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The Aldo Leopold Foundation will be closed to the public for a private event on Saturday, September 30.

Milwaukee River, Milwaukee, WI

A Place Close to Home

Through his writing, Aldo Leopold left a legacy of conservation knowledge and philosophy to inspire future generations. In its third year, the Wisconsin Aldo Leopold Writing Contest has challenged high school students to consider Aldo Leopold’s fondness for wildness and describe their favorite place in nature and what makes it wild. Students were encouraged to read the “Foreword” from A Sand County Almanac for greater understanding.

In partnership with the Aldo Leopold Nature Center and sponsors, Conserve School and CTI Meeting Technology, we are pleased to share with you the 2018 winning essays in a series of posts here on the Building a Land Ethic blog.

By Clayton Rodriguez Gould
Grade 11, Shorewood High School and Conserve School

Sharing in the thought that has characterized land use in the world for thousands of years before us, Aldo Leopold describes what it truly means to have a land ethic. In contrast to solely thinking of “decent land-use as… an economic problem,” Leopold notions the return of a mindset aware of the natural world. As a rule of thumb, the right answer combines what is “ethically and esthetically right,” and not solely what is most economically beneficial. Perhaps the simplest guideline Leopold gives lies in the last lines, that is, if something preserves the “integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” it is in accord with what a land ethic should embody.  Taking these lessons to heart, I began to understand my place in this often-complicated puzzle. But it wasn’t until experiencing the wild side of a place close to home that I could hope to see how Leopold himself saw the landscape.

So, last Sunday afternoon, I decide to go to a place I haven’t ventured to in a long while. It’s a short bike ride, but it seems further without someone else to remind me of the reality. A short while after, I find myself sitting on an island encompassed by an oxbow in the Milwaukee River.

black-capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadee. Photo courtesy of Dave Freriks.

For fleeting moments there’s silence all around, but those are more rare than seeing the beavers who characterize the river’s edge. The rest of the time, unfamiliar and familiar bird calls envelope myself. Of the latter, a barred owl or black-capped chickadee can be distinguished easily by their hoo-hoos or chickadee-dee-dee calls. With these thoughts in mind, I stand up to traverse the semi-worn deer trail toward the nearby prairie area. As I round a bend, a lone deer less than 20 feet stops and stares while we both wait for the other to make a move. The deer stays still with rounded dark brown eyes assessing his predicament. And just like that, he trounces off out of sight to resume his business and I may continue my procession. Even by my own narrative, it is evident that the island is a place of calm amidst confusion. Time goes by without making the same impression on the land that is character to civilization. And amazingly, I find myself forgetting that I’m less than a ten-minute bicycle from downtown Milwaukee. Maybe that’s what makes this island special in the first place.

On the ride toward home, a few thoughts came to mind. In particular, what specifically makes a place like this island so different as to consider it wild? After a few moments, the answer became clear: those who’ve cared for it have kept in mind all its beauty, integrity, and stability. Thankfully, the notion that there is an intrinsic value to land persists, and to them, I owe my gratitude for continuing to preserve and protect wild lands, like this island, as a part of our “geography of hope” (Wallace Stegner).

Clayton Rodriguez Gould bio picClayton Rodriguez Gould is beginning his senior year at Shorewood High School who has spent the spring semester at Conserve School in Land O’ Lakes. He is constantly finding new ways to learn and be a steward of the environment. In his free time, you’ll find Clayton outside enjoying trail running, mountain biking, skiing, surfing, and a whole lot more.

Feature photo, top, Milwaukee River, courtesy of Tim Cigelske / CC BY 2.0

Explore the rest of the winning essays!

Links will become available for the other winning essays as they are published to the blog.