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  • December 20th, 2010

The Old Chicken House

By Joel M. Vance

It is the most famous chicken house in the world.  It stands, somewhat shakily, given its advancing years, in a grove of trees in central Wisconsin.  It is the former chicken shelter converted by Aldo Leopold to a family retreat in 1935.

Leopold is rightfully called the Father of Conservation because the trained

The Leopold shack

Joel Vance reading "A Sand County Almanac" at the Leopold shack

forester/ecologist/writer was the first to put down in words understandable to everyone the feelings and vague concepts that any outdoor enthusiast has.

We just don’t have the talent to crystallize them in words.

The shack is on 80 acres of sandy soil within sight of a bend of the Wisconsin River.  Primitive trails wind through the property.  One follows a ridge in a curve back toward the main road and at the end is a glacial bounder with a brass plate reading, “Rest! Cries the chief sawyer.”

This is the phrase that Leopold used in one of his most famous essays, about cutting a tree and as the saw bit into the tree farther and farther, he reflected on the history that was happening at each pause for “rest.”  The crosscut saw he and his wife, Estella, used to cut the tree hangs in the old cabin.

Aldo Leopold died of a heart attack in 1948, fighting a grass fire at a neighbor’s, near his beloved 80-acre farm where the cabin sits.  He was only 61 years old.

The next year the book most identified with him, A Sand County Almanac, was published by the Oxford University Press.  That book has become the Bible for conservationists, for in those few elegant essays are more commonsense concepts than ever sprouted from any other conservation mind.  There is scarcely a word in the book that can’t be quoted to make a point (and they all have been, repeatedly).  It took about seven years from idea to finished manuscript and he had been notified that Oxford Press would publish his book shortly before he died.

You won’t find the shack except by accident or by good directions—it is today exactly as it was when Leopold’s spirit left his body to inhabit the trees he’d planted and the creaking boards of the old cabin.   You can feel his presence if you’re of a mind to.  Nothing has been changed.  There are two rude double-decker bunk beds which replaced a bare floor where the Leopold clan slept before they built the beds.

Mother and Father Leopold would spread straw on the plank floor and roll the five teenage kids up in blankets in a row, like human burritos.  There is a stack of photographs taken through the formative years of the farm and the kids.  They show a happy family, doing hard work on a worn-out farm.

Nina (Leopold) Bradley wrote of the day they were introduced to their dad’s new acquisition: “On this particular moment the understanding and sharing probably reached its lowest point as we stood shivering, gazing at Dad’s treasure, waiting for a miracle or some great blinding revelation.”

That would change as Leopold involved his wife and children in the restoration of the burned out farm.  The 80 acres was never meant to be a working farm in the traditional sense.  Fun farms are places where city folks who make their living elsewhere can come and connect with the soil.  But for Leopold it was far more than a Green Acres wannabe.  It was where he could practice and perfect the land ethic that he had been developing in his mind for years.

“I know clearly now why my father was basically a very humble man,” wrote his daughter Nina.  “It is a humbling thing to know important questions for which you have no answers.”

Leopold didn’t come to his philosophy overnight.  It was a lifelong process.  As a game manager in the 1920s he advocated and practiced the eradication of predators to increase game—primarily deer—in the Gila National Forest.  The result was an overpopulation of deer which ate itself out of house and home.

A philosopher was born when he shot a wolf and watched it die: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he wrote in a famous essay titled “Thinking Like a Mountain.”  Only a mountain, he came to believe, has been around long enough to understand the relationship between man, prey and predators.  “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean a hunters’ paradise,” he wrote.

“But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Leopold’s fully-formed philosophy, what he called a land ethic, can be summed up in one sentence: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”  We all know this is true; we just don’t always treat the biotic community in the right way—pollution, degradation, bad land use, exploitation of natural resources all are violations of Leopold’s simple summary on how the world and nature can co-exist—in fact must in the longrun.

Leopold’s idea of a biotic community in which everything is hooked to everything else is not new—it goes back a century or more before his time—but no one before (or since, for that matter) has lined it out so clearly. “A land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

Even as he was advocating predator elimination, in 1922 he also was advocating roadless wilderness, a concept that wouldn’t reach legal status (as the National Wilderness Preservation Act) for more than 40 years.

From the Southwest, Leopold migrated to Wisconsin where he would enjoy his greatest accomplishments.  They included chairing the game management section at the University of Wisconsin, founding the Wilderness Society in 1935, being a founder of the Wildlife Society in 1936, creating and chairing the Department of Wildlife Management (note the change from “game” to “wildlife) at the University of Wisconsin in 1939…and beginning the series of essays that would become A Sand County Almanac in 1941.

