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Land Steward, Heal Thyself

Picture of morning sun rays through tree branches

By Bennett Artman
Aldo Leopold Land Steward Fellow, 2023-24

As my halfway point in this fellowship came and went I began to notice an increased fluency in things that had, only months before, been colossal hurdles to my attempts at being an effective land steward on the 4,000-acre Leopold-Pines Conservatioin Area. Filling, fixing, and using a chainsaw went from trepidatious to second nature. Looking out at a prairie or woodland went from seeing a sea of mystery to recognizing a crowd of familiar faces of species, for whom I held varying levels of prejudice and appreciation. Walking through a habitat yet to be restored went from being overwhelming to exciting as I began to truly grasp important tools like knowing the land-use history, which plants might suit the area, and what stewardship regime could help the land return to a state of health and success.

However, as this proficiency expanded, I noticed a simultaneous shift in my sentiment and feeling of being in nature. That is, as I increased my time in and my understanding of the natural world around me, it seemed I was unintentionally decreasing that sense of wonder I had once been filled with when my time in nature was rarer and I understood less. I missed the days when a brief escape to the nearby woods between class and work felt like a magical vacation to a place teeming with exuberance and life. I am paid to spend my days outside in this place that I longed for and loved, and I even get to be an active participant in making it better. But why is it that I now seem to struggle to find that same childlike feeling of awe and amazement?

My early days on the LPCA.

This question began to haunt me throughout my work in the field. I would be sawing along the riverside looking out onto a view of unadulterated beauty knowing very well that a mere year ago I would have been smitten and overwhelmed by gratitude. I searched for solace to this struggle for some time until one evening when I was sitting by the Shack, thinking about how it is that I find myself here at Leopold’s own homestead, working to continue his legacy while forging my own. It was then that I remembered what started this journey of land stewardship for me. I was a confused and unwarrantedly confident sophomore in college thinking I knew what I wanted and how to get it with no evidence to back that up. I had found myself in an elective class over the summer that I chose to take in order to check a box for a literary credit, and nothing more. The class was an environmental literature class taught by ecopoet, Heather Swan.

I was dreading spending my summer reading boring passages about the importance of trees and how we must expand our appreciation of life beyond ourselves. However, this quickly changed when on one of the first days of the course Professor Swan, my former professor and current mentor, friend, and personal hero, made an unconventional homework assignment. We were told to read the introduction to Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, a book I had previously never heard much about. After reading this we were to go out and find a natural area and simply be: meditate on what we heard, saw, felt, and then come back the next day to share our thoughts.

I skeptically obliged. I read the passage with skimming eyes, not expecting much from a simple introduction. That was until I had that moment many of us here once had. That moment when Leopold managed to wield the art of language to grasp at our souls and connect with us, meet us where we are and get us to be open to hearing what he had to say. I haven’t had a kid yet, I haven’t gotten married or had many of those life changing events happen to me, but when people talk of these moments in their lives they speak of them like a flash bulb moment when it seemed everything changed, and they remember it vividly, like it was moments ago. This is what it felt like as I sat in the prairie at the UW-Madison Picnic Point and I began to read this passage.

Leopold's classic.

The intro begins: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” In that moment, with those words on my mind I began to feel the world in a way I had never before. I heard the wind through the tall grass, saw the fluttering birds in the tree tops, smelt the cool summer wind off the lake and felt the connection to all the life around me and realized this feeling of connection to the natural world is what makes life worth living. I continued to read as Leopold went on about the misguided actions of our “bigger-and-better society” and how it is our inherent duty to strive for a better life for us and all other living things. And finally, he concludes by inviting you, me, the reader, to join him in this scary but valiant journey by saying this: “Perhaps such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free.”

I sat there speechless, filled with a new-found sense of love and gratitude for nature, for life. And yet, in that moment I realized how selfish I was, how ignorant to the rest of the world I was. Despite how much joy and healing these trees, birds, and ecosystems brought me, I didn’t have the first clue about what their names were, how they work, or how I can do my part in protecting them. It was then that I decided I would change my major, devote my self to the study and protection of the natural world, and work every day to steward the land.

Fast forward three years and after graduating with an environmental studies degree from the same college Leopold taught at, UW-Madison, and working for multiple organizations doing their part to live a land ethic, my dream came true. I was now a land steward at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, with the opportunity to foster my own land ethic at the very place that Leopold crafted his land ethic. After reminiscing about this journey I have been on, I decided to go back to the place it began that weekend. I grabbed by binoculars and field journal, went to the Biocore Prairie at Picnic Point, and looked around me. I smiled at the budding leaves of a sulfur bud hickory, I felt the furrowed bark of a young bur oak, I listened to the rustle of big blue stem, Canadian golden rod, and white wild indigo in the wind, I recognized the familiar calls of dark-eyed juncos and American robins, and even a barred owl in the background. I even saw the weird scraggily red topped trees that I had once been perplexed by on that day years ago and immediately knew them to be staghorn sumac.

It was in this moment of passive recognition of the natural world around me that the answer to my question was revealed. I realized that I mistook novelty for beauty and familiarity for malaise. When in fact that novelty was a catalyst for passion and that passion manifested into understanding. Understanding is the basis for reconciliation: reconciliation between humans and nature, between the past and the present, and between who we are now and who we hope to become. Kierkegaard said “life can only be understood backward, but we must live it forward”. Looking back now I understand that the nature that once filled my naïve self with awe was flawed with invasive species and human tampering, yet it was still the impetus of my journey to being a land steward. I also understand that the land I now work with, though still laden with those same ailments, is, nevertheless, ripe with potential to foster life and inspiration. And I now understand that being a steward of the land means to be one who is not only capable of understanding the shortcomings of the land and how to fix them, but also to be willing and able to understand the shortcomings within oneself and knowing how to work through those in a way that heals yourself, those around you, and the land upon which we live.