A Magnificent Obsession
Aldo Leopold was a legendary environmentalist and forester. He spent almost two decades working with the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwest. Throughout his life Leopold loved observing, journaling and sketching his surrounding. That didn’t change when he transferred to work in Madison, Wisconsin.
Nina Leopold Bradley was a young girl in 1935, when her father Aldo invited his family on the adventure of a lifetime. A ramshackle farm caught his eye near the Wisconsin River, not far from Baraboo.
“You wouldn’t believe what ugly land it was. It was full of cocklebur and corn stuble and it was really ugly,” she says.
The Leopold’s spent their free-time cleaning up a dilapidated shack on the property. They moved on to plant thousands of pine trees on the exhausted farmland, brought prairies back to life and lived a rich, simple life. Leopold shared his wonder in monitoring the seasons by the comings and goings of wildlife and native plants.
“I just have to say, it’s probably the most significant part of our life in every possible way. Here we were, five kids. We were all so busy and so involved and so they were very informative years,” she says.
The Leopold children moved on, becoming scientists and engineers around the country. After his death, Leopold’s friends and neighbors joined forces to create the Leopold Memorial Reserve, to preserve the area he worked so hard to bring back to life. In the 1970s Nina was drawn back to be near her beloved Shack and to keep her father’s work alive. She and her husband built a small house on the property and started restoring more land. Nina picked up where her father left off, monitoring the natural events of the season.
“We’re always looking for what’s about to happen. We list the events that are about to happen. The wood ducks arrive or the prairie smoke is in bloom,” Nina says.
Like her father, Nina has a knack for nurturing people to carry out his legacy.
“Dad never pressured us in any way, to work to play to come, anything. He would say, your mother and I are going to The Shack, anyone want to come? And of course, we all wanted to come,” Nina says.
Nina used the same gentle persuasion to attract college students interested in the environment. Her home became “intern central.” She served up sandwiches and soup, and shared the land ethic her father held so dear.
Craig Maier is one of the students who couldn’t resist the call. Now he’s in charge of communications. He drives me a few miles from Nina’s house to see the spot it all began, the Shack. It’s set back about 200 yards off of Levy Road.
“From here sometimes you can hear wood ducks calling. They have nesting boxes here back in the flood plain forest we also see a lot of bald eagles and lots of geese and sandhill cranes and water fowl too,” Maier says.
The simple building’s been maintained just the way Aldo Leopold left it. There’s a reverence about the small, dank space. The main room is dominated by a massive stone fireplace. Everything’s just as the Leopold’s left it, complete with bunk beds and gas lamps. But the Leopold’s lived and breathed the out-of-doors whenever they could. Maier says Leopold felt a special connection to the pine tree.
“Leopold devotes an essay to kind of describing, well, why did I plant pines here and why when I’m going through afterward am I choosing to cut other trees to favor the pines and he eventually concludes, well I love all trees, but I’m in love with pine,” Maier says.
But that deep love made it impossible for any of the Leopold’s to cut down a tree. So it became Steve Swenson’s job, as the staff ecologist, to keep the forest healthy.
“What we ended up with was a family, the Leopolds, that were very emotionally connected with their land and so despite the fact they all have advanced degrees and PhDs in plant physiology and you name it, they had a hard time managing the forest and cutting trees,” Swenson says.
The pines were so crowded, in fact, many trees became weak and subject to disease. It was almost serendipity when plans came together build a research facility with space for a growing staff. Nina and her siblings wanted to build green, using local materials, and there was nothing more local than the pine trees.
“That was the final moment when we got the support of the Leopold family,” Swenson says.
A year later the Leopold pines have more room to grow and are thriving. Nina Leopold Bradley thinks the new legacy center came at just the right time.
“It attracts very interesting people, very interesting groups, which to me is a wonderful asset. It’s a wonderful example of using all local materials and it works,” Bradley says.
She thinks her father would be pleased.
The Aldo Leopold Legacy Center has just been named one of the Top Ten Green Projects in the United States by the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment.