Family, Heroes, and History

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Reading Aldo Leopold

The weekend of Earth Day, 2007, marked the grand opening of the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center. The building, on the Leopold family land in sandy Sauk County, Wisconsin, is a marvel of “green” building, LEED Platinum level certified, more than carbon neutral, and actually producing more energy than it consumes! The day’s agenda included lots of time to show off the construction & engineering marvels that make this building sit lightly on the earth:

  • 198 solar panels
  • Geothermal radiant floor heating and cooling system
  • Buried earth tube ventilation system
  • Hand peeled Leopold pine trusses and beams in the round
  • Red maple ceiling decking
  • Leopold pine & red maple paneling
  • White oak & cherry flooring
  • Hand-made oak tables and cherry chairs
  • Black oak exterior siding

Our family went to see the beams. The famous Leopold pines, immortalized in A Sand County Almanac, had been harvested from the places where Aldo himself had planted them, working with his five children to restore the land of the worn-out farm that served as his family’s weekend retreat. That was sixty-odd years ago; last year my three boys and I were among the volunteers that stripped the bark from those same pines, and now they graced the new building as pillars and rafters. So although it was really just an empty building on a not-quite-done construction site, and the event wasn’t really geared for kids, we were there to see what had become of the trees we’d read about, and to touch our place in the story.

Bare as it was, the new Legacy Center did hold one preview of it’s intended educational use: an exhibition of photographs mostly by Aldo Leopold’s son, Carl. He stands, in one of the early prints, a strong young man, thirteen or fourteen, shirtless, a spring-flood fish speared on a stick and hoisted over one shoulder. Other photos show flowering prairie grasses, the Wisconsin River, the old ex-chicken-coop shack; the Leopold land and family in their various times and seasons. And at the end of the gallery, something else: an image of Aldo Leopold himself, by woodcarver Homer Daehn, gazing out the window of the Shack, cast in bronze.

My boys swarmed over the sculpture, running their fingers over its curves and crevices, beginning the first bronze shine along the edge of Aldo’s shirt pocket. I was afraid they’d pull him off the wall. Around us, admirers of the Leopold family and its legacy walked the gallery, talking in hushed and reverent tones. The attendees included some of the best and brightest in the land–leaders, writers, professors, builders. Many of them had played their own roles in the environmental history of the United States, or had their names inscribed on plaques at the center. Aldo Leopold is (deservedly!) a figure of mythic proportions here in Wisconsin, and would probably not have been out of place in such a gathering.

We, on the other hand, are not particularly great or heroic people. I don’t have any great works or deeds attached to my name. I have not been a tireless advocate for the environment. Very often, it seems to me, I struggle just to live up to the role Leopold described for Draba: “Altogether it is of no importance-just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.”

I’m just beginning to learn about the Leopold family, and about history and social change and how to make a difference in the world; but one thing I think that Aldo Leopold did to become great was find, and use, his voice. His family was in many ways similar to mine and to thousands of others here in Wisconsin; his famous shack seemed completely familiar to us–just like Grandad’s place up north. But he made a difference in the world by figuring out what he had to say that was worth saying, and saying it wisely and well.

As mere Leopold readers and bark-peeling volunteers, we had our names on a paper print-out thumbtacked to the wall. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. Last night my youngest boy Charles, just learning his letters, climbed up in my lap with a notebook and pen. “How do you make Once,” he wanted to know. “Can you help me write a story?” And in a little while, patching letters of unfamiliar shapes together with those he already knew from his own name, he had made a beginning: Once there was a boy…

Series Navigation<< Good Oak and Good History: Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac”


  1. I love the end to that post!
    I’ve got a few Leopold books here that I bought when we first moved to Wisconsin. Every time you write about one, I’m freshly reminded to dig them out from my stacks. Maybe after Sandra!

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