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Five Highlights of the New Aldo Leopold Memorial Site

The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s property in Sauk County, Wisconsin has a special connection to Leopold’s legacy not only because of his work to restore the land at the Shack, and as the inspiration for his now classic book A Sand County Almanac, but also because he died in Sauk County in 1948 fighting a wildfire. We are excited to be just a few days away from the public dedication for a new Aldo Leopold Memorial site at the Leopold Center, commemorating the place where Mr. Leopold passed away that fateful April day.

Memorial Site Drawing

Greg Tenn’s drawing conveying the vision for the Leopold Memorial site.

As a landscape designer, I was very fortunate to be one of the people who worked on the concept, design, and planning for the new Leopold Memorial Site along with landscape architect Greg Tenn, who interned for the foundation last year. As we developed the design for the site, we wanted to create a space that would help visitors recognize the legacy of conservation established by the Leopold family while also acknowledging the push and pull that exists between Leopold’s concept of the land as a community and the individual understanding of our obligations toward that community, our land ethic. Philosophically, Leopold recognized that the work he had started was far bigger than himself. We hope to challenge everyone that visits to think about their own legacy and how they can work to make both the land and their communities healthier.

Here are some of the elements of the site that I think make it really special.

#1- The Spot

The memorial is located approximately where Aldo Leopold died fighting a grass fire. Nobody was with Leopold when he passed, but the location was estimated from a hand-drawn sketch that Estella Junior sent in a letter to her older sister Nina, recounting the sad events of that day. Today, the Leopold Center sits approximately on the same site where the Ragan house once stood, and the memorial site is located just off the northeastern corner of the building.

#2 – The Story

The very first piece of the Aldo Leopold Memorial, the memorial plaque, was created by Aldo’s daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley. Nina selected the boulder from the property eight years ago when the Leopold Center was being constructed. A few years later, Nina commissioned the memorial plaque to be placed on the stone. She chose to include a quote from her favorite essay in A Sand County Almanac. The inscription at the bottom of the stone reads, “It is warm behind the driftwood now, for the wind has gone with the geese. So would I– if I were the wind.”

Leopold Memorial Site stone

Nina chose a stone with a lot of character. Photo by Vince Lamb.

#3 – The Bison, That’s Right Bison

Life-sized bison sculptures sit amidst a planted prairie giving rise to Leopold’s quote, “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.” The bison sculptures were created by Steel Creations artist Jim Becker, of Baraboo. He cut the shapes out of steel with a CNC plasma cutter, put them together with square tubing for support, and sprayed the sculptures with a solution of salt, vinegar and hydrogen peroxide to jump start the natural rusting process.

Leopold Memorial Site Bison

Newly growing prairie plants don’t quite tickle their bellies yet, but they will soon.

#4 – The Children

Five redbuds, Estella Leopold’s favorite tree, represent each of Aldo and Estella’s five children and the ways that they each contributed to their father’s continuing legacy. When volunteers in one of the foundation’s Land Ethic Leader workshops last summer were planting the trees, they named them—so now each tree represents a specific child.

Leopold Memorial Site Redbuds

Our July 2015 Land Ethic Leader graduates pose with “Starker,” the newly planted Redbud tree.

#5 – The Community

The prairie plants and flagstone were donated by local companies, and the prairie garden was planted by volunteers during the foundation’s annual Family Day event last May. The sculptures were made by a local artist, and the retaining walls, paths, and patio were built by local landscapers. The building of this memorial has been a community effort and many, many hands went into making this a special place.

Leopold Memorial Site planting

The dedicated crew of Family Day volunteers works to finalize prairie planting this past May.

Leopold Memorial Site Completed

The completed Leopold Memorial site, prepared to welcome a crowd this weekend for the public dedication.

I hope that many of you get a chance to come out and experience the space for yourself! The public dedication will take place this Saturday at 1:00pm as part of the foundation’s annual Art Day event.