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2022 Fellows: Reflections at the Halfway Point

The Aldo Leopold Foundation Future Leaders Program has its origins in the mentorship that Aldo Leopold provided to his graduate students, a tradition his daughter, Nina, carried on after she and her husband retired in Baraboo. The fellowship has undergone many iterations since then. Today, fellows live on the property in the beautiful Future Leaders Center, which finished construction in 2018, and spend a year immersed in the Leopold-Pines Memorial Reserve landscape. Six months into the job, this year’s ALF fellows reflect on their experiences so far.

From left to right: Education and Communications Fellows Leah Bieniak and Maria Kennedy and Land Stewardship Fellows Sarah Woody and Max Sorenson in front of the Shack during their orientation week in June.

Education and Communications Fellows Maria (left) and Leah (right) measuring the circumference of an old tree at De Wákąčąk (Devil’s Lake State Park).

Land Stewardship Fellows Sarah and Max putting their chainsaw training to good use on Birch Row to maintain prairie integrity.

Maria: Reflecting on my Fellowship experience so far, I find it difficult to express just how grateful I am to be here. While I had an idea of what the fellowship position would entail, there were also innumerable unknowns. For one thing, I had never been to Wisconsin prior to this position, so cows, crop fields, and flat land dominated my imagination. For another, I did not know what to expect of the other three Fellows with whom I would be living and working with for the next 12 months – would we all get along? Within a few days of being here my fears were assuaged, and I can say now that this is an above and beyond amazing experience. From working on the land to interacting with visitors and assisting with various other tasks and projects there is never a shortage of learning opportunities. One of the Foundation’s strongest assets is its vast network. It is through this network that us fellows have been exposed to people, ideas, and places we’d never imagined. One such opportunity was volunteering as a puppeteer in the Wormfarm Institute’s Farm/Art DTour, a celebration of farming history and culture in rural Sauk County. These learning opportunities also come from personal time spent out exploring the Foundation property. Since starting in June, I have learned to identify many wildflowers and grasses – a skill I previously lacked – and my bird and tree identification are improving as well. From hearing the trumpet of my first Sandhill Crane to seeking out the first sign of Cardinal Flowers bright red bloom, I have come to develop a deeper understanding of what the land ethic is and what it means to live it out. With so much learned so far, I am excited to see what the next six months will bring!

Leah: When I arrived on our first day at the Future Leaders Center, I was fresh off a conservation education job in which I could go days without seeing a coworker. It was a lonely role with little to no vision; I found myself struggling to stay hopeful in the environmental field. The last five months have, joyfully, been a complete one-eighty. I’ve felt so fortunate to work at a foundation that feels like a true community. We come together around the shared mission of developing a land ethic in society while nurturing our own personal relationships with the land. That sense of community has expanded outside of the foundation office: south-central Wisconsin is a surprising hub of impactful conservation work, and through the fellowship, I have gotten to meet and learn from folks dedicating their passion and expertise to sustainable agriculture, riverway preservation, species protection, climate action, community outreach, environmental conflict resolution, and more. Through these connections and my day to day work, I find myself discovering new strengths and growing into the environmental professional I hope to be. With the support of my “fellow fellows” and greater conservation network, I can now face the “world of wounds” with hope and determination. 

Former and current fellows and staff gleaning apples at the restored Badgerlands. From left to right: Eric Snyder, Leah Bieniak, Maria Kennedy, Sarah Woody, Sauk Prairie Alliance Executive Director Marla Steele, Field Biologist Mike Mossman, and Max Sorenson.

Max: I remember the last ten minutes of my initial drive to the Leopold Foundation quite vividly; turning right at the Lower Narrows of the billion-year-old Baraboo Hills and weaving through a tunnel of corn, saturated with the growth of early Summer and a bright, overcast sky. Turning off my car radio, I leaned silently into the nervy excitement I was feeling and entertained my romanticized ideas of what the next year of my life might be. Unexpectedly, but still, as it always seems to go, this significant-life-shift has not been what I thought it would be. I had no concept of the work required to mend a landscape split from the memory of itself—the machinery, the sweat, and the undignified din. These realities of restoration, harsher than the rosy-hued glow of my expectations, unsettled me greatly and led me to a feeling of hopelessness in the face of the myriad socio-environmental issues we now face. Now, after months of living and working on the Foundation’s land, camping on a sandbar I later helped to burn, making a crisp from apples picked next to the Shack, and discovering a new favorite prairie plant (Spotted horsemint, Monarda punctata), I am beginning to uncover ways to not just maintain but to fuel my desire to steward the land and to encourage others to do the same. Largely, this has involved lending quiet attention to the specific details of this place, joyfully celebrating the wonder of the natural world, and sharing this care with those around me. In these attentive, jubilant, and communal moments, I have found—and will continue to find—comfort and hope.

Land Stewardship Fellow, Max Sorenson, early on in the fellowship struggles to identify unknown prairie plant in the fading light of July. Photograph by Jackson Newman.

Sarah: Reflecting on my experience so far, I am amazed at how much growth I have experienced in just five months. The job felt very overwhelming at first. It was mentally dizzying to remember the dozens of small details from where to find a wrench in the shop to what kind of fuel goes in each individual vehicle. It was also a huge physical adjustment to do manual labor for eight hours a day every day whether hauling brush, cutting down trees, or wielding a backpack sprayer with herbicide. Needless to say, in the beginning I would come home from work, muscles weak and ready to collapse into bed after a shower. Now, I am amazed by the increase in my physical strength and endurance, as well as my knowledge about how to read landscapes as a land manager would. When I accepted the job, the thing I wanted most was to gain technical skills. I have certainly gained those, but now that I am here I realize that the more important part of this experience is the opportunity to learn more about myself and the natural world through my daily work in the field and from an incredible, close knit staff. Day by day I am developing my own conservation ethic that can guide my decisions throughout my career. While some days can still be hard, my overall feeling on a daily basis is gratitude at the opportunity to have such a unique experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Land Stewardship Fellow, Sarah Woody, taking a break from cutting and burning dying ash trees on the Leopold-Pines Memorial Reserve.

This was just a sneak-peek into the life of a Future Leaders Program Fellow! If you are a recent college graduate looking for the next step in your conservation career, click HERE to learn more about the fellowship program. Applications are due Feb. 1!