Madison Reads Leopold Turns 15!

“Despite growing up in Wisconsin, I had never heard of Aldo Leopold or A Sand County Almanac, but the book was on the required-reading list, so I dutifully went to the campus bookstore and found it on the used-book shelves,” Kathy Miner explained, remembering how she first encountered the writings of Aldo Leopold. Since her initial read of A Sand County Almanac in 1972, Miner has truly lived a land ethic; she has also shared it with many others. In 2006, Miner helped plan the first-ever Madison Reads Leopold event, a now annual celebration that has become a mainstay of Leopold Week. As the event’s 15th anniversary approaches, I had reached out to Miner to learn about her experiences, advice and perspectives on participating in the nationwide celebration.

Each year, organizations and individuals across the country come together to celebrate Aldo Leopold and the land ethic through community readings, film screenings, outdoor activities, and more. The first full weekend in March is officially designated as Aldo Leopold Weekend in Wisconsin (home to the inspiration for A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s Shack), and the first full week of March is officially designated as Leopold Week in Iowa (where Leopold was born and raised). Leopold Week events have taken place across the globe and bring countless communities together in recognition of Leopold’s legacy. This year, March 1-8 marks the official timeline for the momentous event.

The 2004 proclamation by then Governor Jim Doyle that made the first Weekend in March Aldo Leopold Weekend in Wisconsin.

The first-ever Leopold Week event took place in the late winter of 2000 in Lodi, WI, with a reading of Leopold’s conservation classic, A Sand County Almanac. The event was expanded after the 2003 observance of Lodi Reads Leopold. Coincidentally, 2003 was Miner’s first Leopold Week event. “Somehow, I heard about the event – that the little town of Lodi spent the first weekend in March reading Aldo Leopold, in a meeting room in the public library. I contacted the coordinator, Tom Heberlein, and begged to be allowed to read on behalf of the Arboretum, where I was by then working as a naturalist. Tom said his schedule was full, but he put me on a waiting list, and lo and behold, there was a last-minute cancellation!  I wound up reading ‘Guacamaja’ as a substitute reader.”

This event marked the “birth spark” of Leopold Week. Before reading at the 2003 event, the Wisconsin DNR Secretary at the time, George Meyer, observed that every community in the state ought to be reading Leopold that weekend. State Senator Mark Miller, who was in the audience awaiting his turn at the mike, jumped up and shouted, “I’ll introduce that legislation!”  And he did. In March of 2004, Wisconsin Governor James Doyle signed legislation into law designating the first full weekend in March Aldo Leopold Weekend across Wisconsin. The Aldo Leopold Foundation got behind the effort, and statewide celebrations began in 2006.

Senator Miller is still involved with Leopold Week, reading at the Madison Reads Leopold event every year! Madison Reads Leopold is now in its 15th year.  

From the moment I heard that Leopold Weekend in Wisconsin was a reality,” Miner said, I knew I had to bring it home to the Arboretum, where Leopold was the first research director and where we walk around in his legacy every day. I had learned a few tricks from attendance at Lodi over the yearslike breaking up the longer essays to prevent reader and listener fatigue, and having extra copies and emergency subs handy—and knew I could pull off a day-long reading, if enough interested participants could be found. 

And find them she did. The Arboretum now hosts a week of Leopold-themed events each year. With all this success came a series of challenges Miner had to overcome. “We had no idea how many people might be interested. Together with a student helper, the Arboretum outreach manager, and staff people from the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, we brainstormed environmental organizations to contact; youth groups; school leaders; celebrities from political and civic entities; and everyone else we could think of. We also wanted some ‘plain members and citizens’ (of the biotic community).” All this effort paid off, and Madison Reads Leopold has continued on.

In addition to the work involving others in the community, Miner said, “There was an amazing amount of clerical work. I remember standing at a photocopier for hours, squashing my poor little copy of the Almanac onto the glass to make a double set of copiesone for the readers, and one to have on file.” These copies of the readings have survived the wear of time, and 15 years later, they are being passed out to this year’s readers. Each copy has a sign-in sheet for the readers to sign, Miner explained. “At this point those sheets are a historical record. I think Aldo would have approved of our being so frugal with paper.”

Karen Oberhauser, Madison Arboretum Director, reads Leopold at the 2019 event in Madison. Image courtesy of Susan Day.

Although her first Leopold Week event was her favorite, Miner considers every year special. “As the event coordinator, I have been privileged to witness some wonderful moments over the last 15 years – a participant reading from his late father’s copy of the Almanac; a 17-year-old boy reading “A Tramp in November”, written by Leopold at age 17 when he was a student at the Lawrenceville Academy; student readers as young as 5th grade, many of them recruited by Madelyn Leopold (granddaughter of Aldo Leopold) herself.”

Miner has had the support of many Leopold friends and supporters over the years. She described how, “Mrs. Marie McCabe, widow of Leopold’s colleague Bob McCabe, read “Sky Dance” every year for a dozen years.  She was a precious part of our program, because she alone, of all of us involved with the event, had actually known the sound of Leopold’s voice.  She was the ONLY reader I allowed to make personal comments before beginning her selection.  Marie died in 2019; we miss her.  I treasure a memoir she gave me in 2008 about her husband’s relationship with Leopold and the Almanac.” This memoir is sometimes included in the community reading hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum.  

Pepper Jackson, Aldo Leopold, James Hale, and Elizabeth Jones conducting a prairie burn at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in the 1940s.

Although very few attending Leopold Week events have had the opportunity to know Aldo Leopold or his family, every person attending the event has found power and insight in the words penned by Leopold. Miner said the most effective way she has known to find a connection with Leopold is to, “Read his writings.  Go beyond A Sand County Almanac to other collections!  Visit the Shack and walk around in the place where he worked, thought, and wrote.  Stroll in the restored natural communities of the UW Arboretum, remembering Leopold’s call for ‘a collection of natural communities’ and ‘a sample of Dane County as it once was’.  Recognize that these lovely grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands are the result of decades of hard work done by hundreds of human hands – people who were taught and influenced by Aldo Leopold.”

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