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The Voice of Maples

Through his writing, Aldo Leopold left a legacy of conservation knowledge and philosophy to inspire future generations. In its second year, the Wisconsin Aldo Leopold Writing Contest has challenged high school students to study a selection of Leopold’s writings and respond to a related question or writing prompt. This year students were invited to read Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” essay from A Sand County Almanac and tell the story of a local leader who exemplifies Leopold’s land ethic.

In partnership with the Aldo Leopold Nature Center and sponsors, Cedar Lakes Conservation Foundation and CTI Meeting Technology, we are pleased to share with you the 2017 winning essays in a series of posts here on the Building a Land Ethic blog.

The Voice of Maples

By Anna DeBraber
Grade 11, Conserve School

Alone in a grassy field there sits a maple tree, and a sixth grader learning all that her enthused mind can hold about the natural world. Down a nearby ravine is the Brandywine Creek and on the other side a pathway. This packed-dirt trail curves through a maple forest, skirts to the edge of a pine row, and finally becomes cement. A few steps ahead is a dark brown, Midwestern building. At the front desk sits a woman with an intensely white head of hair, jeans, and a story to tell.

The land is now called Blandford Nature Center, but before that, it was Collins Woods, where children from the farms that then surrounded the area would spend the afternoons getting “dirty and wet.” Today it is not farms, but roads and houses that encompass the forest. The only reason that there are White Pines at all is because one of the children did not grow up and accept the monotony of a factory or cubicle. The babble of the creek was carved too deeply into her soul to ever really leave: that woman is Mary Jane Dockeray.

Mary Jane Dockeray, 1966.

Mary Jane Dockeray attends to a sassafras tree at the Blandford Nature Center, September 1966. Photo courtesy of Blandford Nature Center.

Thus Dockeray found herself in charge of a nature center on the 143 acres of the land she grew up playing on. She became an educator for Grand Rapids Public Museums and took to guiding children through Collins Woods. When one fateful afternoon surveyor stakes littered the ground, the value she saw in the forest pushed her to do something radical: ask the new owner to donate the land. There was no glory in the protection of this land; this was more than enlightened self-interest. Had she obtained the land in pursuit of money or fame it would have been a poorly planned stunt indeed. Today, the nature center no longer struggles to find funds to continue each year. This is why we find sixth graders like me beside a maple tree learning about Spring Peepers. Simply because someone, many years before me, recognized the value of the average Michigan woods. Unlike so many, she recognized the land for what it inherently was, for its intrinsic purpose in merely existing, not for her own personal advancement.

Like any sixth grader, I often found myself distracted in class, enamored by the woodpeckers behind my teacher, and the soil between my fingers. To this day I find myself outside, whether on the Blandford property or not, to be in awe of the indescribable intricacies of life beyond walls. Had I not spent an entire formative school year watching the Brandywine freeze and thaw, the natural world would hold much less fascination for me. When Mary Jane recognized the biotic right of the Collins Woods’ inhabitants, she preserved a voice that still whispers next to a maple tree in a grassy field, urging me to become a citizen of the land-community.

Anna DeBraber bio picAnna DeBraber is a passionate human spending a semester at Conserve School in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin and preparing to be a senior at Grand Rapids Union High School. When not reading or in a pool, Anna can be found in any form of the natural world. She loves to walk among trees and on sand dunes, especially on the shores of the Great Lakes when the whitecaps are crashing. 

 Feature photo, top, Maple yellow, courtesy of Trevor Choi / CC BY 2.0

Explore the rest of the winning essays!

Links will become available as the essays are published to the blog. Check back throughout the summer!