Walking in Leopold’s Footsteps

Pepper Jackson, Aldo Leopold, Jim Hale, Mary Ellen Helgren at a controlled burn experment 1940s.

Pepper Jackson, Aldo Leopold, Jim Hale, Mary Ellen Helgren at a controlled burn experment 1940s.

How can anyone walk in Aldo Leopold’s footsteps, especially here at the UW Arboretum where his ideas are written large upon the landscape? How do you condense into an hour and a half tour even a small part of the impact of Leopold on both what he did and thought during his years working here and the impact of his ideas during the approximately 67 years since his death in 1948?

Thanks to my fellow naturalist, Kathy Miner, who had just celebrated her tenth year of Madison Reads Leopold the day before this tour, there was a display about Aldo Leopold set up in the Arboretum visitor center. In addition, I set out about a dozen books of Kathy’s that were about Leopold or written by him. This allowed me to impress people with the impact this one man made. From the subject of a few biographies, such as Susan Flader’s Thinking Like a Mountain to Curt Meinie’s definitive biography, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, as well as the author of several books, including classic text book, Game Management to his internationally known and beloved Sand County Almanac one can sense how influential Leopold was and still is.

It also reminded me how monumental my task could be in trying to explain to the two dozen visitors how Aldo Leopold influenced the creation and the history of the UW Arboretum. So we set out to tour Curtis Prairie and the Leopold Pines to see what his impact was.

Keeping in mind the aerial photo of the Nelson farm with the old barn visible in the open “two square miles of derelict farmland” in the 1930s and were now Curtis Prairie and part of the Leopold Pines, we set out to look for Leopold’s footsteps. It was a pleasant, warm (upper 40 degree day) with a southwest breeze and the sun melting our late winter snow. The trails were wet, slushy and at times still slick with snow melt water on icy patches.

Our first thoughts were about the ideas Leopold spoke of at the 1934 dedication of the Arboretum. He asked the question “What is an Arboretum?” He answered it with the classic concepts of an arboretum as a collection of trees, as an outdoor library of horticultural varieties and as tree-collections arranged in natural associations. This last approach he called “ecological groupings” that represent “advanced thought” in arboretum management. He explained the UW Arboretum would have all of these things and it would be something more. His idea was “in a nutshell, to reconstruct primarily for the use of the University – a sample of what Dane county looked like when our ancestors arrived here during the 1840s”. He assumed it would take at least 50 years to create his idea.

It has now been about 80 years and, as we know today, it is still a work in progress. For example, consider Curtis Prairie. Under Professor Leopold’s watchful eye the man he hired, Ted Sperry, supervised the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers as they set out to create the first man made prairie during some of the most severe drought years in our history. The CCC “boys” collected prairie sod, transplanted prairie plants, grew prairie plants from seed and scattered prairie seeds in an effort to create a 60-acre prairie.

Their efforts met with mixed results. They carried water from the old Nelson farm well to try to keep their early plantings alive during those drought years. Somewhere along the way Ted Sperry decided to experiment with fire to discourage woody plants and to encourage the native prairie species that he knew had evolved with fire. When botany Professor John Curtis took over management of the prairie, now named after him, he continued to use fire as a management tool and he wrote about it in a way that eventually became an important concept and practice that lead to the field of restoration ecology.

Today Curtis Prairie is not a natural prairie. It is a human managed prairie, as was evident on our tour when we viewed the west edge of this prairie which was recently mowed to control sumac and aspen. We saw the short stems of these woody invasives sticking up through the melting snow.

The Leopold Pines, so named after the man whose ideas it was to have a northern Wisconsin pine community here, are like other planted pine forests of the 1930s. Leopold oversaw the planting of native pines in rows. They were planted spaced apart when only seedlings and saplings, but have now grown up into a dense stand of straight tall trunks that cast a dense shade on the pine needle covered forest floor. Most of the understory plants have died or disappeared. Aldo might be disappointed in his pine forest today, now dissected by the Beltline Hwy that was just a farm drive in the 1930s. I tend to admire the man for setting out to create perhaps as many as 30 different plant communities that represented the native vegetation of Wisconsin back in the 1840s.

After circling around the west end of Curtis Prairie and visiting the Leopold Pines we headed east across the prairie, stopping occasionally to consider the effort that went into creating it and the effort required now to maintain it. As we left the prairie we stopped at the pump house near the lab building, where we examined one of the old wooden traps based on Leopold’s design for trapping small animals. His title as Director of Research here allowed him and his graduate students to conduct numerous research projects on small animals and birds. Game management was Leopold’s academic interest and thanks to his many graduate students, some of his ideas are still inspiring further research today. Before ending our tour, we visited the lab building to view one of the old wooden LEOPOLD desks. We considered how much time Aldo Leopold must have spent writing, not only at his many desks, but in the field and at his shack where he filled so many notebooks with his thoughts.

He was a man whose influence is still present in many ways, not only throughout this Arboretum, but also through his writing and his teaching. Aldo was much more than just one of the world’s greatest naturalist. He was also a gifted writer, teacher and some have said a bit of a prophit who preached ecological conservation well before ecology became an established field.

—Levi Wood