The Halfway Point

I left you yesterday driving away from Jensen’s Spinning Wheel Shop. While that experience was one that could have easily filled our day with plenty to ponder and discuss, Jennifer and I had other plans. We raced south to the next leg of our adventure, the Aldo Leopold Foundation. To visit has been a life goal for both Jennifer and myself for years. Part of what we share is an insatiable curiosity & deep love for the natural world and to finally get to visit the “Shack” made famous by the Sand County Almanac was thrilling.

Having left the Jensen’s at the last possible moment, we flew down the country roads and arrived barely on time for the guided tour. We met at the original gate to the property and the guide shared a photo of a gate in the same spot, but instead of the lush forest in front of us, it was a wasted field. When this property was purchased by the Leopold family in 1935, it was a spent farm. Working in nearby Madison at the time refining his ideas on game management, land ethic, and conservation, he had a dream of experimenting with re-foresting this land. Over the years, Leopold and his family planted thousands of pine trees and restored prairies on the property. A Sand County Almanac is a collection of essays from experiences in this very location.

The tour the foundation offers starts, as I said, at the original gate and takes you through a mature forest of pine and oak trees before opening onto one of the first known restored prairies. img_1552

Eastern Towees sang out their unmistakable “Drink your teeeea!” as we walked along and as the guide tried to share a story about the prairie, a male Rose-Breasted Grosbeak perched right above us singing away as if to say, “Why listen to this guy?! I am the expert of this domain!” As we continued on, Jennifer pointed out & named wildflowers. She has a tremendous depth of knowledge for plants (she is the one who is always helping me landscape in my own yard). Spiderwort. Indigo. Milkweed. Columbine. Yarrow. I have so much to learn.

And then we came up the “Shack”.

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It was a originally a chicken coop and over the years the Leopold family slowly turned it into the rustic cabin it is today. Every aspect of the structure was salvaged from the surrounding area to the extent that none of the windows match. When they’d find a usable window, Aldo would bring it back to the Shack and instruct the kids to find a spot, cut a space for it, and install it. Even more recently when a screen door needed to be replaced, one of the Leopold family members found a used one via the local paper, sanded it down to fit and installed it. Waste not, want not.

Yes, this place is and always has been a family affair.  And while I expected to be moved by the legacy of Aldo Leopold in this place — I did, after all, name my first born for this man — what I did not expect was to have such a sense of familial investment. The enormity of this undertaking and its corresponding ideals were firmly rooted in not just Aldo Leopold, but in his entire family and they all carried this sense of wonder and responsibility for the land throughout their lives. And thus it was so fitting that our tour largely took place around the fireplace in the Leopold family Shack, hearing their stories and learning a bit of their history in this place.

The fireplace was designed by Luna Leopold, who was studying engineering at the time…

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While Starker Leopold — not to be outdone — was put in charge of building the outhouse…

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It was incredible to hear the stories of this family of visionaries, always working together to build not only this place for their family, but for a legacy that you could sense they were committed to and recognized as important, that reached beyond their family. When I sat at their table and looked through their screen door out into their forest…

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I couldn’t help but wonder, what conversations they must have had by their hurricane lamps on summer nights when the whipperwills called? Were the wrens chittering away out front the descendants of those the Leopolds might have noticed breaking the silence on sunny summer mornings? What would Aldo Leopold think today if he could see this grand forest he helped to create?

We walked through the woods, past more Towees, Peewees, and about a zillion mosquitoes to the spot of The Good Oak…

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Where we read an excerpt from the essay on this exceptional tree. This is the spot where it spent its life and where eventually the family cut it down — led by the Chief Sawyer, Estella Sr, Aldo’s wife — for wood after it had been struck by lightning. It is the march of time; that we will all be born, grow, hopefully do a little good in the world, love & be loved, and eventually meet our end. And if we are lucky, when our journey comes to its end, we live on in our own way — like the oak that warmed the family’s shack for a season after its life had ended.

We made the short walk down to the Wisconsin River and saw Sandhill Cranes in the distance…img_1441-1

The current pushed a tree downstream, rotating it like a river boat’s wheel. It was about 100F and muggy and when the guide asked if we had any questions, all I could think was, “Why are we not having this discussion IN the river?” because my jeans which had protected me from mosquitoes were soaked through with sweat.  Surely the Leopold’s must have indulged in a dip from time to time. Alas, we turned back toward the relative cool of the forest and eventually the a/c of the car, warm sand filling our sandals.

Minds swimming in thoughts of legacy, from both our visit with the Jensen’s and now the Leopold’s, Jennifer pulled over to take this photo…

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Of the towering forest that the Leopold’s planted so many moons ago and I thought about what a tremendous impact they have had on the world and this road in the middle of nowhere started it all. And I thought about Jerry Jensen and his incredible spinning wheels. And I thought about family and place and the poetry of creating a life that reaches beyond the confines of your own experience. A life that by your example, inspires those around you and is destined to live well beyond your own place and time. That is some powerful food for thought.

A few moments into our drive, the wind picked up and the rain poured down…img_1555

Adding to the surrealism of the afternoon. We headed back to our hotel where we mopped ourselves off and cleaned ourselves up and headed to the final leg of our day, the International Crane Foundation. They were having a fundraiser for their Whooping Crane program and Mr. Knitting Sarah got us tickets to go, have a glass or two of wine, eat their yummy food, and see the cranes.

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We didn’t stay long as it had been a long day, but we arrived back at our hotel just in time for this view…

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The Wisconsin River at dusk.

We unwound with a little spinning and I knit a few rows on my Rainbow Warrior shawl…

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The next morning all we had the energy for was a quiet snacking breakfast at the hotel and a little knitting before packing up. I strapped my little Tina 2 back onto the luggage cart I got to make it easier to move her around…

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And I grabbed my new book and bobbins…

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And we packed up our respective cars for the journey home. Jennifer & I exchanged hugs and said our goodbyes and off we went in opposite directions, each of us toward home.

I won’t soon forget our experiences on this quick weekend away or the discussions we had as we reflected on what we heard and saw. Legacy. Artistry. Craftsmanship. Nature. Stewardship. Family. I could not have hoped for a better companion for this weekend to understand and enjoy it in the same way that I did. You could say that the halfway point between friends is always the collection of interests you share in common. Who knew that in our case, the literal halfway point between our homes would provide the perfect backdrop to explore our common interests as well. What a fulfilling, perspective-altering weekend!

 

Many thanks to Jennifer Wirth for use of her photos in this post!

10 thoughts on “The Halfway Point

  1. You SO deserved some ‘me’ time and you surely used it well! I now want to read this book! I was just a few lines into reading and wondered if maybe this was where you got the name Aldo – then I kept reading. VERY cool!

  2. What a fun filled trip you had. It was good for you to get away and I’m sure everyone was happy to have you back home. Your Rainbow Warrior is looking great!

  3. What a wonderful weekend! I have never heard of the Leopolds, but will definitely check them out. One of my favorite books is The Outermost House by Henry Beston. It is part of what makes me want to live quietly on an island for a full year. He was on Cape Cod, but his cape is gone.

    1. That’s kind of sad! But I will say that one thing I love about Wisconsin is that there are still wild spaces. Not so much in the southern part of the state, but up here, there’s still a lot of the middle of nowhere and I love that!

      1. Same here. And while the islands here have summer people, they leave after Labor Day, so things return to quiet. Not as wild as before people came, but pretty wonderfully empty.

  4. A Sand County Almanac is one of my favorites. It is on my list to go visit the Shack and the International Crane Foundation. I was so happy to see your post. Thanks for sharing!

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