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Wisconsin Aldo Leopold Writing Contest: Rings of History and Good Oak

Over the next month, we are pleased to be able to bring you a selection of the winning essays from the 2016 Wisconsin Aldo Leopold Writing Contest here on the Building a Land Ethic blog. Learn more about this contest and read another winning essay in the first and second installments in this series. This week, we bring you two essays from two very talented writers, both exploring the relevance of Leopold’s Good Oak to them.


Rings of History

By Julian Castronovo
Grade 12, Verona Area High School

The oak tree in my suburban front yard is not as old or venerable as Aldo Leopold’s Good Oak. My oak saw no land cleared for tobacco nor beavers hunted to near extinction. It saw no native peoples forcibly displaced for the cultivation of cotton. It was perhaps just a seedling during the lifetime of Leopold, when farmers utilizing new technologies turned western topsoil to dust. Yet drawing upon this four-hundred-year history of American land use for which my tree was largely absent, it is easy to arrive at the conclusion that the desire to extract wealth from the environment perhaps outweighs any ethical appreciation of its serenity.

Good Oak leaf

Such a conclusion concerning the power of greed is especially troublesome as we find ourselves in an era of unprecedented environmental degradation. Today, as consumers and business people alike struggle with transitions to clean energy and green agricultural practices, we face a major question: can we leave oil in the ground and forests of trees standing at the cost of profit? Perhaps, ironically, we can draw a lesson in environmental ethics from one felled tree in particular: Aldo Leopold’s Good Oak.

This oak that was cut by Leopold on his farm enabled him to see a reversal of roles. In general, humans feel that land exists for our benefit. We are often indifferent to environmental changes and the consequences of environmental exploitation. However, as Leopold sawed through the rings of the Good Oak, he realized that humankind’s conflicts — and even land ownership itself– are arbitrary from the perspective of nature. Leopold’s reversal of historical consciousness can be applied to our thoughtless environmental destruction today. The labor of cutting through the Oak taught Leopold exactly where the heat in his Shack on the sandy banks of the Wisconsin River was coming from. He saw that his source of warmth was not something to be blindly exploited, for he felt that the Oak was proud, strong, and enduring.

Good Oak sawyers

Teachers taking part in a Leopold Education Project workshop practice their skills as oak sawyers. Photo by Susan Setterlin.

While I don’t think everyone should go and cut down a tree in order to gain a new perspective of our use of resources, perhaps the allegory of Leopold’s Oak can help us realize some of our ethical shortcomings. More than anything, Leopold urges us to think about the epochal history that lies beneath our daily activities. By thinking about what resources we use in heating our homes or making our food, we come to understand nature’s fragile longevity.

For my family, this appreciation of the slow unwinding of time shows up in how we treat our trash: we recycle it via composting. Although coffee grounds and apple cores are more prosaic than Leopold’s Good Oak, they too are part of a longer historical pattern. The difference composting makes is not profound, but spreading composted soil on the base of the Burr Oak in my yard is still a nod toward Leopold’s message of ethical land use. That gesture may be small and insignificant, but over time it, too, is part of the rings of history.

Good Oak

By Brilyn E. Brecka
Grade 10, Alma Area Schools

Aldo Leopold’s “Good Oak” educated people about land ethics. His exquisite essay told the history of a “particular oak [that] grew on the bank of the old emigrant road⋯” When Leopold was forced to fell the tree, he realized the importance of its life. After eighty years, the tree had seen many milestones in Wisconsin’s history. Leopold cut across the years of the oak, starting with the reign of the bootleggers, the “buck law”, and a drought in the early 1900s. They cut into the 1800s, the century of the last wild Wisconsin turkey and the Peshtigo Fire, until they hit the 1860s — the decade “thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered?” The same question pertains to the man-land community. 1866 brought the year of the last elk, and they soon reached the “pith-year” of the oak, 1865. Leopold wrote, “1865 still stands in Wisconsin history as the birth year of mercy for things natural, wild, and free.” And it was. The oak seed was fertilized and nourished by the land and sun. The men cut backward through the years until the tree started to sway. “Timber!” There lay the good oak.

Good Oak at the Shack

Aldo and his family chopping the good oak after it fell at the Shack.

Leopold wrote, “There are two spiritual dangers of not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” It is important to know where food and energy originates because a greater understanding of the natural world is reached. “If one has cut, split, hauled and piled his own good oak⋯ he will remember where the heat comes from and⋯ [have] a wealth of detail denied to those⋯ astride a radiator.” Leopold used his oak for energy, and it is evident he appreciated it fully. He knew where his heat came from and acknowledged time and energy went into the tree. The tree, nature’s timekeeper, provided a resource that helped him survive.

Good oak logs warming Nina

Good oak logs warm Nina Leopold Bradley by the Shack fireplace.

“To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.” Nature produces food in many forms. Some are sold at stores, and many people do not know its source or quality. Store-bought food often contains hormones and antibiotics. I know where my food comes from and that it is chemical free. Deer, turkey, bear, geese, fish — they go from nature’s landscape to my family’s table. When harvesting, pride and satisfaction rush through my veins. At home, my vegetable garden also reminds me of nature’s food. I develop an emotional attachment to my nutrition and an appreciation of its life.

Recently, changes are being made in my school. We are converting to geothermal energy. The system uses the earth’s temperature to regulate the school’s temperature. It is a renewable resource more effective than the best furnace or air conditioner. Aldo Leopold put important messages about land ethics into A Sand County Almanac, and his anecdotes will forever live on in the hearts of readers.

About the Authors

Julian CastronovoJulian Castronovo is an 18 year-old from Madison, Wisconsin. He was introduced to Leopold’s Land Ethic by his environmental science teacher, Matt Tiller. Julian will be studying environmental science and literary arts at Brown University.


Brilyn BreckaBrilyn Brecka is sixteen years old and lives in Alma, Wisconsin with her three younger siblings and parents. She participates in sports such as volleyball, basketball, and track and field. Her favorite professional sports teams include the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Some of Brilyn’s favored activities include hunting, fishing, shooting guns, bird watching, reading, photography, and throwing shot put and discus. Some of her favorite books are My Side of the Mountain, The Other Side of the Mountain, and Frightful’s Mountain, all by Jean Craighead George. In the future, Brilyn wants to become a wildlife biologist and throw shot put and discus while attending UW Stevens Point.

Explore the rest of the winning essays!

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

Week 2: Lessons From the Good Oak

Week 4: Environmental Rings