of Rochester, NY on my birthday (49 this year!) and looked forward to celebrating in my own way. The conference itself was full of highlights: two of my former students presented posters while
another gave an oral presentation on her doctoral work at Penn State. Another alum and I caught up over lunch and I got to meet fellow blogger "Trailblazer" and some of his students. I even gave a presentation myself on my critical thinking unit based on the mountain lion controversy in New York. But all of that took a back seat to the post-conference field trip to Aldo Leopold's shack.
|Aldo Leopold's Shack|
I teach the Leopold units (first unit is about Aldo's life while the second is more about the lessons of the book) to the freshmen and over the years have personalized the content in a way that makes teaching the first unit a real emotional experience for me. I have read SCA dozens of times and it seems the more I read it, the more connected I became to the work and to the man. And when I say emotional, I do not exaggerate. I have a confession to make: a "secret" that I just don't discuss. One year, with no warning, when I reached the part of the lecture on Aldo's life where he dies fighting a grass fire, I began to cry. I couldn't stop it. I was embarrassed. I was worried how my students would react. Surely I didn't want them to be turned off by the material but I had little control at that point either. The tears just flowed and I finished the lecture amid a perfectly silent crowd. And every year since, that emotion wells up and I can feel it coming. And every year I wonder if I should just change the lesson, make it less personal or not get so wrapped up in the story. The truth is, it takes a lot out of me and with multiple sections, I am pretty drained. But each year I receive positive feedback from my students. Not all mind you, but enough to continue to teach this section with all my heart.
|Grindstone near The Shack|
I brought two copies of SCA with me to Wisconsin. One copy was the original copy I bought as a Freshman in college; the one that is now missing both covers, has a spine that has split multiple times and is held together by a rubber band. I just had to have the old girl with me. The other is a newer book, one I will discuss later. I spent most evenings reading passages from the book as a way to wind down from the day's events and get ready for the trip to the Shack. One day I attended several presentations regarding wolf reintroductions, so I read Thinking Like a Mountain before drifting off to sleep. I visited the natural history museum one afternoon where I vaguely recalled that Leopold had somewhere written about the potential loss of species and that future generations might have to learn about birds only from specimens in museums. After much searching, I found that reference in Goose Music. I even listened to the audio version of SCA on my ipod while using the hotel's fitness center.
So it was with great anticipation that I boarded the bus on a warm October day to journey to The Shack and the recently built educational center. Among the 30+ like-minded passengers was Alyssa from Nature in a Nutshell, a former student. The chatter on the bus was diverse. Everyone had just finished a long conference and some where talking about future conference sites while others shared viral videos via smart phones. I took the opportunity to read Illinois Bus Ride:
"I am sitting in a 60-mile-an-hour-bus sailing over a highway originally laid out for horse and buggy. The ribbon of concrete has been widened and widened until the field fences threaten to topple into the road cuts. In the narrow thread of sod between the shaved banks and the toppling fences grow the relics of what once was Illinois: the prairie." Leopold goes on to recount the conversations of his fellow passengers and what they see and fail to see on the drive. I smile at the familiar words and wonder what Leopold would make of the conversations surrounding me now.
The drive seems long and I am getting cranky. I had skipped breakfast and assumed I was just misjudging the time. But as we rounded a curve and were faced with an overpass with a clearance of only 12 feet, it was clear that we had taken a wrong turn. The driver apologized and protested that he had only done what the GPS had told him to do. I tried to remain philosophical and knew the perfect passage to read to maintain my patience:
"Then came the gadgeteer, otherwise known as the sporting-goods dealer. He has draped the American outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them. Gadgets fill the pockets, they dangle from neck and belt. The overflow fills the auto-trunk, and also the trailer. Each item of outdoor equipment grows lighter and often better, but the aggregate poundage becomes tonnage." Wildlife in American Culture
As I sit reading, the bus backs up farther and farther. I would guess we backtracked over a mile on that road until finding a suitable space to turn around. I remarked to the passengers "I feel like Leopold sawing through the Good Oak and traveling backward in time." The comment was met with only a few chuckles.
When we arrived at the new Leopold Center, we were nearly an hour over due. Our guide got to it
The stone wall that holds the rain run-off from the roof and sends it to the native plantings is made from an old Civilian Conservation Corps building that had been torn down and saved. Our guide explained that a check of records revealed that Aldo had once lectured inside that very building. You can see some old cement adhering to the stones.
"These things I ponder as the kettle sings, and the good oak burns to red coals on white ashes. Those
I spent considerable time looking for bur oak acorns. Leopold writes about bur oaks several times and I really wanted to try to plant a few on my property. But those fat October squirrels (and other pilgrims to the Shack) beat me to them. I grabbed instead a handful of red oak acorns and chuckling, turned to the following: "I had a bird dog named Gus. When Gus couldn't find pheasants he worked up an enthusiasm for Sora rails and meadowlarks. This whipped-up zeal for unsatisfactory substitutes masked his failure to find the real thing. it assuaged his inner frustration." The Round River. If any of my acorns take root, I will think of Gus.
When it was our turn to enter the shack I sat at Aldo's table and listened intently. I was most curios about the artifacts on the walls, including Aldo's shovel:
Two saws were found in the Shack. The other is displayed in the Leopold Center. One of them is undoubtedly the saw used to process the Good Oak:
Look closer at the photo above. That is Estella, The Leopold's youngest (and now only surviving)
I posed in front of the Shack on a Leopold bench with that very edition in my hands. And it was that book that I sat with and read Great Possessions while at the "holy land" itself.