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Book Review: Stories from the Leopold Shack by Estella Leopold

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

In Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited, Estella Leopold takes her readers on an intimate journey into that now-fabled place to which her father introduced the world in A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University Press, 1949). The site in central Wisconsin close to Baraboo that Aldo and now his daughter Estella have chronicled is where Aldo, his wife Estella Bergere, and their five children spent their summers. They lived in a once-abandoned farm shack, where they worked together to restore the land upon which it sat—land they found to be despoiled by decades of agricultural malpractice. The site remains today a monument to what was Aldo Leopold’s idea of ecological restoration, and it is living testimony to what Leopold’s formulation of the “Land Ethic” can bring about.

In her “Acknowledgments” Estella explains that the book began as a project in reminiscing. To occupy herself during long flights to Wisconsin from the West Coast where she lived and taught, Estella began to record stories she remembered from her childhood summers at the Shack. Of the Leopold’s five children, she was the youngest. And by the time her father was completing and revising A Sand County Almanac in the 1940s, her older siblings were in college. She often spent her adolescent summers at the Shack as the only companion of her parents.

Following the first chapter introducing the reconstruction of the Shack, Estella writes four chapters of stories taking place in the seasons of the year, following the general direction of her father’s book. These chapters offer memories of her time as a young girl when Estella came to know the treasures the land had to offer to her and her family. Like her father, she is a close observer of the minute. Here is an account of an early summer morning:

The family ritual started with Dad getting up very quietly, sometimes as early as 4:00 a.m., or even 3:00 a.m. when he was checking on bird songs and light. Dad would build a fire in the yard fireplace and make coffee out there, listening to the early birds with his light meter. He was measuring how much light there was as each species began to sing in the morning chorus….

As the Sun warmed the air, he went on his morning walk with Gus [his dog]. When the sun came up, Mother would rise, and then us children. It was always so pleasant to step out barefoot onto the dewy grass and walk to the Parthenon [privy], studying the pretty birdsfoot violets (Viola pedata) blooming along the path. In Dad’s prairie garden in front of the Shack, we would check out the gorgeous spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), which could always count on producing one new fresh blue flower with three petals and a yellow center every single morning all summer.

In the final chapters, Estella recounts humorous and always respectful stories of her mother’s achievements in archery and bow hunting. She then moves on to stories that reflect the influence her childhood memories had upon her throughout her life, including learning the early restoration efforts on the land around the Shack, as well as learning the ongoing progress of restoration from the time of Estella’s father’s death to the present, largely carried on by the Leopold Foundation.

Aldo Leopold with family at the Shack. Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation

“The Shack Idea,” her concluding chapter, describes how Estella’s siblings and she continued to imprint her father’s legacy afar by settling into and protecting threatened places by constructing “shacks” of their own that anchored their intentions for restoration and sense of place. The five siblings established their own shacks in the midst of natural surroundings in California, Wyoming, Wisconsin (an “eco-friendly house” built by Nina—Estella’s older sister—and Charlie Bradley near the Leopold Shack in Wisconsin), Costa Rica, and, Estella’s own in Colorado. Each shack became a statement by the Leopold’s grown children that the land and the wildlife which inhabited it could thrive in concert with human presence. Estella writes this of her own adult experience:

The enrichment of the land community constituted what I call the “greening of Shack West” in Colorado: it was an area that under my protection was now freed of the terrible strychnine poison pellets that had wiped out the original coyotes, and doubtless many birds. My land was now free of grazing cows (except temporarily when the fence broke). I have been happy to know from the occasional tracks and exciting personal encounters that my land also includes a family of black bears and a family of mountain lions.

Estella Leopold’s reminiscences offer engaging and informative stories, intended primarily for the generations to come who tend to be raised in a culture that sees wilderness or despoiled landscapes as places to be circumvented. In a culture that is fearful of the outdoors and its nonhuman inhabitants, from insects to wolves to bears, this book shows why it is necessary to encounter and to preserve our natural surroundings by learning what it is to be part and parcel of these spaces and how much we depend upon them for our own existence. Parents should read this book for the lessons in living with the natural world and with one another that it provides. The Leopold children, when grown, followed these lessons they learned at the Leopold Shack. Three, including Estella, a paleobotanist, became members of the National Academy of Sciences. All have devoted their lives to investigating how much we and the environment depend upon one another for our existence. Estella Leopold’s book is an important introduction to how to achieve a complete life for generations to follow.

Aldo Leopold at the Shack. Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives

Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited

Oxford University Press

Read an interview with Estella Leopold in the Center for Humans and Nature’s September 2016 issue of Minding Nature.

