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  January/Feburary 2001 Features:
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Sierra Magazine
Leopold's Gift

Today's movement to restore wild places began more than half a century ago in a shack in rural Wisconsin.

By Kenneth Brower

The Shack sits just above a sandy flood channel of the Wisconsin River, at a fork in the evolution of Americans' regard for the land. The windows-salvage glass, white-shuttered in dark, weathered walls-look out on a landscape formed toward the close of the last ice age, the "Wisconsin," when the sand of the "sand counties" was laid down in vast alluvial deposits. In one cataclysmic glacial outburst flood--a jökulhlaup, Icelanders call it--500 feet of sand were heaped up in places in just days, forcing the river to change course. It was down the broad, redirected stream of the Wisconsin, a few thousand years later, that much of the North Woods floated as logs.

Just beyond the Shack's woodpile, a low ridge rises, an old glacial moraine forested now with volunteer maples and transplanted pines. A short distance up the moraine, sunk in the golden leaf litter of the maples, is a pit lined by rounded stones. This was the basement of the man Aldo Leopold called "our predecessor the bootlegger, who hated this farm, skinned it of residual fertility, burned its farmhouse, threw it back into the lap of the county (with delinquent taxes to boot), and then disappeared among the landless anonymities of the Great Depression."

The pines growing everywhere on Leopold's 120 acres are living monuments to his experiments with restoration, symbolic of his ideas on stewardship. The pit of the bootlegger's basement is symbolic of our landowning ethic before Aldo came.

If the eco of ecology has literary cornerstones, they are Thoreau's Walden, George Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. The almanac is an epochal, seminal, ageless work. It is Bible still for land managers, Koran for those of us who work the soil where literature overlaps ecology, urtext for the ecological restoration movement.

The beginnings of ecological restoration-the first systematic attempt to reassemble disturbed ecosystems-came in 1934, when the University of Wisconsin at Madison, under Leopold's leadership, set out to build a collection of native ecological communities on abandoned farmland. (Leopold's ruined farm, bought the next year as a weekend retreat, became homework in this endeavor.) First with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps, then by enlisting faculty and students, the university's arboretum restored 30 distinct systems-all the important plant communities native to the upper Midwest.

The restorationists quickly encountered a core problem of restoration: authenticity. Rehabilitation of land is one thing; recapitulation of ecosystems is another. The American landscape has been profoundly altered nearly everywhere by man. It is hard to know what nature intended in any particular place. "To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering," Leopold wrote. In land management that rule has been persistently violated, nature's parts scattered and lost.

The problem of authenticity, once its intractability was acknowledged, seemed to fade a bit. It dawned on the restorationists, as it dawns on most artists, scientists, mathematicians, that the end-product of their work-the restored prairie, marsh, or woodland-was no more important than the process of arriving there. The best way to learn how a marsh or prairie works, it turns out, is to attempt to restore it. The science of restoration ecology was born.

Restoration conferences and fairs proliferate now. Practitioners write essays on restoration as theater, on restoration theory, on restoration aesthetics, politics, ritual. Where once we had just one model-the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and the Leopold farm-now we have models everywhere: the 30-year-old experiment at Auroville, an oasis of millions of trees and sustainable farming in one of the most degraded regions of India. Nonsuch Island off Bermuda, restored by David Wingate in his successful effort to save a seabird, the Bermuda petrel. Wangari Maathai's Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, which has grown from the seven trees she planted in her backyard in 1977 to 20 million.

From the beginning there have been preservationists who have argued that restoration is premature. All available resources, they believe, should be devoted first to preservation of authenticity-of wilderness-and restoration can wait till later. Later has arrived. In the history of the environmental movement, the century or two of the Preservation Era will prove to be prologue: an introductory chapter, noble but brief. For the duration of human time on the planet-for whatever piece of eternity we have left here-restoration will be the great task.

If the meditations of A Sand County Almanac have an epicenter, it is the Shack, a converted chicken coop where Leopold and his family spent weekends on the farm. In October of last year, the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, photographer Michael Sewell and I took up residence. In our week on the place, we followed after Aldo, wandering all over the Leopold farm and the adjacent Leopold Reserve to view the fruits of his restoration labor. We found beaver-felled trees above a great marsh. We flushed wild turkeys from the margins of Levee Road. In the interior "uplands," as the locals like to call these imperceptible elevations, we surprised white-tailed deer.

The Wisconsin flows past the Leopold farm nearly as dark and tannic as Brazil's Rio Negro. I followed skunk tracks down the river beach, excavated the torn parchment of snapping-turtle eggs from little dunes at water's edge. Kneeling in the warm sand of the last ice age, piecing the shell fragments together like a puzzle, I tried to decide: hatched or eaten by predators? The Wisconsin is a big river. The great width of it opened up the sky, and the riverbank was the place for vistas. We saw kingfishers, killdeer, cormorants. A juvenile bald eagle watched us daily from its favorite snag on the far shore.

One evening we labored, stung by nettles and mosquitos, to set up Sewell's camera blind on Otter Pond in the great marsh. By morning light, the photographer, peering out, found the water wall-to-wall in geese. Otter Pond had no otter during Aldo's tenure. The last specimen of Lutra canadensis was extirpated before he came. Late in the 1980s, the species recolonized. We found otter runs and otter slides here and there in the great marsh. Radio-collared wolves now occasionally pass through, too. No one has seen wolves on Leopold land, but their signals have betrayed them.

If there was a pivotal moment in Aldo Leopold's life, as revealed in Sand County, it was his shooting of an Arizona wolf: "We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes-something known only to her and to the mountain."

That fierce green fire glows again in the sand counties of Wisconsin.

Every evening, a half hour before sunset, I walked to the river to watch the flight of sandhill cranes. Geese flew by twilight, and shorebirds migrated at night, but cranes, in commuting from their daytime fields to the roosting beaches where they pass the night, always seemed to allow themselves plenty of light. They passed overhead in synchronized duos, threesomes, and squadrons. They honked the chortling, contrapuntal honk of cranes. "High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries," as Leopold wrote. On the far shore of the Wisconsin, still 200 feet above ground, they dropped their long legs in anticipation of landing. For Aldo Leopold, a musical man, the essence of cranes seems to have been their sound. For me, it was more visual: that moment at sunset when, high above Earth, their wings began to cup and the long legs dangled.

In 1935, when Leopold bought his farm, there were only 25 nesting pairs of sandhill cranes in Wisconsin. More than anything else, Leopold was a population biologist, and the crane became a special concern. "The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate," he wrote. He corresponded with anyone in the state who knew anything of the bird: the landowner who had a breeding pair on his property, the Department of Natural Resources employee who had glimpsed one. Leopold was not optimistic. The "Marshland Elegy" chapter of Sand County ends with an epitaph to the sandhill crane:

"Some day, perhaps in the very process of our benefactions, perhaps in the fullness of geologic time, the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh. High out of the clouds will fall the sound of hunting horns, the baying of the phantom pack, the tinkle of little bells, and then a silence never to be broken, unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way."

Today there are 12,000 sandhill cranes in Wisconsin. Nothing would have cheered Leopold more. Restoration works. On the road to extinction, traffic travels both ways.


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