Picture of Aldo Leopld's Shack in fall

Seeing the Shack through Leopold’s Eyes

Welcome to the first of a three-part virtual Shack tour series! While the Aldo Leopold Foundation may be closed to the public and doing our best to practice social distancing, we are missing our springtime opportunities to engage with visitors and share Leopold’s legacy. Through this series we will “walk” through the property which inspired the conservation classic, A Sand County Almanac, learning together how Leopold’s work at the Shack transformed both the landscape and the Leopold family

We’ll look together at how this property continues to inspire us to think deeply about our own relationships with the natural world. The first leg of the tour will cover how Aldo Leopold was shaped by his experiences prior to arriving at the Shack, in the second installment we will explore together how the family was transformed by their time at the Shack, and through the third installment, we will explore how the Leopold’s transformed the landscape and analyze how their work has influenced countless others to consider their relationship with land!

Aldo Leopold was born in 1887 and grew up in Burlington, IA (a Midwesterner through and through). He left the Midwest in 1909 to attend the Yale School of Forestry as one of the first generations of professional foresters in the nation. Following graduation, he went to the Southwest and worked as a forester for both the Apache and Carson National Forests.

It was during this time that Aldo Leopold met and fell in love with his wife, Estella Bergere Leopold. Estella came from one of the most powerful ranching families in the Southwest, and it took some wooing before she agreed to marry Aldo. They had five children together: Starker, Luna, Nina, Carl, and Estella Jr. Estella was described by the children as the “glue” that held the family together in difficult times. Her presence undoubtedly influenced Leopold and her assistance in tasks ranging from planting pines to child-rearing assisted Aldo over the years.

Aldo and Estella Leopold with a dog

Aldo and Estella Leopold with their dog, Flick.

From then we fast forward to 1924 when the Leopold’s move from the Southwest to Madison, WI. Aldo worked for the Forest Products Lab and the Sporting Arms & Ammunitions Manufacturers’ Institute before landing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as the first professor in the brand-new game management program (later known as wildlife ecology).

In 1935, Leopold went to his realtor friend, Ed Oschner, and asked Ed to help him find a property in the Sand Counties. Leopold was looking to buy a property for 3 reasons:

  1. Like many modern Wisconsinites, Leopold wanted to have a piece of land to relax and practice outdoor recreation activities. He was looking for a place he and his family could spend time together outdoors learning, hunting, and fishing.
  2. Coming from the wilds of the Southwest to the modern city of Madison, Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold sought a place where he could get away from the city.  When he bought the Shack property in Baraboo, Wisconsin, Levee Road (which the Shack is located on) was nothing more than two dirt ruts. Leopold described the Shack in A Sand County Almanac by saying it was their “week-end refuge from too much modernity.”
  3. As a new professor of Game Management, Leopold wanted a worn-out parcel of land where he could put his ideas to work and practice land restoration. As a worn-out sand farm, the Shack property presented a perfect candidate for Leopold to experiment with new techniques and practices in land management.

“On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere.” -Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Did you know there’s no “Sand County” in Wisconsin? Rather, the phrase refers to a collection of counties in central Wisconsin that have deep, sandy soil as a result of the glacial history of the region.

Ed found Leopold an 80-acre property in Baraboo, WI and he instantly fell in love with it. As the story goes, Leopold bought the property and brought the family for their first visit on a cold February day. It had snowed a couple of feet before they went to visit, so they had to walk the last two miles down Levee Road to the Shack.

Nina later recounted it was so cold on the way they actually had to start a fire halfway to warm up. At the end of their blustery walk, the sight that greeted them was a front gate with “corn stubble and cockleburs as far as the eye could see,” as Nina described it, and a Shack whose floor was covered in chicken manure (not the paradise they were expecting). However, over time this property would be revered highly in the minds of the children and would become the inspiration for one of the greatest pieces on conservation ethics ever written, A Sand County Almanac.

Aldo and Carl Leopold repairing fence.

Aldo and Carl Leopold repairing the fence that stood alongside Levee Rd at the entrance to their Shack property (1939).

Fast-forwarding to the present, the front gate (remodeled over time) still stands as the entry point for Aldo Leopold’s Shack and Farm property, which currently inspires thousands of visitors each year to consider their own relationship to the land. These visitors flock to Baraboo, Wisconsin to see what Leopold saw, learn about an early experiment in land restoration, and further develop a land ethic.

Split rail fence with pines in the background

The front gate to the Leopold Shack and Farm (2020).

Aldo Leopold’s early life experiences provided the foundation for his environmental thinking, and throughout his life, his own perception of ecological health was molded and shifted. The culmination of Leopold’s experiences in life led to the formation of his seminal idea: the land ethic.

Introduced to the world as the finale to A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s land ethic philosophy calls for each individual to analyze their relationship to the land, and work to consider the plants, animals, and land we occupy as a part of our community, with the same amount of respect we would afford to our human neighbors. Although his time at the Shack was formational and inspired A Sand County Almanac, Leopold’s early life experiences were equally as important in the formation of his environmental morals.

In our next section, we’ll explore how the Shack was transformed from an ordinary chicken coop into the foreground and inspiration for a conservation classic, which thousands of environmentalists across the globe flock to each year.

Check out our new digital resources to learn more about all things Leopold!

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