I enjoy being behind the wheel on long drives. Provided you retain an adequate sense of traffic flow you can let your mind wander away from the taillights and dashboard in front of you. Instead of just a passage of time and space between one place and another, the open road provides an unparalleled opportunity to use time advantageously. Whether that’s calling friends and family, singing along to your favorite album or starting a new audiobook, discovering a place cartographers missed, or reflecting on what’s been happening in your life lately, is all up to you. I was afforded the opportunity to do all of these things en masse during my road trip to meet you — the supporters of the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
On Saturday, December 17th, 2022, at 4am, I left Baraboo, traveling east. I headed north nearly two months later, to the day, on Saturday, February 18th, finally returning to the Leopold Foundation late that evening. What transpired in those two months is more than I could ever hope to document in a single blog post, but I can at least tell you what my task was…why I had done this in the first place. We all know the Leopold family Shack and farm is planted firmly here on Wisconsin soils. We also are aware that the Land Ethic has reached a far wider audience than Wisconsinites and Midwesterners and it has inspired people around the world to foster deep relationships with places Leopold himself had never dreamed of visiting. My road trip, which focused everywhere east of the Mississippi, including stops in over 20 states and traversing more than 5,000 miles, was an attempt to understand why you care about natural places and why you support our work.
On the journey, I was fortunate enough to meet well over 50 members of our robust supporting community, including Leopold family members, former fellows, professors and practitioners of land ethics, leaders of similar organizations inspired by Leopold, and so many impassioned citizens who simply cannot live without “things natural, wild, and free.” I wish I could write about each person I met and the story they told but if I did that I’m not sure anyone would ever get to the end of this piece. I hope instead an introduction to a few people I met will suffice.
As I drove up to Hardwick, Massachusetts on the morning of January 5th, I mused on the strangeness of this winter. There was no snow on the ground, it was drizzling, temperatures hovered in the low 40s — simply strange, I thought. When I met Fletcher Clark, forester for MassWildlife and former land stewardship fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, he confirmed my suspicions. He told me the saturated topsoil had prevented the logging crews from completing their contracts, muddying his timelines along with the properties themselves.
It did not prevent us, however, from exploring one of New England’s rarest ecosystems, the fire-adapted pitch pine and scrub oak community in the Muddy Brook Wildlife Management Area. As we hiked around, I distinctly remember the joy and enthusiasm with which Fletcher shared his passion for the restoration work that occurred on this ~2,000-acre parcel. Defined by undulating topography carved by glaciation, frost pockets creating distinct microclimates, and rare fire-influenced barrens habitat, this restoration project helps provide 35 species on the Massachusetts Endangered Species list with a little extra room to flourish.
While I reflected later how my experience as a land stewardship fellow empowered me to participate in conversations of this nature, Fletcher was also sharing fond memories of a time in his life when he was afforded a little extra room to flourish himself — his own time at the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Fletcher saw Nina Leopold Bradley as a mentor, teaching him patience as a tool to employ in observation and restoration of nature.
He had this to say about his relationship with Nina during his time here: “Of course I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Aldo Leopold Foundation and Nina provided me the mentorship that I was looking for in my life. Nina gave me the encouragement to seek out a path in conservation work. In doing so, I first had to look a bit deeper in myself (which isn’t easy). That’s part of the land ethic. I still have a hard time defining a land ethic — but dang I feel I’m living it. Nina gave me the confidence to pursue such a definition in myself which is pretty cool.”
Fletcher attributes his current career path and passion for restoration in part to his time spent at the Aldo Leopold Foundation where he was invested in and encouraged to explore his own personal land ethic. Now, he gives back to the Foundation so it can continue investing in other young people in the hopes that they too will find a job where they can engender meaningful change while also absconding into the woods every now and again when a quiet moment calls.
