we called instant prairie, (because the plants closed ranks in only 3 years!), -- and to her success in bringing to maturity a host of native prairie plants about which Dad wrote so forcefully and so well. Her faithful recording of blooming dates she said was more fun than the chase.

Nina was also a marvelous sister. We enjoyed many fine float trips on the Wisconsin River --many fine times lying on our bellies next to a peenting woodcock- ----many cold evenings standing on the hill near the Shack calling to the owls.  When Nina was engaged I was terrified that I was going to lose that close friendship with my sister.  But no, Nina remained close to all of us, and further she and Bill raised two beautiful daughters.

When we were young, we siblings built a fine tree house in an elm just overlooking the Shack.  Nina and I used to climb up into the tree house.  It was a get- away place.   We would hide up there from visitors (as though we could not be seen?), but we could hear what was going on.     One time we climbed up into the tree house, lowered a rope,  pulled up the guitar, and with the family song book, we practiced singing Spanish songs (that Mother had taught us).  We were trying to memorize the words.  There we were, singing, --when it began to rain. We quickly closed the songbook, lowered the guitar, and scampered down the elm tree out of the rain. To this day that page in our songbook carries the rain drops splash-marks on the song “Narajana Dulce”.

I often think of the image of Nina walking into the shack down the muddy Levee Road at flood time, carrying the single barreled 20 gage shotgun, a guitar slung over her shoulder, a picnic basket, and an armful of school books—which we managed never to open at the Shack.

Her last Christmas card photo showed an echelon of sandhill cranes   in a glint of sun, coming down over the Wisconsin River.   Under it she wrote Dad’s words:   “A new day has begun on the crane marsh.”    That was her favorite scene. 

We owe Nina so much for her warmth, her creativeness, and for her ability to view science as a work of art!


Words for My Mother

by Trish Stevenson (Nina's daughter)

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold referred to the shovel as being the tool for acts of creations. Even before then our family has had both a physical as well as spiritual relationship with the shovel. In the 1970s Nina and Charlie Bradley returned from Montana to their Wisconsin roots, took up their shovels and started a new life together right here. Their vision was clear:  to create an atmosphere following what Aldo and Estella had begun at the Shack. They successfully guided the studies of over 30 graduate students here on the reserve. They continued the tradition of living lightly on the land, building their house from the logs Nina and her family had planted. They mortared local stone into the fireplace, installed a composting toilet, collected roof water into a cistern and heated their home with solar panels.  At the time these were leading edge technologies.

Nina was a great gardener. Their larder was full come any October.  In Nina’s later years there was a slight shift when it came to garden produce. As we all know, Nina was a most generous person, willing to share, whether it was expressing herself professionally, or giving all visitors tomatoes and anything else ripe in the garden.  In the last few years in fact, by December, Nina was out of potatoes and Gordon and I would supplement from our root cellar to hers.

The Leopolds were not only scientist but also artists, with meticulous craftsmanship. One of the many interests of my Uncle Luna was traditional leather bookbinding. He became a master of this art. This is a beautifully hand bound copy of A Sand County Almanac that was a gift to Nina from Luna in 1963. The inscription inside reads:

For my little sister, Nina, whom I love.   

In my mind’s eye I can see you in your courage, your warmth, friendliness, loveliness, and your bubbling good spirit—on Lake Agnes—on the portages between Shade, Noon and Basswood—at Lake Chapman—and around the fires of many distant camps. Those who know you are richer for all these.


Nina was a gift in herself, from the heart, to the heart.  We are the rich ones whose lives were touched and maybe changed because of my lovely Mother Nina.


Learning from Mom

by Nina Loeffel (Nina's daughter)

Welcome to each and every one of you for coming to honor the wonderful person I’m lucky enough to call “Mom.” I am “young Nina (imagine that), “Little Nina,” “Ninita,” or “Nina Jr.  We were named after my fiery Great Aunt Nina, the eldest of 12 brothers and sisters of the Otero-Warren family of Santa Fe.  She was an early feminist and definitely one of the movers and shakers in the early days of New Mexican statehood.  She was appointed by the first governor to be Superintendent of Schools. There was a strong flavor of the desert southwestern culture in the Leopold kids growing-up years.

