By Trish Stevenson (with Gordon Stevenson)
The Leopold Memorial Reserve is a watery domain. Since 1935, Leopolds have swam and paddled in the Wisconsin River, observed and tracked migratory birds in and out of the expansive wetlands and pumped water from the aquifer that lies just a few feet below Levee Road and the Shack.
Aldo and Estella Leopold are my grandparents. My family spent part of every summer with my grandmother at the Shack, often including the presence of my uncles, aunt and cousins. Although Aldo died two years before I was born, I feel close to his legacy because of the influences of my grandmother and especially my mother, Nina Leopold Bradley. She gave me the gifts of not only physical attachments to nature, but also spiritual connections with it. Some call that “a sense of place;” it is a lot more than just geography.
Aldo Leopold’s written words become more relevant to our world as time passes. As I have grown older, I have come to understand how things that become relevant to the world must first become relevant to us as individuals. My mother said, “What is important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it, before being asked to heal its wounds.” I am so deeply grateful that I was given that opportunity. I now realize that my understanding and appreciation for water, both in quality and quantity, come from the stories I heard and the experiences I had in my childhood at the Shack.
Leopold family walks upriver following spring floods were recurring family treasure hunts, often yielding lumber and other building materials, used to repair and improve the Shack. The children would take off their clothes for their mother to carry, and then they would swim with their found treasures of flotsam down the river to the Shack. On one of these collecting trips, ten-year-old daughter Estella discovered a heavy, three-foot segment of a hardwood log. After significant effort, the prize was hauled to the front door of the Shack, drilled with a hand auger, fitted with whittled legs and made into a bench. Estella, for reasons now forgotten, named the new bench “Napoleon.” Napoleon remains in service in the Shack.
Before the federal Clean Water Act of 1970’s, the reach of the Wisconsin River where the Leopolds scrounged lumber was periodically wounded. Untreated discharges from upriver municipal sewage systems as well as pulp and paper mills could form thick blankets of foam on the river’s surface. On such days, retrieval of “objects pilfered” would have been both unhealthful and unwise. Wisconsin’s early adoption of the Clean Water Act healed the river’s wounds, for a time. But there are new wounds. With exploding global markets for Wisconsin agricultural products, the Wisconsin River system is experiencing severe impairments to recreation and water quality linked to excessive agricultural nutrient applications.
These wounds may be healed as well if we can find the same degree of will and purpose as we did in the 1970’s.
The marsh directly across Levee Road from the Shack always calls to mind a favorite family story. One spring weekend Aldo, his wife Estella and my mother Nina were at the Shack. Daughter Estella had a high school commitment and could not come. Nina and Aldo were walking along Levee Road looking over the marsh. They saw something in the distance but at first could not make it out. As they watched they finally saw a crow flitting low above the water, where something was swimming directly below it. As it got closer they finally deciphered the swimmer’s identity: it was young Estella… swimming across the marsh with her clothes held on her head and of course her pet crow, named Fluminia, flying overhead. Nina always commented that she had never seen her father laugh so hard.
“Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
The multiple functions of wetlands are well-known: they store flood water, mitigate water pollution, sequester carbon, nurture fish and wildlife and provide recreation to humankind. When Estella and Fluminia crossed the marsh, the loss of much of Wisconsin’s 10 million original acres of wetlands was already well underway. We now are paying the environmental price for that loss. Solutions are available, including restoration, acquisition and management. Like the wounds to the Wisconsin River, the only barrier is the direction of our collective will.
A modest farmhouse hand pump has always supplied drinking water for the Leopold family at the Shack. It is vertically connected to a pipe that intersects the groundwater just a few feet below the ground’s surface. The groundwater, in turn, horizontally connects both the Wisconsin River and its sloughs on one side and the marsh on the other. Drinking water is well-earned at the Shack. Our family joke is, “We have running water at the Shack. It runs just as fast as you can pump the handle.“
My earliest memories of the Shack are now more than 60 years old. I remember jumping out of the car when we arrived at the gate to the Shack property. I would run as fast as I could to reach the Shack door, collecting a few painful sand burrs on my bare feet. There were wonderful things to do for a child at the Shack: spin the big grindstone to sharpen sticks, climb the old Wolf River apple tree and dig tunnels in the Sand Blow. But the hand pump has always been the focus of greatest entertainment for young children. I remember the sublime delight of moving the pump handle up and down and watching water miraculously gush forth. My sister and I expended many hours taking turns priming the pump, filling the hand-coopered white oak buckets and then, of course, playing in the buckets until we were completely soaked.
My sister and I, along with our seven first cousins, refer to ourselves as the “F2’s,” as the geneticists might call us. We were the first generation of young children in our family to experience “Baptism by Wash Basin.” There are two old-fashioned enamelware wash basins that have hung on a wall in the Shack ever since I can remember. Like everything in the Shack, they have practical and sometimes multiple functions. The primary role of the two basins is to wash dishes: one for soapy water and the other for rinse water. But they have been periodically called in to bathe babies and toddlers since there are no sinks, bath tubs or showers with unlimited and pressurized water supplies to complicate the matter. There are now succeeding generations of F3’s and a growing number of F4’s that are expanding the ledger of “baptizees.”
Wisconsin may be the most groundwater-rich state in the union. Our groundwater supply is in the quadrillions of gallons. Yet in this seeming surplus, there is an alarming and growing number of locations in Wisconsin where citizens can no longer drink the groundwater because it is so heavily polluted with agricultural nutrients and livestock-borne pathogens. I find it further disheartening that state legislation has been introduced that allows a handful of entrepreneurs to commandeer regional groundwater supplies.
Perhaps the greater question is: can our society live with our rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater without spoiling them? Every time I hold my two year old grandson, named after his Great Uncle Starker, I hope so. I hope Starker will scrounge treasures from pristine river banks, explore the wonders of undrained marshes and that children everywhere can pump clean groundwater into the buckets to their sublime delight. Their land ethic will spring from such watery adventures.
Gordon Stevenson co-wrote this article with his wife Trish. He is a 26-year veteran of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and is a past board member of the Aldo Leopold Foundation. He was Chief of Runoff Management with Wisconsin DNR until his retirement in January of 2011. His professional expertise includes watershed-based water resource protection and control of diffuse water pollution sources.