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What’s a Ladder Got to Do with the Birthplace of the Land Ethic?

 

Think of a special place in your life. It can be anywhere: urban or rural, public or private, outdoor or indoor. Maybe you’ve only been there once or maybe it’s a part of your daily life. Now, imagine sharing this special place with another person. Would the reasons this place is special to you be obvious to them?

As the story goes, Aldo and Estella Leopold once offered the use of the Shack to some family friends. As most are aware, the Leopolds’ “cabin” is a 330-square foot rehabbed chicken coop with no electricity or plumbing. Just picture them offering this space to their friends; I imagine it was offered with no little enthusiasm given what the place meant to the Leopolds. I believe the accepted offer was destined to illuminate the Leopolds’ values. When their friends departed that weekend, I imagine them reconciling on the ride home the Leopolds they knew from the city with what they had just experienced. Why do I think that? As a token of thanks for their stay, their friends built the Leopolds a ladder for the bunk beds. Handmade from hardwood, each step was dado-jointed into the ladder’s rails for strength; it was no doubt a very sincere gesture of thanks. Remember, Aldo was a talented woodworker, so this was no casual gift. The Leopolds graciously welcomed the ladder into the Shack, where it has remained ever since.

Bunk beds with ladder inside the Shack

Over the years, I heard Aldo and Estella’s daughter Nina tell this story just a few times. In her telling, she would always smile and give a little snicker, as she quoted the friends saying, “We thought the Shack could use a ladder.” I never asked, though Nina’s telling of the story implied, they never actually used it, or at least not to get in or out of top bunks. As everyone who takes a Shack tour learns, the “pull-up bar” made of tree branches, nailed to the rafters at the head of each top bunk, was all the “ladder” needed. It was a family value that life at the Shack was about personally making do or getting along with less, while focusing on uplifting the “citizens” of the surrounding natural communities. And it was another value that these activities were done while spending quality time in the community with like-minded family, friends, and students. The Shack’s Historic Structures Report, the foundational guide to the care of historic buildings, even noted, “The Shack is a physical representation of his life and philosophy, and of the bond he shared and maintained with his family while attempting to live a simpler existence.” It is a tiny curiosity that the ladder, an affront to the Shack way of life, has remained a fixture all these years. Maybe it reminded the family that their “experiment” was actually working, in that they made life so simple it was clear that this simplicity needed “fixing” for some. Maybe further still, it reinforced their family’s ethic, always seek new recruits. No telling if their family friends ever made it among those enlisted, but decades on, the Leopold story has recruited millions, and still counting.

Outdoor view of the Shack

Photograph of the Shack taken in 2001

It was Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac that articulated the ethical appeal born at their family’s special place. Published in 1949, a year after Leopold died, the collection of essays largely laid in waiting until environmental crises of the 1960s and 70s sent scores of people looking to redefine society’s relationship to the earth and its natural resources. Citizens were seeking a new North Star. Among them, they found Carson, Thoreau, Stoneman Douglas, Dillard, and Leopold. Today, you’d find Drew Lanham, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Lauret Savoy, Wendell Berry, and even entertainment celebrities like Nick Offerman. Consciousness for humanities’ critical relationship to the natural world has been around for millennia. It predated Leopold, and thank goodness, lives on today in environmental thought-leaders around the world. The rapid pace of technology, globalization, and ecological issues makes assembling a community of like-minded individuals and seeking new recruits simultaneously imperative, and possible. It’s why we are launching the Writing Its Next Chapters Campaign–the history we hold is for a better future.

Drew Lanham Visits the Shack in 2014

Drew Lanham at the Shack in 2014

When the Leopold Family gave the Shack to the foundation, the gift was based on the promise that this special place, tied to Aldo Leopold’s masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac, could continue to challenge people to consider their relationship to the natural world and to each other.

Over the past 20 years at the foundation, I’ve interpreted the Leopold’s Shack and the restoration of the land for thousands of people. I’ve come to appreciate this historical site as a place where visitors enjoy imagining hanging out with Aldo Leopold and his family. The easiest portal to access this fantasy is the old photographs the son Carl took of the family caring for the Shack and land.

Photo of Leopold Family

Photograph of Leopold family taken by Carl Leopold in 1939

I have come to delight in how the Leopold’s story at the Shack creates self-reflective moments and, more importantly, nurtures them. I witness self-confidence welling within visitors when they realize the Leopold family’s own land ethic manifested in planting trees, planting prairie, and growing food, among other straightforward activities. Pretty simple tasks, all things considered.

Leopold wrote, “To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree—and there will be one.”

Planting a tree, either literally or metaphorically, is something our world needs more of. For my role as tour guide, I prefer metaphors and reading Leopold’s essay “Draba” while standing on the poor sand where the wildflower grows. In the essay, Leopold heaps respect on a seemingly insignificant, almost invisible, tiny plant, writing a little humorously, “Altogether it is of no importance–just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.” Leopold knew in a world of over-sized problems, every act, no matter how small, matters.

Writing Its Next Chapters Campaign is about securing a special place that represents values we need now more than ever. Our work will focus on the historic Shack, on the land, and, importantly, on bringing this special place and the values it represents to audiences throughout our nation and to the world. This special place still has recruiting to do. Our plan is presented in three chapters.

Chapter 1: The Leopold Shack – The Icon of their Experience. 

Believe it or not, the family didn’t start locking the Shack until the early eighties. With an ever- growing sphere of interest has brought a likewise predictable stream of people’s trespass. Since 2007, the foundation has been headquartered a mile from the Shack and a staff person has been living nearby. But more is needed. Our plan focuses on deterring trespass on the historic site through improved signage, locks, and video security measures.

In the late 1970s, Nina Leopold Bradley and Charlie Bradley resettled in the area and started to give the Shack a little attention. While projects have been completed over the years, primarily by family, we more recently adopted an historic structures standard of restoration. This standard requires the identification of a period of significance—we chose the time of Leopold’s death in 1948—that shapes projects and decisions to ensure the Shack remains a physical representation of its time. We want to preserve as much original integrity as possible—our motto is that things that are breaking don’t get fixed till broken. We have an historic structures plan and prioritized list of activities.

The historic structures report states,

“Treatment of the structure cannot be static. The shack must be in a constant state of monitoring and renewal while at the same time be allowed to continue to show its spirit as it evolves with the natural environment, much as it was maintained by Leopold and his family. Ironically, this requires an acceptance of the fact that the Shack after Leopold purchased it was never in a high state of repair. But, for the observer today, it was also a demonstration for living lightly on the land. [The approach] requires that the Shack be allowed to weather and show its age, but not be allowed to deteriorate to a complete state of disrepair. This is not necessarily a standard methodology for preserving most historic buildings, but it is appropriate here, in this context, as a demonstration of how the Shack fit within the conservation ethic that it now represents.”

Shack roof

Photo of the Shack taken May 2022

Some of the work is cosmetic, such as cleaning and touching up the interior whitewashed walls, and some of it is structural, such as a new roof and improved underground drainage away from the foundation. We have a long list of smaller, but important improvements including replacing a few rotten boards, eliminating rodent entry points, and addressing accessibility issues, among others. The edict from the historic structures report is – …”conservation of the Shack in a constant state of “stable disrepair” in order to preserve its authenticity” –we want to honor that edict with the right amount of care. And, when people tour this rebuilt chicken coop, we want them to feel it is still intensely cherished.

Chapter 2:  The Land – Where They Nurtured Their Land Ethic. 