  I have been asked to talk about Mom’s middle years.’  Quite a bit is known about her younger years with her beloved father, mother and siblings and their work and play at The Shack, some of which Estella has shared with us.  And we have heard about some of the illustrious accomplishments of her later years.  Not so much is known about her 30s through about 60.

I wish I could say that these years were also happy and successful.   Successful, yes, in some ways.   Mom earned her Masters degree in botany at the University of Missouri, where my dad taught.  And we had some wonderful experiences traveling together when Dad took sabbaticals; first to Hawaii before it became a State; and seven years later to Rhodesia which changed to Black rule—Zimbabwe –while we were there

But I learned from watching my mother in her first marriage, that a good education and financial security are no guarantees of happiness.  Indeed, Mom  often used to say that, “Marriage is the biggest gamble you’ll ever take.”  She quoted Aunt Anna, one of the “Tias” from Santa Fe saying: “You never know what you get ‘til you take him home and unwrap him!

I guess there is a down side even to the most idyllic marriage.  Aldo was such a considerate and thoughtful man, from what I gather, and Estella, my grandmother, always graciously followed his lead.  The ability to navigate treacherous waters and negotiate differences never needed to be modeled.   However Mom, as well as most of her siblings, from what I understand, experienced much difficulty in what can be our most challenging of relationships:  marriage. In the 1940s and ‘50s, there was not a therapist on every other street corner like there is today, to offer tools to help.  Later Mom did find a therapist and close friend of the family who helped her very much, and after 29 years of marriage, she struck out of her own.   She was one of the early courageous women, on the crest of a wave of women, to leave unsatisfactory marriages.  At this time, both my sister and I were out of the house and also married.

Soon, at Estella’s house in Denver, Mom crossed paths with Charles Bradley, a friend from her growing-up days in Madison.  Charlie was single, after the death of his first wife, and the two of them hit it off right away.  They married soon after at the Shack.  Mom was 54. 

I noticed a tremendous growth spurt in Mom, as she struggled to match speeds with this witty, good-natured guy.  He reminded me of an old Chinese sage, from the first time I met him.  Later I heard he was nick-named “Chink” in his younger years.

When Charlie retired from teaching geology in Bozeman MT, he and mother decided to return to their roots in Wisconsin, much to Mother’s delight.  They dove right into Shack activities, living there while their house—The Bradley Study Center—was constructed down the road.  Logs were used from trees Mother helped plant as a teenager, and Charlie supervised the stonework, knowing the history of every  rock used to build that cozy fireplace.

Mom and Charlie were advisers to “interns” from the University of WI who came out to The Reserve to conduct field projects ranging from warbler studies by Rick and Susan Knight.  to hydrology, to mapping the whole reserve area by Conrad Leigal,, to preserving nature via creative oil painting by Susan Leopold Freeman.  On Monday evenings, Mother and Charlie hosted pot-luck seminars at The Shack with lectures by visiting scientists.  The interns presented talks about their projects at the end of the summer.

Mother often said she didn’t “come into her own” until she was 60, and indeed, as Charlie’s partner, I witnessed a continued evolution of her happiness and the flowering of her creativity. That generous and loving heart had finally found fertile ground

I know that the reason so many people were drawn to Mom is because of the genuine care and interest she displayed to every one of us.  We all claim her as our own—mother, sister ,or best friend.   This love and caring counts at least as much for her popularity as does her scientific expertise. 

I learned from Mom, that we can continue to grow in understanding and stature our whole lives, even into our 80s and 90s, if we are lucky enough to live that long.  Just as Aldo’s insights and wisdom grew and developed through the years, so did hers.  She was expounding about the data from phonology sightings in relation to climate change until the week she died.  We are blessed to have such outstanding role models who blazed the trail towards excellence.

There is no one who misses Mom more than I.  As Aunt Caryl says,”When you lose your mom, you lose your best friend.”  Even though we know her beautiful spirit lives on, she is sorely missed.

