A Short Drive to Fresh Air, Open Minds, and Professional Development: The Aldo Leopold Land Ethics Conference, Baraboo WI, 8.12.2015

By Susan Jacobs

We like to let our readers know about promising events and opportunities to stretch our interdisciplinary reach, such as the Aldo Leopold Land Ethics Conference, Aug. 12-15, 2015. This multi-disciplinary conference provides an excellent opportunity for DePaul University’s faculty and students to learn about Leopold’s Land Ethics, share “best practices” across the disciplines, and participate as presenters. I personally am very excited about the opportunity, but realize that some simple questions might need answering to generate interest. Where’s Baraboo, WI, and how close is it to a water park? Who was Aldo Leopold? What’s a Land Ethic? My 2011 blog entry describes my first experience at the Leopold Center.

Simple answers first: Baraboo WI is about 200 miles northwest of Chicago, in southwest Wisconsin. The small town hugs the outskirts of some of the midwest’s most treasured outdoor gems: Devil’s Lake State Park, The Wisconsin River, the Baraboo Range — all places that the State of Wisconsin was wise enough to designate as important wilderness places. Hikers, paddlers, bikers, artists, photographers, scientists, and residents conserve and share places like Parfrey’s Glen, Pewit’s Nest, Natural Bridge State Park, and miles and miles of Wisconsin’s Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Devil's Lake State Park, WI. Photo by Jeff Jacobs

Devil’s Lake State Park, WI. Photo by Jeff Jacobs

Baraboo is about a 30 minute ride to the Wisconsin Dells (yes, you’ll find waterslides there!) and about 40 minutes north of Madison. Better yet, this area is rich with surprises carved by glaciers thousands of years ago—- behind the Baraboo Walmart, through a cornfield, around the bend down a county road, a short hike leads to Pewit’s Nest, a most wondrously carved set of bluffs and waterfalls. Come summertime, the natural pools and waterfalls make a joke out of Walmart’s tentative concrete lease on the land… A winter hike up the iced-over falls lets hikers feel and hear the deep thrum of water flowing far beneath the thick ice; it sounds like the rocks are singing…

Frozen Falls at Pewit's Nest, Baraboo, WI. Photo by Susan Jacobs

Frozen Falls at Pewit’s Nest, Baraboo, WI. Photo by Susan Jacobs

The area surrounding the Leopold Center out on Levee Road alongside the Wisconsin River, has been designated as an “Important Bird Migration Area.” April through November welcomes thousands of migrating sand hill cranes, January now brings hundreds of nesting eagles, and as you drive up to the Leopold Center, you might be lucky enough to hear whooping cranes flying two miles overhead… It’s not just about the birds. Leopold’s humble Shack tells a huge story about who Leopold was and why this conference represents an amazing convergence of interdisciplinary interests and good thinkers.

Leopold's Shack, Baraboo, WI. Photo by Susan Jacobs

Leopold’s Shack, Baraboo, WI. Photo by Susan Jacobs

 Leopold, born in 1887, was one of the first rangers to join the US Forest Service in 1909. In 1924, he became the director of the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, WI, and in 1933, UW Madison created a chair of game management for him. He was the first US professor of wildlife ecology. During his lifetime, he created core definitions and practices of conservation; and putting his observation-based beliefs into practice, he bought a played-out farm along the Wisconsin River in 1935. Leopold, his wife Estella and their five children set to the challenge of rebuilding the health of the land. They first restored an aging chicken coop, the only building remaining on the property. Using “The Shack” as a basecamp, the family spent weekends and family vacations working on restoring the land. Each spring they planted 3,000 pine seedlings to conserve the soil and provide wildlife habitat. The Shack, a National Historic Landmark, stands as the heart of the Leopold family’s deep commitment to the understanding of land stewardship— the belief that we are all part of a biotic community, and must use the tools of every discipline to preserve and foster the health of the whole living organism.

Leopold died in 1948, fighting a grass fire on a neighbor’s farm. His major work, A Sand County Almanac, was published the year after his death. The short work, made up of a year’s worth of written natural observations and Leopold’s drawings, changed the thinking and behavior of so many people on so many levels that’s it’s almost impossible to quantify or describe.

That’s why this conference is so important— Leopold’s impact is best experienced by walking through his family’s trees, sitting outside the shack, and listening to the life surging around the river banks— but just as profitably, by entering the rich conversations this conference will surely generate.

MALS and IDS encourages all of our students, faculty, and DePaul friends to take a look at the conference materials—please consider presenting or attending the many fine talks and activities that can enrich our extended DePaul community. *For help with registration and conference fees, please check out Student Professional Development fund options from DePaul’s Adult Student and Veteran Services.

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Land Ethics Training Participants contemplating the Baraboo Range, WI. Photo by Susan Jacobs

Bluff at Pewit's Nest, Baraboo, WI. Photo by Susan Jacobs

Bluff at Pewit’s Nest, Baraboo, WI. Photo by Susan Jacobs