Every year the Leopold family would plant 3,000 pine trees, 1,000 of each white, red, and jack pines. Seasons of failed attempts during the droughts of the late 1930s created a resolve and an emotional connection that would last for the rest of Leopold’s life. In his essay, “Pines Above the Snow,” Leopold writes, “I love all trees, but I’m in love with pines.” These are the pines of his affection. These are the pines that finally took hold after years of failed attempts during the droughts of the late 1930s. In the winter of 2005-06, we undertook the most significant thinning the pines had seen – those trees became the Leopold Legacy Center, our headquarters a mile from the Shack. They are due for another thinning, much lighter than the first, but nonetheless necessary. We will be exploring an equally fitting use for the wood harvested.

In the 1940s, Carl Leopold was actively collecting plant specimens for his college botany class. Out on the sands, he found a tiny plant half the size of his thumb and brought it back to his dad. Aldo didn’t know the name of it, but they soon learned it; later Leopold penned the essay “Draba.” The Leopolds purposely kept the sand blow–a very sandy, sparsely vegetated area–open for “the smallest flower that blows.”

Their planted pines, prairies, orchard, sand blow, trails and horticultural plantings around the Shack are going to get our concerted effort over the next couple of years, so they can be enjoyed by visitors for decades to come.

View of the Shack from the Shack prairie (1936)

Chapter 3:  The Story – Amplifying and Sharing the Message with a New Generation. 

Even curators of history need (and want) to get with the times. Teachers and professors from around the country have been asking for years for “remote tours” of the Shack and land. They want to show their students the muse of Leopold’s exceptional writing. Our website sees hundreds of thousands of visits each year and our intent is to offer–for free–a virtual tour of the Shack and the family’s relationship to the land. This online experience will explore virtue ethics in an exploration of the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s own land ethic. Visitors will be encouraged to consider the character traits of their own land ethic. Connecting this special place to the philosophy of a land ethic will be a story ready to share with anyone in the world.

Guided in-person, on-site tours are offered at set times during the day or pre-arranged for groups. It is often the case that families come through at times when it is more convenient for them to take a self-guided tour of the historic site. Currently a brochure of information with stops is offered, but we envision a much richer experience. Beginning at the Leopold Legacy Center, a model of “green” architecture and the site of Leopold’s memorial where he died fighting a wildfire, an audio tour will interpret these stops and the historic Shack site with storytelling from the family members who experienced the places and events first-hand.

Every bit of Aldo Leopold’s archive was digitized a few years ago. Hundreds of images are requested annually by writers and filmmakers for their projects. However, a scanned and archived image of something hand-written isn’t electronically searchable by key words. For historic writings, an additional step of transcription is necessary to create a searchable, electronic file. Of greatest interest by scholars and enthusiasts are the Leopold family’s Shack Journals that span 13 years and over 1,000 pages of text. We will coordinate this transcription project through a crowd-sourced and verifying protocol. This project will greatly illuminate our understanding of life at the Shack, dates of birds and blooms the family observed (phenology records), and family stories. To our knowledge, no one has read the journals in their entirety since they were written. Now everyone can!

Aldo Leopold writing in his journal at the Shack

Aldo Leopold writing in his journal at the Shack

Most importantly this “chapter” of our work must go beyond amplifying the Leopold family’s voice. While the goal for a land ethic adopted throughout society remains as vital as ever, the context for our work and conversations is constantly changing. Expectations too, need adjustment along the way. An ethic isn’t a one-size-fits-all; it’s societal and individual all-at-once.

The foundation is extremely fortunate to attract environmental thought-leaders from around the globe. They come to us for many reasons: continued relevance of the land ethic, conjuring our history to support their current messages, and sometimes, sweetly, their own “selfie” moment at the Shack. These new, diverse voices represent a more complete telling of history, offer critical context, and help shape expectations that greatly improve our ability to be in an ever-expanding community of individuals that care about our environment and each other. We will continue to use our largest platforms of virtual programming during Leopold Week, and our distribution networks will continue to amplify these voices with a goal of reaching over 100,000 people through this campaign.

We hope you will be one of them.

We also hope that you too are inspired…

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