Estella Leopold revisits childhood at the Shack, from father’s ‘Sand County Almanac’
Estella Leopold, a University of Washington professor emeritus of biology, spent her career immersed in field botany and fossilized pollen grains. But this professional legacy sprouted from a childhood forged at her family's shack in Wisconsin's sand country. Her father, Aldo Leopold, made this location famous in his 1949 book "A Sand County Almanac," which later helped fuel the modern conservation movement.
Estella Leopold, Aldo's youngest, has now written a memoir of her formative years, "Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited." She describes life on the land where her father practiced his revolutionary conservation philosophy. A professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold bought this property along the Wisconsin River as a weekend retreat. Those 80 acres had been forest, then farmland, and were abandoned once overgrazing depleted the soil. The Leopolds fixed up their weekend Shack and planted native species — hundreds of pines and prairie plants — to resurrect some of the original vegetation.
From stories about wayward cows gobbling crops to the postman delivering Poco the squirrel, Estella Leopold infuses her book with vignettes of life at the shack. She paints an intricate, adventurous portrait of the land's impact on her family and her father's philosophy. Estella Leopold will read from "Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited" Nov. 10 at 5:30 P.M. at the Burke Museum of History and Culture. She sat down with UW Today to discuss her book, the "Shack" and the modern conservation movement.
What prompted you write this book?
Here and there, I started writing down stories about our Shack for the grandchildren in our family. I thought they ought to know how important life at the Shack was to all of us. A friend suggested that these reflections and stories would make a great book. I laughed her off. But eventually I came around to her idea. And two years later, here we are!
What was it like to leave your home in Madison, Wisconsin and head out to the shack every weekend?
We loved every minute out there! Dad would say something like, "Your mother and I are going out to the Shack this weekend. Anyone want to come with us?" And the children — all five of us — would shout, "Yes!"
It was fun being out in the shack. There was so much to experience. We witnessed seasonal changes — birds migrating, the succession of plants. We learned about the ecosystem, like which plants were invasive versus native, which plants deer liked and which ones the rabbits ate. We planted hundreds of baby pines and prairie plants. But it never felt like work, even when we were working to improve the Shack or managing and rehabilitating the land.
Your father took great care to replant the Shack's environs with native plants.
Absolutely. Aldo Leopold believed that the time had come for us to understand, through experimentation, what the original vegetation of our area had been like before European settlement, and to find out what we could do to bring it back. He said he had this new idea: "ecological restoration." He wanted to restore native prairie and forest. He felt there was such a thing as "land sickness" — and this worn-out Wisconsin farm, where a farmer had planted corn year after year until the soil gave out, was such a case. He felt there was an ethical obligation, a responsibility, of a person living on the land to care for it well and to avoid mistreating the land. He believed strongly that science and ethics, though distinct, could not be separated. In a sense, as biographer Curt Meine wrote, that was the whole point of dad's "Land Ethic."
You and your four siblings all became scientists. Did your weekend experiences at the Shack have something to do with this?
Absolutely! Dad would always ask us questions. "Why do you think that happened?… What animal do you think made this track?" He was an excellent observer, and our time at the Shack instilled in us the desire to become keen observers ourselves. I loved plants and became a botanist, but my siblings chose other fields. My brother Luna, for example, studied erosion in the American southwest. As for me? I came here to the University of Washington.
Speaking of which, what brought you out here?
I first worked for the U.S. Geological Survey as a paleobotanist, making field collections to show that fossilized pollen could be used as tools to correlate rocks and geological strata across the country. It was a foundational study, and such great fun. But one year in the 1970s, I took a job as a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin and got hooked on teaching. I immediately looked for a permanent teaching position, and saw that the University of Washington needed someone to direct their ice-age research unit — the Quaternary Research Center. I applied, got the position and came here to conduct research and teach. The rest is history!
What changes have you witnessed in the conservation community, and do you think your father's book played any role in this shift?
Dad's book came out in 1949, and for years sales bobbed along at a low level. But after the first Earth Day in 1970, a larger and more cohesive conservation movement began to grow rapidly. And dad's book became an integral text for this movement and its philosophy. It has now sold millions of copies and has been translated into 11 languages.
The conservation movement is concerned with our impact on the land — from large changes like cutting down forests or building dams to smaller things, like the types of tools used in farming or mining. We began to think about the impact of government policy and the impact of consumer demand. In many ways, we're still struggling along with these questions. But today the movement is quite widespread, and I believe dad's land ethic is becoming more popular.
What policies today do you connect to your father's land ethic?
The impacts of his ideas are wide-ranging. They typically focus around a set of values and balance, such as in "Thinking like a mountain," an idea he described in his essays. He equated a mountain with its natural heritage of wildlife. He described the wolf, for example, as the exciting native predator that serves an essential role to control the abundance of deer. Without the wolf, the overabundance of deer puts the mountain in trouble.
The aesthetic value of these large predators is linked with their natural environment. In modern ecological terms, they are keystone predators. They belong there and the mountain is poorer without them. Yet recently, the Washington Department of Natural Resources faced this question: Will we keep our wolves in balance or will we gun them down in favor of cattle?
Another current issue is how to help the Standing Rock Sioux defend their sacred lands along the Missouri River threatened by an oil pipeline plan — as well as how to protect the river itself! We must address these big projects at the national level.
And are we?
Generally, I think Americans today are more equipped to deal with these large, national policies because Americans are more attentive now to the impacts of large industrial practices — like where our electricity and water come from. That is a good trend, because that's the level of awareness we need to restore environments and confront climate change.
Here's an example. Our country has a legacy of big dam projects, which have huge impacts on the health and productivity of river systems and fisheries. We use up so much of the Colorado River that, by the time it gets to Mexico, there's just a trickle left. We need honest reviews of how we use water — and how we can use less of it to leave more for the ecosystem.
Your father also said we should set aside land — not for recreation — but as a preserve for ecosystem health and scientific study. How are we doing on this front?
Well, the Wilderness Act of 1964 was a huge achievement for this cause, because it is critical for conservation and ecological studies that we set aside large wilderness preserves, and also protect our public lands.
But conservation cannot end with setting aside land. That land must also be properly managed – from air quality to apex predators. And caring for these preserves becomes even more important with climate change. We must help the general public understand what a complex process this is, and why management is a key component of preservation. That's something we learned in our time at the Shack, and the lesson remains true to this day.
What do you think is the ultimate legacy of those weekends your family spent at the Shack?
I hope people today understand the importance of giving our youth close, immersive experiences in nature. Having a family cabin in the country, owning or adopting some land as a community or family, even camping — something that helps you connect with nature.
I hope my father's ideas also encourage parents to be less apprehensive about letting their children explore the outdoors, ask questions and come to love nature. Our entire future rests upon it. If our youth do not care about nature, then I ask you, who is going to defend it?
For more information on "Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited," contact Leopold at [email protected] or 206-685-1960. For more information on the Nov. 10 reading at the Burke Museum, contact Eileen Harte at 206-633-6443 or [email protected]