“I do not imply that this philosophy of land was always clear to me. It is rather the end result of a life journey.”
—Draft foreword, A Sand County Almanac, in Companion to a Sand County Almanac.
Joann Ringelstetter is a serious reader of Aldo Leopold, and as all serious readers of Leopold come to understand, he was not entirely optimistic about the future of conservation. For instance, in his essay, “Marshland Elegy,” in A Sand County Almanac Leopold eulogizes the sandhill crane, which he believed would soon be an extinct species.
Leopold’s 1947 remarks dedicating Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park memorial to the passenger pigeon reiterate his disenchantment—although composed with a hovering, faint note of faith in humans’ ability to learn from mistakes: “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun.” Would new lessons be learned from this new thing?
Given the increasing breadth of the decline of wildness since his death in 1948, it is tempting to say he was more on the mark in his pessimism than in his pulses of hopefulness. Then again, why did he bother to push so hard to publish his conservation-championing writings? He held onto a vision that others, perhaps not too far down the road, would embrace his transformative land ethic and grow the “thinking community” to effectively protect and even increase the natural realm.
If the actions of Joann Ringelstetter and others are any indication, Leopold had foreseen something special.
And we see it, too.
Recently, Ringelstetter updated her will and named the Aldo Leopold Foundation as a beneficiary in her estate. In doing so, Joann committed a significant portion of her eventual holdings to the future work of the foundation and ongoing stewardship of the natural world, through her legacy donation.
In early November, Joann was welcomed into The Good Oak Society, a select group of conservation philanthropists who have made provisions in their estate plans to lead the “thinking community” in “enterprise and effect” toward the ultimate protection of nature Leopold himself instigated. Ringelstetter’s generous act leapfrogs optimism and goes directly to lasting impact.
And her recent investment is hardly her first. Since 2005, when Joann, with her sister, Ruth, first volunteered for field work in lead-up to the establishment of the Leopold-Pines Important Bird Area, she eventually executed crucial bird surveys of thousands of acres over several years. Aldo and Estella’s eldest daughter Nina noticed and invited the two to visit at her home near the Shack. They developed a warm friendship.
“During this process, we were blessed to get to know Nina Leopold Bradley, who asked us to stop by after finishing each day of surveying to tell her what we had observed, which she then recorded in her journals.” Ringelstetter said, “She was very interested in the birds we were finding on the [Leopold] reserve.”
Joann continues to bring friends and family to the Leopold Center and Shack—most recently her cousin Tonya—and expressed that she “feels so respected and appreciated when I interact with the Leopold Foundation, and I’m honored to have my own legacy converge with the Leopold family’s.”
Although we find it impossible to adequately thank Joann or anyone who demonstrates such surpassing love and devotion, the Aldo Leopold Foundation has responded with a token of the Leopold Shack’s promise.
From the wood of a 70-year-old black oak recently removed from the Shack Prairie, sand county artisans crafted a plaque, in the shape of an oak leaf, and we recently presented it to Ringelstetter near the Shack’s only door. This plaque commemorates her intent as well as her entry into The Good Oak Society.
Knowing Joann and her brand of humility throughout her life’s journey, we can already imagine her downplaying her role, so if you happen to see her around, please say thank you for giving voice, value, and a future to the land and its countless species represented in Leopold’s “all things natural, wild, and free.”
We will do the same, with soaring wings of optimism, as thousands of sandhill cranes trumpet from the river island out back.
Thank you, Joann.