Threaded through those achievements were days spent at the cabin in Sauk County (the “Sand County” of the essays).  His experiences there triggered his reflections on man and nature.  The first part of the book is a month by month chronicle of happenings at the shack.  “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.  It is here that we seek—and still find—our meat from God.”

A native stone fireplace dominates the cabin, but it must have been mighty cold in a Wisconsin winter in that uninsulated cabin…and they did spend winter days and nights there.  “My dog does not care where heat comes from,” Leopold wrote one cold February, “but he cares ardently that it come, and soon.”  He writes of the shivering dog pressing close to him as he lays a fire in the rock fireplace of the cabin.  “I must touch a match to them [kindling splits] by poking it between his legs.  Such faith, I suppose, is the kind that moves mountains.”

A crude board serves as a bookshelf and there, next to a journal in which visitors can record their impressions, is a first edition of Round River, Leopold’s other popular book, which also was published posthumously in 1953.  It was a mighty temptation and I suspect I earned some points from higher authority by not adding the book to my collection of Leopoldiana.

Chances are the bookshelf board washed up on a flood.  “Our lumber pile, recruited entirely from the river, is thus not only a collection of personalities, but an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests,” Leopold wrote.

Sometimes the flood would strand Leopold in the cabin.  “I see our road dipping gently into the waters, and I conclude (with inner glee but exterior detachment) that the question of traffic, in or out, is for this day at least, debatable only among carp.”

On a December day the shack was cold and a fire in the fireplace would have been welcome but it was not up to me to light that fire and there was no dog huddling close in hopes of warmth.  I went outside and walked toward the river.  Someone, perhaps a Leopold kid, had nailed a cow skull to a gnarled oak in the river bottom.  There were ducks on the river.   There were deer tracks in the sand.  A trophy buck bounded away at one corner of the property while I was there, and a flock of sandhill cranes fed in a nearby crop field.  Wild turkeys were feeding in yet another field.

The forester in Leopold never left him.  Much of the land restoration on his 80 acres and, over the years, on neighboring land, involved tree planting.  Today huge pines he and his family planted line the ridge trail, giving it a cathedral effect.  You can sit on a rude bench overlooking a slough and gather your thoughts or just soak in the quiet.  The wind soughing in the treetops whispers truths that you almost can understand.

The kids who once slept on the cabin floor all matured into conservation work.  Daughter Nina (Bradley) created the Leopold Foundation which works to restore worn out land and has brought health to more than 15,000 acres so far.  Carl Leopold became a plant physiologist who founded the Tropical Forest Initiative to restore forests in Costa Rica.  Luna became chief hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and is considered one of the foremost earth scientists of the 20th century.  Estella became a professor of botany at the University of Washington.  Starker, the oldest son, died in 1983 after a long career as a professor of wildlife ecology, writer (five books and more than 100 scientific papers) and advisor to the National Park Service.

Both Sand County Almanac and Round River were illustrated with pen and ink drawings by Charlie Schwartz, my late friend and role model.  Charlie is the only authentic genius of my experience and it was inevitable that he and his wife Libby become intimates of the Leopold family.  Charlie, a biologist as well as an artist, did landmark research on prairie chickens in north Missouri in the 1940s at the same time Aldo’s son Starker was working on wild turkeys in the south part of the state.

When it came time to illustrate the books, Charlie was the logical choice.  Whether it was his idea or Leopold’s to decorate the cover of A Sand County Almanac with a trio of geese calling frantically to their airborne kinfolk, the subject choice was perfect.  “Once touching water, our newly arrived guests set up a honking and splashing that shakes the last thought of winter out of the brittle cattails,” Leopold wrote.  “Our geese are home again!

“It is at this moment of each year that I wish I were a muskrat, eye-deep in the marsh.”

As I stood near the old shack a large flock of Canada geese lifted off the nearby Wisconsin River, flared their wings briefly over the shack as they passed in review, then continued on to a lunch date in a nearby cornfield.

-30-

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3 Comments

  1. Mark Sak

    December 20th, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Reply

    Very nice Mr. Vance…Being a Pheasants Forever Chapter President and Outdoors Writer for many years your blog has helped me continue to gain more knowledge about Aldo Leopold…

  2. Dan Small

    December 23rd, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Reply

    Joel: Nice job! The Shack is certainly a monument to Leopold’s life and work, as is the new Leopold Center down the road. When I first saw The Shack I was astounded that it stands pretty much as it did in his day, in plain sight from the road. My first thought was that it should be on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Leopold would be pleased to know that visitors can walk his trails and sit on his bench, just as he did more than a half-century ago.

    Happy Holidays!

  3. Brett Dufur

    December 27th, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    Reply

    Beautifully written. Thank you for transporting me there. It sounds like a writer’s Graceland… one I hope to visit someday soon.



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