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Wisconsin Aldo Leopold Writing Contest: Environmental Rings

This is our final installment of winning essays from the 2016 Wisconsin Aldo Leopold Writing Contest. You can explore all the winning essays in the first, second, and third installments in this series. On this final week of sharing, a recent high school graduate walks the reader forward in time through rings of an imagined future history for our shared environment, revealing a somber message and a call to embrace our role in advancing a land ethic in our society today.

Congratulations to all of the talented students who participated in this event, and many thanks also to the sponsors, the volunteer organizing committee, and the volunteer judges who made it happen!

Aldo Leopold Writing Contest Environmental Rings

Environmental Rings

By Clare Johnson
Grade 12, Madison East High School

Today, most people in America flip on a light switch without thinking where that energy is coming from. What will happen if we all live in this mindset? Aldo Leopold shared an allegory where “the saw works across the years, which it must deal with one by one…. From each year the raker teeth pull little chips of fact, which accumulate in little piles, called sawdust by woodsmen and archives by historians.” Like the process in Leopold’s words, every year without reflection will bring us to a future without spiritual connection to our food and our fuel.

Environmental rings of good oak

An activity from the Leopold Education Project curriculum has students mark historical events on the rings of an oak tree cookie. Photo by Ed Pembleton.

Jump to the year 2050, when trees are scarce and forests are sickly. Workers, greedy for lumber, compete for a surviving oak tree. As their saw breaks the surface of the oak, a ring is revealed, bringing insight into the history of our ravaged Earth. The outer ring captures 2048 and its carbon filled emissions. The earth is drained of color, with skies clouded by dust and pollution. The grey oak ring reflects the negligence of people oblivious to the impact of our energy consumption. They saw deeper, now exposing the deficits of 2036. The neglected promise of solar power wreaks unpredictable, violent climate swings. As a result, global cycles of drought and flood push world hunger to new peaks. The biodiversity of our world seems to be collapsing every day.

White Rhino

Northern White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) photo by Flickr user Erin.

The workers then scratch the surface of 2025. The last Northern White Rhinoceros has died. Our government continues to ignore the consequences of climate change. In 2016, present day, the saw cuts into a healthy ring of sufficient growth. It was not too late for our Earth and we saw some conscientious efforts. Our tree shows a girl and her family tending to the oak among their vegetable garden. They are members of a food co-op that sources products locally. Her family has just changed their electricity source from coal to all wind energy. She emphasizes the little things she can do in her power, such as conserving water and minimizing heat consumption because she knows its source and true environmental cost.

To avoid this dark future of blackened tree rims revealing our infidelity to our planet, we must take a few minutes to think about where our food and energy truly comes from. A farm is not required to do this. Part of the solution comes from governments enforcing federal regulations to preserve our Earth; however, a greater responsibility resides within the power of individuals. We must ask ourselves if we truly need to buy something because the true “cost” of that product on the environment is most likely not reflected in the price. And overall, we must work together from all backgrounds, to build and maintain a healthy ecosystem full of reducing, recycling, and reusing. Like the tree, our Earth will continue to grow despite the damage. However, there is a point where the rings cannot be rewritten and will reflect upon the decisions we make today.

About the Author

Clare JohnsonClare Johnson is a 2016 graduate of Madison East High School. As an AP Environmental Studies student, she helped manage an aquaponics system created by her class, and she completed an environmental science course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Last summer, she learned about the Kenyan environment and her sister school, while living in the savanna through the PAMOJA project  Her family has taught her, from a young age, to value and respect the earth and all it has to offer. This fall, Clare will pursue her love of science at Macalester College, in St. Paul, MN, with the aim to link her learning to creating a healthier environment and more sustainable future. She aims to live by Aldo Leopold’s words, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” Every day, Clare strives to not only find this harmony, but to encourage it in others.


Explore the rest of the winning essays!

Week 1: “Rest,” Cries the Chief Bean Picker!

Week 2: Lessons from the Good Oak

Week 3: Rings of History and Good Oak

  • Susan Feathers

    Dear Miss Johnson,

    Thank you so much for this graphic, poignant look at a possible future based our action/inaction today, and the positive images of individuals working together to create a more hopeful future. I believe that focusing on food and energy use is the right focus; looking at consumption and its environmental costs.

    I have just written a book, Threshold, which looks at climate change much as you have, and there are three young leaders like yourself who are trying to find their way in it all.

    It is inspiring to read from a young, talented writer such as you, and to know that young leaders are coming up to help guide our Ship to safe harbor.

    Many thanks, too, to the Aldo Leopold Foundation for its sponsorship of the writing contest.

    Warmly,
    Susan Feathers
    http://www.walkearth.org

    • Jennifer Kobylecky

      Thanks for this comment, Susan! I agree, very well stated.

    • Clare Johnson

      Dear Susan Feathers,

      Thank you for reading my essay. I think it is absolutely vital that my generation start to take action and become aware of the repercussions of these environmental costs.

      Your book sounds very interesting and I look forward to reading it.

      Best,
      Clare