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At the Shack: Reflections from a Land Ethic Leader

Since attending the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s Land Ethic Leaders training program, I feel as if my brain is on fire. The training gave me the opportunity to re-examine my deep and personal feelings about nature – no small feat in the modern world. The two-day training was designed to include observation exercises, readings, group discussions, and physical work in nature. It all sounds simple enough, offering things I have participated in before, but for me, this experience was somehow very profound.

While we often think of nature as existing in wild places, it does not reside there exclusively. It dwells within us in multifaceted ways.

My personal resonance to all this, I reasoned, was perhaps because of the respite it offered at a less than ideal time of busyness, right after a train trip with my daughter to visit my son and his wife in Oregon, and right before a baby shower I was planning to host via Skype, which I had yet to figure out. The shower would, of course, include food, lots of local, seasonal, and organic food, which I still needed to plan and prepare. And this would all be followed by a road trip back to Oregon in a car packed to the gills, Ellie May Clampett style, including the dog, to meet my first grandchild.

Then again, I might have been deeply moved that the program took place on Wisconsin soil. For so many events held by Bioneers and Slow Food, I have traveled to California where innovation and community involvement seem almost commonplace. Upon my return from these events, I never truly felt the same spark and connection, never saw the possibilities as clearly in my home place. But here in Baraboo, where Leopold penned A Sand County Almanac, the very words that framed his personal connection to conservation, the possibility to frame my own connection, and the ability to act on it, feels somehow stronger.

Participants reflect atop a knoll

Workshop participants pause atop a knoll during a reflection hike, an essential element of the Land Ethic Leaders training.

For a country girl who now lives in the city, that feeling of connection can be difficult to manifest when I am stooped down picking up pint bottles and beer cans along the curb. Difficult too, when I see the naked hole left when someone dug a lily plant straight out of our yard’s ground. But the thing I am reminded of is that there is nature to be found in the city too; and further, that the very act of picking up debris is action that benefits nature. Once I am done cleaning the curb ways, if I extend my eye further, I can see the tiniest shoot of lily growing near the hole left in the ground. Widening my gaze, I see the native flowers Steve has painstakingly planted in amended urban soil, still in bloom, albeit fading bloom. They like me, are silently laying down roots that will intertwine with the hard and rocky compacted nature of this urban place.

It is only after weeks of reflection that I realize my profound experience at the Land Ethic Leaders training program was most likely due to my personal struggle, barely acknowledged even to myself – my struggle to turn to nature. Culturally speaking, we all are taught to, advertised to, and dogmatically trained to break ourselves from nature. In fact, we are educated that as sentient beings, humans on the planet, it is our obligation to dominate and eventually ascend from nature. This is a very dangerous and short-sighted objective. For just as cattle have been broken from natural grassland food sources and force fed corn, we too are living in a synthetic food environment, and further, willingly accepting this as the best option for our life source.

In the months ahead, I will be putting together a reading and discussion circle, which will be held at an independent bookstore, so that others too may explore how and why nature is personally meaningful. For it is in this space of personal discovery where one begins to feel a moral obligation to act on behalf of nature. And, it is not because of doomsday proclamations and warnings of peril-no, beneath all the external messages, right as they may be, there lies something deeper within us, tucked in our hearts, that compels us to act. Reasons based on experience unique to you lie in wait of excavation.

For me, nature is found in the garden that connects me back in time to my grandmother’s garden. There are other things as well, fishing with my dad on Shawno Lake and tossing back our catch, hiking the wooded trails beyond our country home, tapping maple trees and, once gathered, staying up all night to cook down the syrup over a wood fire, and collecting toads from our window wells to provide new designer habitat for them. Nature is also found in the producers growing food on a scale I cannot, who practice good stewardship and utilize sustainable methods. What I’m getting at here is that while we often think of nature as existing in wild places, it does not reside there exclusively. It dwells within us in multifaceted ways. An example of this is my one-month old granddaughter, Lucia Dorotea, who, while I type this with my right hand, lies in the crook of my left arm making little cooing noises as she sleeps. She is the reason my brain is on fire thinking of ways to act on behalf of nature. Because someday, I want to not only share a well-nurtured garden with Lucia, but also, a well-nurtured world.

Above feature image courtesy of Sandy Frost, Atlanta, GA.


Look for Upcoming Workshops

View the events calendar for upcoming workshops! The next Land Ethic Leaders training takes place at the Leopold Center on August 4-5, 2017. Registration is open.