Walking in Leopold’s Footsteps

Skunk cabbage in Wingra Woods

Skunk cabbage in Wingra Woods

In honor of Leopold Weekend we began our tour with one of my favorite Aldo Leopold quotes, from A Sand County Almanac: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” When I first read those lines, I knew the author and I were kindred spirits. Since Leopold’s writings so influenced me during my college career, and since the major I chose—wildlife ecology—exits because of him, I felt truly honored to lead this particular walk.

Though this past Sunday was mostly cloudy, our group of about 20 found the temperature pleasant, in the low 40s. We hiked toward Wingra Woods, admiring budding trees in Longenecker Horticulture Gardens along the way. Seeing so many buds on so many trees made it feel like spring is close. And so much mud! It is good we all wore our hiking boots because we definitely needed them.

The sun was beating down on the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which brought a foul odor on the breeze. It is such an interesting early spring plant, releasing a scent to attract insects like flies. Small flies were spotted at the springs so we know the skunk cabbage will indeed be pollinated even though it is winter still here (I think it is still winter here…?). It may seem counterintuitive for insects to be pollinating at this time of year in Wisconsin, but pollinate they do! The cellular respiration skunk cabbage performs has been compared with the same quickness as a small mammal (Spring Woodland Wildflowers of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum, Andrew L. Hipp). This respiration is actually responsible for inducing the oils that make the odor we and the pollinators smell, as well as melting the snow around the plants.

We were curious about another plant we observed along the way that is stemless, leafless, and non-vascular—it is called liverwort (Marchantia sp.), a common Wisconsin bryophyte. Bryophytes include hornworts and mosses, too. In Wisconsin we have many species of bryophytes. According to the Wisconsin State Herbarium, Dane county has 197 species! It is the most ancient group of terrestrial plants (genetic testing shows liverworts to be the most primitive), and it is the second largest group. At Cornell University’s L.H. Baily Hortorium Herbarium’s website, I learned there are more than 20,000 species in the world (phew, glad I didn’t have to memorize them all in college).

In honor of Leopold and in time for the seemingly fast approaching spring, we paused by Big Spring to talk about phenology. It is so awesome to be able to quickly access Leopold’s very own 1935 phenological data and compare it to today’s phenology dates. I keep a photocopied Arboretum phenology list in my backpack and I am always eager in the spring to find the first plant blooms. We discussed the importance of this sort of record keeping and the ways it can be useful.

And of course, it’s hard to take a walk “in Leopold’s footsteps” without discussing the land ethic, what it means and how it is applied. It is so simply put by Leopold himself in A Sand County Almanac: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

—Lisa Andrewski