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Book Review: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf examines the life of the oft-forgotten founder of the modern environmentalist movement. Alexander von Humboldt was a German naturalist and explorer who, despite having his name attached to natural wonders across the globe, is far less well known than those who drew their inspiration from him, including Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and James Lovelock.

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Wulf’s fascinating book is thoroughly researched and annotated and includes drawings and portraits of Humboldt and his travels. Like so many naturalists, Humboldt was not a “people person” but a passionate explorer: of places, of plants and animals, of ideas. The Invention of Nature takes us through his early years in Germany through his travels across the Americas and back to Europe.

Admirably, Humboldt’s insatiable curiosity led him to persevere through illness and exhaustion. Far less admirably, some of his research methods were barbaric. In order to examine the electric eels that lurked in the muddy bottoms of shallow pools in Venezuela, he sent horses into the waters and to their painful, gruesome deaths. And the best way to capture the elusive titi monkeys, Humboldt discovered, was “to kill a mother with a blowgun and a poisoned dart. The titi youngster would not let go of its mother even as she came crashing down the tree.”

Yet Humboldt was ahead of his time in many ways. After witnessing the sickening slave trade in South America, he became a lifelong abolitionist. He also noted the harmful effects of deforestation. “After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about human-induced climate change…He warned that humans were meddling with the climate and that this could have an unforeseeable impact on ‘future generations.’”

The last two sections of the book cover Humboldt’s effect on naturalists and scientists from Darwin to Muir. “Environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers today remain firmly rooted in Humboldt’s vision—although many have never heard of him. Nevertheless, Humboldt is their founding father.”

Humboldt’s story is a timely one, especially in an era in which climate change is still not receiving the attention it needs in order to save the planet. Understanding the earliest explorations and discoveries is part of understanding the vast puzzle the global community needs to put together, and quickly, to solve this ongoing and advancing problem. “As scientists are trying to understand and predict the global consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s interdisciplinary approach to science and nature is more relevant than ever. His beliefs in the free exchange of information, in uniting scientists and fostering community across disciplines, are the pillars of science today.”

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Call for Submissions: Zoomorphic

The magazine Zoomorphic seeks submissions for its upcoming anthology of oceanic life.

We are currently inviting submissions of poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, conservation journalism and art for our first printed anthology. The book will be launched on 2nd December at a Zoomorphic event hosted by ONCA as part of their “Do You Speak Seagull” season. The printed anthology will be themed around marine wildlife and will accompany our digital issue. Submissions are invited for both formats. The launch event will include a display of Zoomorphic graphics and art as well as audio poems and sound recordings. 

The deadline for poetry is September 16; the deadline for prose (both fiction and nonfiction) is October 10.

For complete guidelines, click here.

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Happy Earth Day!

Happy Earth Day, readers!

Today, we’re celebrating the launch of Cassie Premo Steele’s book Earth Joy Writing, a wonderful guide for reconnecting with our planet through writing prompts, meditations, and other exercises in creativity.

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Click here to read an excerpt of Earth Joy Writing, and visit the Earth Joy Writing website to learn about Cassie’s book tour and to download audio recordings of the meditations and readings from the book.

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We hope you have a lovely Earth Day, in whatever way you’re celebrating the planet and its creatures today.

 

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Announcing the Bear Deluxe Magazine Doug Fir Fiction Award

Calling all fiction writers: Save the date (September 3 deadline) for submissions to the Bear Deluxe Magazine Doug Fir Fiction Award, co-sponsored by the Sitka Center for Art & Ecology, Ashland Creek Press, and Hawthorne Books.

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Please see below for complete guidelines, and you can also click here for details and more info.

The Bear Deluxe Magazine welcomes submissions of previously unpublished short stories up to 5,000 words, relating to a sense of place or the natural world, interpreted as broadly or narrowly as the author defines.

Entry Fee: $15

Word limit: 5,000

Deadline: September 3, 2013

Grand Prize: $1,000, writer’s residency at Sitka Center for Art & Ecology, national publication, and manuscript review

Finalists: Manuscript review, recognition, publication consideration

Award Judge: Lidia Yuknavitch’s most recent books include Dora: A Headcase, a novel, and The Chronology of Water: A Memoir. She is also the author of three works of short fiction (Her Other Mouths, Liberty’s Excess, and Real to Reel) and as well as a book of literary criticism, Allegories of Violence.

Co-sponsor: Sitka Center for Art & Ecology

Associate sponsors: Ashland Creek Press and Hawthorne Books (Ashland Creek Press and Hawthorne Books will provide manuscript review for one story of the author’s choice from award winner and finalists).

For complete guidelines, visit www.orlo.org or email bear@orlo.org (website is under redesign).