Walking along a stretch of land on the Wisconsin River in south central Wisconsin, it's easy to see where this bit of country gets its nickname as the sand counties. The red-orange sandy soil underfoot is smooth but unremarkable, surrounded by pines, hardwoods and a small prairie, with a small, nondescript cabin in the distance and the quiet flow of the river in the background.
But for some, this sand is sacred, once the living experiment for what many consider to be the greatest conservationist of the 21st century, Aldo Leopold. It was this land that inspired his most widely-known publication, "A Sand County Almanac."
Leopold, who was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, became an adopted son of Wisconsin when he came to work at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison in 1924. An avid hunter, Leopold's true love was the outdoors, so he soon left the lab and spent three years conducting surveys of game populations and habitats in the Midwest. In 1933 he published "Game Management," the first textbook in the field that would come to be known as wildlife ecology.
The same year Leopold became the University of Wisconsin-Madison's first professor of game management, today's department of wildlife ecology. It was the first such department in the country, and Leopold helped contribute to building the UW Arboretum and its restored prairie, the first of its kind in the country.
He enjoyed working on the arboretum so much that he decided he wanted to do his own restoration. So he found a plot of land on the sandy banks of the Wisconsin River in Sauk County, a plot that had been decimated by farming and the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. A plot with nothing more than a dilapidated chicken coop for shelter. He bought the land for less than $8 an acre, and set about restoring it.
"It was kind of a leap of faith, so to speak," says Jennifer Kobylecky, the education coordinator for the Aldo Leopold Foundation, as she leads me down a sandy path on Leopold's spit of land. "Sometimes even his own colleagues saw Leopold as a little out there. The whole idea of landscape restoration was brand new. This was a time when the whole field of conservation that we know today was just in its very young form."
The Leopolds — Aldo's wife, Estella, and their five children — spent weekends and any free time they had working on that sandy soil. They fixed up the chicken coop into a shack fit enough for sleeping, and spent most of their time restoring the land.
One of their primary tasks was planting trees — 3,000 every spring. And while many did not survive those first five years — Kobylecky says they lost 95%-99% of those they planted — the Leopolds persisted and would go on to plant nearly 50,000 trees on the land.
As we stand at a wooden gate marking the entrance to the Leopold land, Kobylecky shows me a photo of the land as it was when the Leopolds first arrived. There's not much to see. A few scraggly trees try and stand tall in the background, but the land is mostly patches of grasses and sand.
Today, trees flank our path as we walk through the gate and toward Leopold's shack. To our right is a plot of restored prairie, also created by Leopold and his family.
Leopold called the shack his "refuge from too much modernity," and it certainly is. Inside are a couple of bunk beds, a fireplace, a few dutch ovens and a collection of chairs. The necessities, and nothing more.
"It's a very simple place," Kobylecky says. "That's what the family intended it to be. Most of their action here was out on the land. ... It was a place of work, but that's why those kids loved being here, because it really kind of brought the family together."
We step back outside and I look up at the pines towering overhead.
"He actually never even got to see those trees grow to what they are today," Kobylecky says. Leopold died of a heart attack while helping a neighbor fight a brush fire in 1948. "But the efforts did take, and today it's a beautiful, healthy stand of pines. The story of how the family transformed that landscape is really I think why this site remains such an interesting place for tourists to come today. It's really one of the nation's first places anyone tried landscape restoration. And so as the Leopolds transformed that landscape, that was a transformative experience for them and for Leopold."
That transformative experience served as inspiration for Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac," which was published posthumously in 1949 and is regarded as one of the cornerstones for modern conservation science, policy and ethics.
And the heart of the book is what Leopold calls "the land ethic." Leopold writes that our society has a code of conduct for how people treat one another and for how an individual relates to society, but nothing regarding the environment.
"What he argues is what we don't have and what we need is that same code of ethics for how we relate to land. So how the individual relates to land and how society relates to land," Kobylecky says.
What's more, Leopold writes that this philosophy was not always clear to him, but "is rather an end result of a life journey." He notes that he could not write the land ethic, and "it has to evolve in the minds of a thinking community."
"I think that's why Leopold is still a very relevant figure," Kobylecky says. "We're still trying to figure this out as a human society across the globe. How do we live on the land without spoiling it?"
That's perhaps one reason Leopold's legacy is so lasting, and why he, 65 years after his book was published, is still read as a contemporary. Leopold, a hunter and also a protector, a forester and a champion of preserving lands, understood that these were and are complicated issues with no simple solutions. The land ethic is a living, evolving concept, and each community and its variety of stakeholders must develop it for themselves.
Today, the Aldo Leopold Foundation honors and continues to build on his legacy. The foundation, started by his children in 1982, built a major visitor center in 2007 and leads educational programs and tours of the shack, in addition to continuing to manage and restore the landscape that so inspired Leopold.
Even the visitor center buildings are a tribute to Leopold. Solar panels provide energy, radiant and passive solar heating and cooling systems conserve it, and an aqueduct and rain garden system help prevent erosion. Pine beams along the ceiling were harvested from the Leopold land as part of a thinning, a necessary practice to maintain the health of the stand.
The site gets visitors from all over the globe, many who are devoted fans and followers of Leopold and "A Sand County Almanac." But the site also gets casual visitors, curious about this land and the shack, the only chicken coop on the National Register of Historic Places.
I'm somewhere in between. I read and was moved by "A Sand County Almanac" in college, but hadn't explored Leopold's effect on Wisconsin and global conservation much beyond that.
But there's something about standing in this place and learning about his legacy that stirs a passion, a feeling of connectedness to the past and the potential of the future. The problems of our relationship with the land and everything that encompasses may seem endless, but on Leopold's small slice of sand county farmland they no longer seem insurmountable.
When to visit: The Leopold Center is open year-round, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (with shorter hours in the winter).
Guided tours of the shack and the land are offered on Saturdays at 1 p.m. beginning the Saturday before Memorial Day and continuing through the end of October. Reservations are recommended; call (608) 355-0279.
You can also take a self-guided tour any time the center is open; stop by to pick up a brochure with a trail map and information on Leopold and his legacy. Note that you can only see inside the shack on a guided tour.
The center hosts a number of events throughout the year, including family events and brown bag lunch seminars.
How much it will set you back: Guided tours are $15 for adults, $10 for seniors (62 and older), $8 for children ages 11 to 17 and free for children under 10 and Aldo Leopold Foundation members.
Self-guided tours are $7 per person and free for foundation members and children under 10.
Getting there: The Aldo Leopold Legacy Center is at E13701 Levee Road in Fairfield, about 115 miles west of Milwaukee via I-94 and Highway 33.
More information: For more on the Leopold Foundation and visiting the shack, call (608) 355-0279 or see aldoleopold.org.
Updated: Sept. 18, 2014
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