Finding ourselves in central Wisconsin, we were compelled to make a pilgrimage to a famous hovel… “The Shack,” as it was affectionately known to Aldo Leopold and his family, was the humble building on a worn out "sand farm" that, through determined and persistent labors, was transformed into a cherished family retreat and a model for restoration ecology. The Shack is located along the Wisconsin River near Baraboo not too far from Madison and is a short bicycle ride down the road from the Leopold Center. The Center serves as a hub for education, outreach, and land stewardship programs. The Center building itself was the first to be awarded the highly prestigious “carbon-neutral” status by the LEED certification program.
An informational video we show at many of our Leave No Trace presentations ends with a quote from Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac (published in 1949 and considered a classic in the fields of wildlife conservation and ecology). Leopold, a onetime forester with the U.S. National Forest Service and a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Natural Resources, promoted a “land ethic” that encouraged a fundamental and essential appreciation for the land in an effort to understand the dynamic relationship between Man and Nature. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote, “We see repeated the same basic paradoxes: man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the search-light on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.”
Consider the meaning of a "land ethic" at these other historic waypoints along the Wisconsin River:
Devil’s Lake... a beautiful and topographically anomalous landform near Baraboo, WI. Devil's Lake was once a deep gorge that was carved by the Wisconsin River. With the advance and retreat of a glacial lobe around the Baraboo Hills during the last Ice Age, the flow of the river was blocked and Devil’s Lake was formed. Eventually the Wisconsin River found a new course into the Mississippi River Valley. We spent a late afternoon circumnavigating the lake over bluffs, boulders, and old moraines in the area now preserved as a state park.
Taliesin... where acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright developed and tested an “organic architecture” that seemed to grow naturally from the land. The Taliesin architecture blends elegantly into the hillsides overlooking the broad green Wisconsin River Valley, and reflects Wright's dramatic departure from the formal, Classical architecture of the time. His celebration of the natural forms and patterns that he had observed while growing up in rural Wisconsin placed him in the vanguard of an architectural design movement that sought to achieve balance and harmony with nature.
Effigy Mounds National Historic Monument... where Native Americans expended untold energy to construct monumental earthworks depicting bears and eagles on the high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and Wisconsin River confluence. While hiking past the still prominent effigy mounds today, one can only speculate about the human compulsions that created these works. Certainly they must be evidence of long ago cultural practices and preferences that defined a land ethic, but were they expressions of a connection to the earth as “biotic man” or conqueror, and did their relationship to nature characterize the “land as the collective organism” or as "servant to man..."?
No one has found the Effigy Mounds "Rosetta Stone," the key that unlocks the meaning of these gigantic cryptograms. Even the extent to which mounds were distributed dot-like across the landscape is still unknown. However, emerging remote-sensing and GIS technologies are helping us to rapidly and efficiently locate and map lost mound sites, and we encountered an NPS survey crew that was using these advanced technologies to do just that at the national monument. Many more sites than previously imagined are now being identified, and their reach is expanding. Did the mounds define a continent-wide network of connectivity with distant places and peoples? There aren't yet any easy answers, and the search for understanding goes on. Maybe someday, we'll finally be able to connect the dots...
Fascinating and sometimes enigmatic stories to consider in these remarkably diverse cultural and natural places…
Peggy and Barrett