My Trip to Sand County: Land Ethic Leadership Training

By Susan Jacobs

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August 2011 Class of Land Ethic Leaders

If ever the word “convergence” had meaning, my August 2011 visit to the Aldo Leopold Center was it for me. I have spent many years tromping happily around the Baraboo Valley in south central Wisconsin–camping and hiking around Devil’s Lake and Parfrey’s Glen and exploring the Baraboo Range–and I sheepishly admit to enjoying a water park or two in the Dells.  But I had never visited the Aldo Leopold Center until this summer. I knew Leopold was a 20th century forester who transformed our understanding of conservation, but I had no idea how personally transformative attending the center’s Land Ethic Leaders Workshop would be for me.

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Wisconsin Prairie View

The road that winds to the Leopold Center alternates between plowed fields and towering pine tunnels along Levee Road, skirting the Wisconsin River. Once almost-extinct sandhill cranes, now plentiful, feed in fields alongside the roads leading to the Leopold family Shack, described so eloquently in his writings. The new Leopold Center, built in 2007, boasts one of the highest LEED certifications in the US and houses educational and research facilities that host many outreach programs. Not knowing what the Center was about, I approached with hesitation. But I was reassured by Associate Dean Randy Honold here at DePaul that this was not a cult, but an enlightened organization dedicated to the true ideal of a livable land ethic based on the writings of Aldo Leopold, in particular his slim but powerful volume A Sand County Almanac (1949).

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Unplowed Prairie on Leopold Farm

Leopold, his wife, and five children bought an abandoned Sand County farm in the 1930s. Living in a reclaimed chicken coup they called “The Shack,” they observed and documented the migratory patterns of both thriving and near-extinct species. They studied the soil and farming practices that led to dust-bowl conditions throughout 1930s-40s Midwest. They planted trees–38,000 of them. They watched, listened, and wrote about their lives along the Wisconsin River. And they transformed not only the land but the way that humans and nature interact.

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Contemplating Baraboo Valley

The two-day Land Ethics Leader Program incorporated Leopold’s ideas through conversations, work projects, and educational exercises reflecting Leopold’s theory that a land ethic cannot be written, but must be lived. Through interdisciplinary exploration of literature, art, photography, scientific data, and after bending over never-plowed prairie to remove non-native species, our two full days led up to simple question: now what will you do?

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Greenfire, screening at DePaul November 7

To celebrate the work of Aldo Leopold and his family, DePaul’s MALS/IDS Programs will host a free screening of “Green Fire,” the 2011 documentary that explores the life and legacy of Leopold and the many ways his land ethic philosophy lives on in the work of people and organizations all over the country today. In fact, one of the chief  documentary filmmakers and host of the film is Curt Meine, a DePaul alumnus and now member of the Center for Humans and Nature.

Join us on Nov. 7, 6-9 pm at DePaul’s Welcome Center, 2400 N. Sheffield Ave. This screening creates an excellent entrance into the conversation that will continue in Winter Quarter’s MLS 409: Environment and Society, taught by Professor Randy Honold. For more information, contact our office at 773-325-7840.