In addition to Fletcher, the Leopold Foundation is lucky to be well-connected in the Bay State, so I spent a bit more time in Massachusetts, engaging with a gradient of supporters. While in Boston, I spent time with the staff of the Cedar Tree Foundation, a strong supporter of the Future Leaders Program. We all chatted one morning over a New England delicacy — Dunkin’ Donuts (as a New Englander myself, I savored the familiarity). This was the first time a former fellow was able to meet the people who help make our experience possible, and, having just met with Fletcher a few days earlier, I was able to share the stories of several generations of fellows. It was super exciting to share part of what made my time as a fellow so formative and to hear about how their land ethic has shaped their lives and careers as well.
As I headed out of Boston and back home to Connecticut I was able to spend time with Bob Perschel, executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF). This meeting was similarly rousing for two reasons. First, the Muddy Brook property I had just been hiking on abutted NEFF properties. The diverse ownership creates a significant chunk of acreage under sustainable management and supports a mosaic of habitats. Second, Bob is the author of a useful handbook titled The Land Ethic Toolbox. Gifted a copy, I was able to read from it during the remainder of my journey and acquire new perspectives on how to employ what Leopold teaches us.
By spending time with each of these Leopold connections, I was able to achieve one of my trip’s goals: learn more about conservation in my home region of New England. These people and organizations provided an in-depth and hopeful introduction to the present and future state of conservation in the region. As I left New England and headed south, I had no idea what I would learn during the next portion of my journey. Good thing I had Bruce and Susan Jones to teach me a thing or two.
On January 15th, I departed for Washington, D.C. where I spent the better part of a week meeting with former environmental lawyers, partners with Boy Scouts of America and university affiliates. Everyone I spoke with had long-standing relationships with Leopold’s writings or our staff and demonstrated a commitment to the land ethic. Whether they employ its teachings in their curriculums or use it as a decision-making and lifestyle guide in their personal and professional lives, Aldo’s writing was central to their life experience. This sentiment was illustrated most clearly during my time spent at the home of Bruce and Susan Jones, nestled into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Bruce and Susan began exploring rural Rappahannock County more than three decades ago as weekenders and their relationship with their piece of land has blossomed ever since. The two are now thoughtful stewards rooted in their human and nonhuman community alike. The Joneses’ son introduced Bruce to the joys of understanding native plant dynamics and, since that day, Bruce and Susan have been witnessing what a lifetime of intelligent tinkering can yield.
Initially a 75-acre parcel exposed to cattle overgrazing, the Jones Preserve, as it is affectionately called in the Rappahannock community today, has grown in size over the years to include 170 acres under management. As ecological restoration science has evolved, the Joneses employed a variety of management tools adding depth and dimension to the biotic community the land sustains: wetland creation and restoration, native plant propagation, prescribed fires, nest box construction and snag installation (to just name a few).
By the end of the first afternoon I spent on the preserve, Bruce and I had only walked a small bit of the property, partly due to the diverse plant community but more so due to Bruce’s knowledge of every inch of the land. After only our short time together, I was already certain of the Joneses’ dedication to conservation and ethical stewardship. As we sat sharing a glass of wine at dinner that night, and coffee with breakfast the next morning, discussing our life stories and getting to know each other better, I discovered the most important aspect of the Jones Preserve: Bruce and Susan.
The duo is dedicated to the ripple effect: encourage as many people as possible to fall in love with natural places and advocate for them. These restored acres are not cordoned off and left for the birds, no, as soon as the ephemerals display in early spring the site becomes a regular destination for plant-, pollinator- and bird-ID walks hosted by organizations the Joneses have partnered with. Furthermore, Bruce often welcomes individual visitors who discover his website and appear in the driveway hoping to take a walk through the native plant gardens or up to the silos to see the nesting barn owls. I caught the Joneses in the “off-season” but there was palpable excitement in the air and more than a few evening email exchanges in preparation for a season of sharing on the horizon.
Before I arrived at the Joneses’ house I was certainly intimidated. Of course, I have been a house guest before and for much longer than two nights and three days at that. Usually, however, I would either be related to, or long-term friends with my hosts and this was not the case in this instance. I can say with certainty, though, that I had never encountered such a humbling display of generosity and hospitality as I did when I spent time with Bruce and Susan.
