Book review: Aldo Leopold’s daughter reflects on work at family shack near Baraboo

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Estella B. Leopold, the youngest of the Leopold children, has written about her experiences at “The Shack,” the setting of Aldo Leopold’s famous “Sand County Almanac.” The original was the pioneering work on ecological reclamation. “Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited” is the story of a family whose life was centered on that work at the Shack and the many outdoor opportunities it offered.

If you are not familiar with Aldo Leopold, you’ll want to check him out on Google. Then you must consider the time frame of the activities, much of it just after the Great Depression during the Dust Bowl years. How did people spend their time prior to today’s media storm? Aside from the reclamation efforts, what does a family do to be entertained in their free time? “Revisited” provides insight not only into the lives of these early preservationists, but also into life as it was lived by many in the ‘30s. In addition, the book cites the common and scientific names of many prairie species.

Unlike now, when many native species are available commercially, the Leopolds had to first determine what species were native and how to find them after they were identified.

It turned out that certain roadsides, and particularly railroad banks, were ideal sources for both study and sample gathering. Railroad banks often were burned when cinders fell from locomotives. This kept the weeds to a minimum and let the natives thrive. Plants had to be gathered predominantly in the summer when the plants bloomed and could thus be identified.

The Shack was a barn/chicken coop purchased along with a few acres during the Depression. Intended as a hunting/camping destination, the Shack and the acreage became an ecological project that is still carried on today. The Shack is located north of Baraboo, along the Wisconsin River. The property was originally a farm that had simply worn out. Made of materials largely washed there by the flooded Wisconsin, the Shack was slowly built into a family weekend destination. A well was driven into the water table. The Parthenon (outhouse) was soon added as were bunk quarters. And year after year, trees and prairie plants were planted.

Estella Leopold tells stories that illustrate the life of a family that thrived in the natural habitat. She highlights their efforts to revive that habitat to its original state. There are many family pictures to support the narrative. Also included are how the siblings, influenced by their early life, have gone on to build replicas of the rehabilitation effort in their own fieldsof endeavor, in the areas of the country where they located professionally.

“This book is about two things: familiarity with nature and (family) togetherness.”

♦ ♦ ♦

“If we cannot teach our youth to love the land, then who, I ask, is going to defend it?”

Should the book so inspire you, it is possible for you to view the shack and its environs close up. The Aldo Leopold Foundation offers tours throughout the summer; check its web page. The foundation seeks to promote a land ethic: the caring and ethical relationship between man and nature. As an aside, one of the guides is Don Nelson from the local area.

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