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Nina Leopold Bradley Reminisces About the Shack

Nina Leopold Bradley reading from A sand County Almanac at the Shack.

Nina Leopold Bradley reading from A Sand County Almanac at the Shack

BUYING THE FARM: It was in 1935 when my father met with Ed Oshsner–a realtor, archer and very good friend. He remarked to Ed, “I am interested in buying land somewhere in the ‘sand counties.’ Would you see what you can find?” Several months later Ed took Dad to look at some acreage that seemed to fit the requirements. Without further looking, my father became owner of eighty acres of river bottom land and a chicken coop, later to be known as the Shack–all for $8 an acre.

BRINGING THE FAMILY TOGETHER: The land and the chicken coop and their many potential projects became major forces bringing our family together. My older brothers Starker and Luna were already in college but came home at every opportunity. Carl, Estella, and I were still at home with Mother and Father, so weekends at the Shack became our highest priority. I might add that it was our mother’s enthusiasm that really allowed the Shack to become the central force that pulled us together.

TREKKING TO THE SHACK: Packing food for as many as seven of us for a Shack weekend, with teenagers always hungry and funds short, I am sure was an extraordinary job for my mother [Estella Leopold]. Dad suggested we take to the Shack only what was absolutely necessary–so all pajamas and toothbrushes were packed in a small leather suitcase. School books and Dad’s writing materials were considered necessary items. Actually they were unnecessary baggage. Time for studying or writing was seldom accomplished at the Shack because it was a place of action.

Nina with the "essentials."

Trekking to the Shack: Nina carrying in the “essentials,” November, 1938

When Dad was ready to leave for a Shack weekend, his clue was obvious but subtle. He would start trimming the hedge in front of the house. When we saw him trimming the hedge, we knew it was time to load up.

WORK AT THE SHACK: A significant thing we learned during the Shack years was how to work, whether it was planting trees or cutting wood. Whatever the job, we learned to love to work hard. Cutting “good oak” with the two-man crosscut saw kept us well exercised. Mother held us all in tow when she called from her place near the felled tree, “Rest!” As Dad later wrote, “Rest cries the chief sawyer, and we pause for breath.”

SLEEPING ACCOMMODATIONS: Before completion of the bunkhouse, we slept outside in the open. With the luxury of the finished bunkhouse, and our mattress of hay spread over a firm layer of snow fencing, each of us rolled up in a blanket. With this technique, a number of family, friends and colleagues were able to fit into the bunkhouse with remarkable comfort and warmth.

LONGEST TIME SPENT AT THE SHACK: Ten days of spring vacation was pure joy, much looked forward to by all of us. Packing for such a long period was quite an accomplishment! Food for ten days was a tight fit, with family, dog, guitar and books–all squeezed into our two-door Chevy.

FAVORITE ACTIVITIES: We built a tree-house in the old elm beside the Shack. Often, when eloquent company arrived from the city [Madison], the tree house became a quick escape! We siblings also devised many games for sheer entertainment: finding the tallest pine, tracking each other in the snow, swinging in the birch branches in the spring time, broad jumping on the sand bars of the [Wisconsin] river. Best of all was singing and guitar music as we sat around the “good oak” fire in the evening.

"Rest cries the chief sawyer, and we pause for breath"

“Rest! cries the chief sawyer, and we pause for breath” from “Good Oak” in A Sand County Almanac

COOKING: It was a Leopold tradition on camping trips–and the Shack was considered a kind of camping trip–for the men to take care of the women. Men set up camp, did the cooking, and in general waited on their favorite gals. At evening time at the Shack , Dad took special care of Mother. He selected a comfortable chair for her, served her the evening wine, cooked the meal in the dutch oven over “good oak” coals, etc. We gals think this a particularly fine tradition.

A VANDAL AT ‘THE SHACK’: One particular weekend Shack trip in about 1936 is remembered by each of us siblings. As we drove in the driveway to the Shack, we all quickly noticed the Shack door ajar. Panic! We piled out of the car and looked into the little building to find total disaster. The intruders had used tools hanging on the walls of the Shack to chop, drill holes, disrupt and completely mess the usually orderly cabin. We found holes drilled in the benches and the cooking utensils. The cedar mantle was chopped with an axe. The dish cupboard was demolished. Over the mess the vandals then poured our jelly, made with wild honey and local blackberries. And over that they poured lamp kerosene!

Each of us found a corner or place to cry quietly as we realized the extent of the disaster. We then heard Dad speak out: “I didn’t realize this place meant so much to you! Let’s get to work and clean it up!” And here we are, most of us in our 80s–and we still talk about that sad, but meaningful day at the Shack almost 70 years ago.

Fixing up the Shack

Fixing up the Shack, from left: Nina, Aldo, and Estella

SPRINGTIME: Censusing woodcock was springtime routine at the Shack. Each sibling was assigned an area to count and observe the peenting woodcock. I well remember taking off for the evening project, leaving Mother and Dad in front of the fire, holding hands and enjoying the warmth and comfort of the Shack. As evening darkened and our counts completed, we assembled back in the Shack and put the data together so that Dad could record it in the journal.

ALDO LEOPOLD’S PERSONALITY: My father was thoughtful, quiet, affectionate, warm. He was often in deep thought, making him appear to be especially quiet. Yet, our parents enjoyed a pleasant social group in Madison and they often entertained at our house. We siblings were given an early dinner and were sent upstairs to do homework or whatever was at hand. Often we listened to the dining room conversation from our upstairs perch. There were times of hilarious laughter and then of quiet conversation. One of the friends had a particularly loud laugh, and as we listened, we, too, would explode into quiet laughter.

Walking with Dad was often a quiet affair as it was evident that thoughts were evolving in his mind. Interrupting with a question would bring Dad to full attention, often moving him to further questioning! I sometimes wished I had never started the dialogue in the first place!

ALDO LEOPOLD AND WRITING: My feeling is that Dad was a very quiet person unless you got him into a conversation. Taking a walk, for example, was a very quiet time because you could feel that ideas were being formed in his mind all of the time, and if you interrupted, he would give you his full attention. But I tell you, when I took walks with Dad it was a very quiet time, and I feel that a lot of these expressions and thoughts and feelings were being created all of the time. Then when he went to the office on Monday he wrote. But you look inside the cover of the illustrated version of A Sand County Almanac and you see the first pencil draft of [his manuscript] and there are very few changes. You look at that and there are two or three little changes. I think when he sat down with a pencil he really had it pretty much in mind how to say it and what to say. Now, as I say, there are five Leopold children and each one will give you a different story.

The Leopold siblings starting from left, Nina, Starker, Estella, Carl, and Luna

The Leopold siblings starting from left: Nina, Starker, Estella, Carl, and Luna

LEOPOLD CHILDREN PURSUE ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES: Experiences at the Shack and our very close relationship with our father led each of us to further interest and studies in life sciences, from hydrology and geology to botany and ecology. The renewed sense of interconnectedness with nature and the willingness of each of us to act on that basis also seemed to fit into the new environmentalism that was beginning to take hold at that time. My father said, “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” This has guided each of us siblings professionally and personally.

A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC: The week before Dad died, he heard from Oxford University Press that his book of essays had been accepted for publication. After rejection from many publishers, Dad was filled with joy.

The book appeared in the fall of 1949, under the full title A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Dad’s title for the book was Great Possessions, but Oxford University Press thought that title would not communicate the substance of the book to the general public. So he never saw the book printed. He would have been absolutely thrilled.