I could try to point to a few examples and tell you about the lunch Susan packed for me on the morning I departed their home, or their extra efforts to connect me to the community in my short stay, but I think I’ve figured out the why behind the welcome. Simply, Bruce and Susan love their land. Not the type of love you feel for an object or an idea but the type of love you feel for your family. If they can extend that type of love to land, they could extend it to me, a visitor learning to love land in the same way. I’ll never forget their kindness, and I’ll forever remember how Bruce and Susan showed me what it meant to be a citizen of the land community.
After I departed Bruce and Susan’s place, I hiked up a short but challenging stretch of the Appalachian Trail for a beautiful view of mist-shrouded mountaintops in Shenandoah National Park. As I hiked up, my steady footsteps in the fallen leaves and gritty soil kept me on pace, metronomically. As I descended, a layer of snow had covered the trail, blanketing the world around me in silence and clearing my mind. Thinking about it now, it was a symbolic moment for me. It came to represent the trip I was on. In the remaining 25 days I would have on the road, I spent a vast majority of my time oscillating between two fundamentally different experiences. I either spent days busily meeting new people or quietly spending time alone in nature.
In the months building up to the trip, I began to acclimate to my role as I switched from land steward to fundraiser. I also became more familiar with the most important idea in the fundraising and development world: relationship building. I realized I’ve been doing it informally my whole life through roles I assumed in high school, jobs I had as a teenager, and my collegiate pursuits. When I departed Baraboo in mid-December I hoped to grow both professionally and personally from the experiences on the horizon. I knew I needed a challenge that would set me apart from other young professionals in the fundraising field and this trip certainly provided it.
By setting out on my own, representing the organization and the ideas I have come to care so deeply for, I continued honing the communicative skills that enable me to connect with people one-on-one. Storytelling has long been an important way for me to connect with people and I further sharpened my ability to convey meaning, emotion and depth through story during this trip. It was the vehicle for deeper interaction, a more reciprocal experience, bringing me closer to those I met. My professional aspirations include ascending to director of development and hopefully even becoming an executive director one day and the types of visits I had during this trip will become commonplace in roles of that nature. What was intimidating at the beginning of my trip became routine by the end and only solidified my desire to spend a career advocating for the environment through interpersonal interaction.
I’ve often looked for ways to make my life an adventure: attending college in New Orleans, studying abroad in Beijing, accepting my first job in Baraboo (where?). Adventure for the sake of adventure is incredible and freeing, but adventure with the goal of discovery (even if I’m not 100% sure what I even want to discover) is what suits me best.
Leopold writes, “There are two things that interest me: the relation of people to each other, and the relation of people to land.” This aspect of his philosophy resonates most with me. The adventure across the eastern United States was a way for me to engage with and discover more deeply my own relationship to people and the land. As I settled into the constant state of movement characteristic of a long road trip like this, I found beauty and comfort in the places I explored and the people who crossed my path. My car became my battery pack and each time I started its engine I felt my energy recharge, excited for the coming places and coming people who made this experience one that I’ll never forget.
I pulled into the driveway of the Future Leaders Center, where I live, just three-quarters of mile up the road from the Shack on February 18th around 10 p.m. My heart was full of gratitude and my mind full of memories. Relief, sadness, and excitement each took their turn washing over me. It’s been several weeks since I stepped back into life at the Leopold Foundation, but I cannot shake the thought I had as I shut the car door behind me. The two realest things in life are the people you meet and the places you visit. By opening yourself to discovering your relationship to them, you will be rewarded in ways indescribable, yet knowingly shared amongst those who spend their time meeting people in earnest and sitting quietly in nature.
Thank you to every single person I met along my way. Thank you for caring about what you do and thank you for sharing that care with me. Until our paths cross again, in the words of Leopold, remember that “to those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part”.