May all beings be happy and may the world return to Pure Land.


The Gift of Ourselves

by Jed Meunier (Nina's grandson)

One of the wonderful things about being a new parent for me has been revisiting children’s books.  Not long ago I was reading to our daughter Addie, Shel Silverstein’s classic “The Giving Tree” and became choked up to the point of having to put the book away to great dismay of Addie, who is two.  Most probably remember the story “Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy” that goes on to describe the boy playing under the tree, climbing its branches, eating its fruits and enjoying its shade but as time passed the lonely tree finding new ways to give to the growing boy who now had different needs and wants with nothing left to give the boy in the end but a stump to sit on.  The lessons are by no means obscure, the gift of giving, perhaps to a fault, and an acceptance of others capacity to love in return.  But there is beauty in that naked simplicity.   

My Oma certainly possessed the gift of giving in abundance and the more I consider it the more profound yet simple her greatest gifts seem.  I do not mean the type of gift exchange that she continually tried to put a moratorium on at Christmas, nor the physical properties she parted with, which are mentionable in themselves – consider for a moment that she and Opa, her husband Charles Bradley, had given away their retirement home before it was even completed and then paid rent on it believing in a greater cause than the most basic premises of the American Dream – owning property.  The gifts I am thinking of however are the ones she gave us without our acknowledgement or even awareness, the gift of ourselves.     

Whether you were meeting her for the first time in a brief conversation or a long-term confidant she always wanted to know how you were, not as a salutation, but a genuine interest in you; what you were thinking, your joys and hopes as a way to share and unite.  This was her gift to all of us.  She continually reassured us all that we mattered and were appreciated.  She knew that self-confidence, a confidence she herself once lacked, was one of the most important gifts of all; that it empowers us to act.  She knew, as Wendell Berry has said, “that it is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are”.

Now, Oma’s gift of appreciation was sometimes nothing short of amazing.  My wife and I while living with her became suspicious of her habit of over complimenting on occasion. An example was her emphatic approval of my rather poor attempt at facial hair, or overly abundant, glowing remarks over my attempt at a calzone dinner, which she did not touch.  She would never tell you anything but complete and honest approval.  Honest because she approved of something more meaningful than a calzone and it was genuine though usually unrecognized by us.

Oma often cited her fathers statement that, “There are two things that interest me the relationship of people to land and the relationship of people to each other”.  This statement may very well stand as a cornerstone and guiding principle to the way she lived her life.  She dedicated herself to bridging connections between people and land and not purely as an academic exercise, but a way of living and building community. Oma taught us to discover the world, whether a lay person, a seasoned land manager, academic, or school child, she was a catalyst and inspired learning.  Her inspirations lie not necessarily in an ability to relay information but in her ability to awaken us to our own potential.  I suppose she recognized that one only loves what one knows and by extension care of our earth inherently requires care for one another and it is our most worthy and pleasing task.  She succeeded marvelously.

While growing up the last day of shack visits were usually dedicated to cleaning the old Shack, Oma always reminding us to “leave it better than you found it”, which became The Shack motto.  I realize now that this ritual was as much for us as for the old Shack, and by caring for it we were becoming part of it and the better for it.  

It would be a lie to tell you that Oma’s passing does not leave a gaping hole.  I think we all can feel it.  I suspect that in time our grief will grow quieter and eventually come to lie down like an old dog allowing us to reflect.  But what I hope to portray here is that my Oma encouraged us by example to create a different world.  Not by acts of grandeur, not by crowning achievements in our careers, or proficiencies in our hobbies, or even dedication to our families, but simply by sharing the gift of one another.  Love your neighbor is one of the most repeated commands in the bible, it ought to be the most simple of tasks, yet so often remains elusive. This is particularly true within our own families where the stakes are even greater.  I have never seen a better example of someone who carried this task so well, who by appreciating us, could teach us to believe in ourselves.   Oma made us whole simply by leaving us better than she found us, this was my Oma’s gift to us all.     

Read more: