Revisiting Sand County: An Interview with Estella Leopold

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Estella Leopold’s Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press, the press that in 1949 published her father Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Born to Aldo and Estella Bergere Leopold, Estella is the youngest of five children, all of whom became professional ecologists and conservationists.

The eldest, Aldo Starker Leopold (1913–1982), received his doctorate in zoology from the University of California, Berkeley, and became a professor of Wildlife Ecology there. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

Luna Bergere Leopold (1915–2006) received his Ph.D. in geomorphology from Harvard. After serving with the United States Geological Survey as a hydrology engineer for twenty-two years, he became a professor of Geology and Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and also was elected a member of the NAS.

Nina Leopold Bradley studied wildlife at the University of Wisconsin and became a well-known lecturer on her father’s Land Ethic and other writings. With her husband Charles, she settled near the Shack where they, along with other family members and fellow ecologists, were instrumental in establishing the Leopold Foundation.

Aldo Carl Leopold (1919–2009) studied plant physiology at Harvard from which he received a doctorate in botany and became a professor of plant physiology at Cornell University.

Estella Bergere Leopold (1927) is a paleobotanist and conservationist who received her doctorate from Yale, served with the U.S. Geological Survey for twenty-one years, and then became a professor of in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington for thirty years. She is the third of the Leopold siblings to become a member of the NAS. She continues to work three days a week at her laboratory on the campus where she does research in the palynology, the study of fossil pollen as a tool in reconstructing ancient floras.

JB: Estella, you write in your book about how Stories from the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited came about. Readers of this interview might want to know how the book was conceived and developed over a period of time.

EL: I began by wondering what I should do on long airline flights to Madison, Wisconsin, from the West Coast. So I began to carry a little yellow tablet and began to jot down notes, particularly stories that I knew that would help answer questions that Nina’s grandchildren and others had asked. At first, the stories weren’t organized. But after a bit I showed them to my typist, and, to my surprise, she said that she kind of liked the stories. So after that, I began to make a more serious outline. And I think that the whole book was something like a frame for the early notes that I was making in the air. A couple of years went by before we were done.

JB: So it began as a series of short essays and developed into the book. Did the notes have another purpose as well? And did that purpose carry over into the book?

EL: Well, at first it was just telling stories. Later I thought that there was more to this, and I began to talk about the Shack Idea. I mean my family developed and rebuilt our Shack, and we had so much fun together. But then, as we all grew older, we all had our own shacks, each of us five children. So I wanted to generalize about that. It was just simple outdoor living and a way to become very familiar with nature. 

JB: Most of our readers will be familiar with the first Shack from having read your father Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. But you say the famous Shack spawned several other shacks built by you, your three brothers, and your sister. Your sister Nina’s place, where I once visited her, is not what we would normally think of as a shack. It was quite comfortable and solar powered. 

EB: Yes, the shacks were various. I think each of us began to yearn to have our own place in the country as we departed Madison and began our careers. So it was kind of natural to pick up some property and to develop some of the ideas we loved so much back in Wisconsin.

JB: And Carl, the youngest of your three brothers, even built a shack in Costa Rica.

EL: Carl was a botanist and studied seeds and plant physiology. And when he saw what was happening in Costa Rica to rain forests that had been cut and become sterile, he decided to look into the question of “why we can’t replant the rain forest.” And he succeeded in discovering how to do that, which I think was a marvelous accomplishment. There were no commercial sources for seedlings, but he figured how to grow them.

JB: In your book, you say that one of the purposes is “to counteract the new wrong idea” that nature is a dangerous place for children to be.

EL: Exactly. Of course, we all felt quite at ease in the country at our Shack up there in Wisconsin. But basically it is quite a turnaround now when you see so many parents afraid of letting their children walk to school by themselves or go into the park to just have a nice long day all by themselves. This seems dangerous. Young people really need to have their own time in nature in order to become acquainted with it and to love it. If we cannot teach our children to love nature, who’s going to defend it?

JB: One thing that keeps children from venturing into nature is the fear of insects. I remember your writing about the mosquitoes at the Shack, saying that your father seemed not to be bothered at all by them. Today, some children run screaming away from any insect. This was not something that you did. Another purpose of the book, you say in the book, is to explain “familiarity with nature and togetherness.” Could you elaborate on that phrase for us? 

EL: Well, of course, feeling at home in nature. For us it was taking long walks. Observing nature together. Planting pines and watching them grow. And togetherness—sometimes we were looking at birds in the spring and having a wonderful time watching the spring fauna as they migrated in. But mostly it seemed as if we loved doing it together. And even when my siblings left to pursue their professional careers, I still loved being out there in the same woods by myself or with my parents.

JB: You also write about what it was to have grown up on the very stage on which the Land Ethic was being practiced, not only by your father but also by all of you children and your mother.

EL: That’s right. But I think Dad’s concept of a Land Ethic initially began in New Mexico, where he just loved the vegetation and landscape. In the 1920s he wrote that, because of over-grazing, in only ten years the land could become badly eroded, full of gullies (arroyos). It lost its productivity and much of its natural vegetation. Dad’s falling in love with nature in the Southwest and the moral issues of conservation developed there. And when Dad and Mother went back to Wisconsin, he kept writing about New Mexico. The Land Ethic was emerging in more and more detail during that time. But I think it all began in his first assignment with the Forest Service at the Apache National Forest in New Mexico.

JB: Just north of Silver City in the far southeastern part of the state.

EL: Yes. He told me that the original country had been so beautiful and so unchanged. But with grazing, it became badly eroded. And that’s when he began to preach that conservation of the land should include a moral responsibility for its care. 

JB: You often write in your book of the fun, even joy, that you and your parents and siblings had at the Shack. For instance, in one chapter you talk about being out with bows and arrows and being amazed to see a large buck standing stock-still yards away. You, your mother, and siblings were good at the sport of target and game shooting with bows and arrows. You even made your bows and arrows.

EL: Well, Dad began the whole operation. He was a good craftsman. Then Luna and Starker began to make their own bows. It was Dad who made the perfect arrows. If they weren’t perfect, he’d just throw them away. They made all of this gorgeous equipment. And they would ask permission to practice in a neighbor’s field. Mother and Starker got pretty good. They found out that there would be an archery tournament in town and decided to try out. They went in, and Mother took first prize. She had never shot at a real target before. And so we were all very proud of her.

JB: And you also won archery prizes.

EL: No. But Starker and Mother were the top archers. Starker could kill a chipmunk with an arrow at fifteen yards. That was incredible shooting. And Mother, of course, with her target winnings. Dad was good, but he wasn’t as good as Mother. But the equipment that he had made allowed her to become such a terrific archer. 

JB: Yes. But on the day you saw the buck in a clearing, your family shot arrows at it and laughed to see each of them miss.

EL: I believe you are thinking about the account that Luna wrote. It was difficult to get near an animal that was holding still. As you read, nobody got a deer. But they certainly had a great time.

JB: You all seemed to have fun at that moment in not being able to hit the deer.

EL: Well, there is this story about Mother. After winning one archery prize after another for five years running, she even placed at a national meet. So Carl and Dad and I decided we would drive animals toward her at a Shack hunt so that she would have the best chance at a deer, because she was so good. So they did this. Carl and Dad were placed in such a way as to drive the deer toward Mother, who was perched on a hill, not far from the Leopold Center where it stands today. And Mother noticed that there were some wonderful grapes growing near where she was standing. So she put down the bow for a minute and began to pick grapes. Just at that point there came this wonderful buck with perfect horns, walking by her at forty yards. She would have had a marvelous shot, except that she didn’t have the bow handy, and if she leaned over to get it, the buck would be gone. So they got together after that and laughed and laughed. Mother really had a wonderful chance, but it didn’t happen.

JB: In the chapter “Thinking Like a Mountain” in A Sand County Almanac, your father writes powerfully about the effect of indiscriminate hunting when a wolf is killed and its pup wounded just for sport. As the wolf lay dying, your father saw “the fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” It was a message that killing wolves, a natural predator of deer, would upset the natural order of things that sustained the mountain ecology. But there are some conservationists and ecologists who are critical of any hunting at all. How would you answer those people as to the value of hunting?

EL: Well, sometimes people were very critical. They were super critical of Dad who was on the Conservation Commission in Wisconsin and was promoting the idea that we have so many deer that we needed to consider having a doe season to keep the population down. And, of course, it takes an ecologist to notice the impact of these heavy deer populations on the forest. You had to look down at the ground and see that all the wild flowers had been eaten off. And the young trees that were coming in, like maples and hemlock—the deer just love hemlock—were being chewed right off. We were not getting plant reproduction like we should. And now where the deer are completely protected, the forests are getting terribly barren. Look at the conditions on the East Coast. You have to put hairnets over the bushes and plants in your yard. The whole concept of metering the amount of population is to be balanced either by wolves or man. And if we can’t control that by ourselves, we are going to have to do something about introducing wolves. And we haven’t done that very well, have we? There’s a tremendous overpopulation of deer and elk all across the United States. It is serious. 

JB: Also in A Sand County Almanac, your father writes about the Land Ethic in this way: “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.” Do you see your book as a complement to A Sand County Almanac, which is recognized as a classic philosophical text and memoir that has helped spur the ecological movement for nearly the past seven decades?

EL: Well, I think my father’s book explains that the condition of the land can be such a delicate matter. If we misuse it, we destroy much of its beauty. My book describes the hard work of restoration ecology and the charm of observing that natural beauty. Just thinking deeply about the lovely sand hill cranes and their incredible dances and the use of their wings and their calls, it is an echo of beauty. Young children need to have that kind of exposure to natural conditions so that they can enjoy nature and fall in love with it. Dad’s statement that you quoted embraces ecology and aesthetics, the beauty of the natural system.

JB: You had a front-row seat, a very special place, simply by the coincidence of your birth, being the youngest by seven years of all the children. And when your siblings moved on, you often found yourself alone with your father and mother as he was writing and editing A Sand County Almanac. Did he talk with you about that project while he was doing it. 

EL: Yes, he did. The time you refer to was when he was writing the essay “Good Oak,” which appears in A Sand County Almanac, as I related in my story under the title “Cutting the Good Oak.” We were all so excited about that essay. And he just rattled it off one morning with his little sharp pencil and little yellow tablet. And it was such a beautiful piece. And it was bound to be in his book. And I remember him talking a little about how he was putting these chapters together. It took a while. It certainly was clear that some of these essays would hang together as a beautiful memoir for his interests.

JB: And you must have been excited by what you were reading as he developed his memoir.

EL: Indeed. For example, in “The Good Oak,” he just made an allegory out of here comes the axe and the saw. We’re sawing right through a ring of wood and five rings later we’re talking about the history of Wisconsin. Or another ring was the time when Marquette was exploring the Wisconsin River. Dad was making beautiful images out of basically a piece of wood, recording the time interval. It was an exciting, novel approach.

JB: And you found allegories as well in your book. Your adventures on what became known as your island and all the other stories you tell are not always revealed in his memoir. Some are foreshadowed there, perhaps. But allegories are meant for the next generations who might be curious about who their forebears were and what they were all about.

EL: It might seem silly. But it was kind of a nice exercise; wandering on the land was often an experience, especially going over to my island in the Wisconsin River, crossing a kind of creek, to the place where I decided to build little bridges out of maple logs. I’d just go and play over on the island and look at these huge cottonwood trees that were well spaced out, and a sort of open savannah with thin grass. It was kind of a sandy island. Standing on the riverbank, I could watch the current go by and see the tracks of a mink or an otter. Of course, the river otters were a lot of fun. In the snow, those tracks were joyous. The river otters would climb up on the bank and slide down into the river, run back up and slide down again. These tracks were just hilarious. Anyway, these were joyous experiences.  And I was alone. One of those times, I described the fact that the river ice was coming back down between an island next to my island and jammed up against the shore, because the distance between the two islands was narrow. The ice climbed like twelve feet in the air and made a tremendous noise. I was standing there watching this ice, and it fell back upon itself, and just like a conveyor belt, it just kept coming. I was just thrilled and terrified. But I went back to the Shack and told Mother and Dad, and they said that that was pretty good and asked why I didn’t write about it? And I did. I wrote an essay for, I think, my ninth-grade class.

JB: And that essay, too, became a part of your book. The rebuilding of the Shack itself and the reconstitution of the area around it is fascinating, because your book tells the story from the perspective of an eight-year-old who grows up there into her teenage years. You seem fascinated by the evolution of the place that happened as you were growing up.

EL: At first, our Shack was just a little barn. It seemed like nothing when we got there. Dad had already leased the property, although we didn’t know that. We went into the Shack, and it was kind of dark. There was no door. There was a pile of frozen manure in the back of the barn. There was just one window. But we could see that the building was nicely built, because the interior had a series of beams that were carefully sculpted to fit into one another. And although some of the holes in the roof were huge, it was obvious that we could fix it up. So we did. We started right in. The boys built an original fireplace, which was hit and miss. But it worked to cook and to keep warm. But later we replaced it with a fine, handmade fireplace. It was kind of fun when suddenly Dad said that we should have planks to sit on all around the interior. So there were these planks the boys put into place so that you could sit in all kinds of corners, and you could put baskets of food on these planks. It was an evolving barn, that’s for sure, because it became very comfortable and perfectly delightful. We loved cooking over that fire.

JB: And the other shacks that Starker, Luna, Carl, and you built on your properties in different locations in the west and Costa Rica, did they develop similarly?

EL: They were each rather different. For example, Luna—who was one of the principal architects on the Shack, too, because of the fireplace—had a very fancy construction for his shack in Pinedale, Wyoming. And he found two or three old log cabins, bought them, and had his friends and relatives come over to help him take them apart and bring the logs over to where he built quite an elaborate house with all native logs. And he built an incredible fireplace that opened into the main bedroom as well as the living room. He was just an amazing builder.

Starker’s shack was just a camping spot in eastern California at a place called Sagehen Creek, the U.C. Berkeley ecological Field Station. He just used the front side of a little cliff where he built a series of wooden ledges where he could put his camping equipment and a cover that would come down in wintertime to cover it up. But it was basically a kind of a series of shelves.

And Carl’s place in Cost Rica was a simple little shack that he revised a little bit. He rigged up a gravity flow pipe from the nearby creek for water.

JB: And your shack? 

EL: My cabin was an original, two-room log cabin outside of Central City, Colorado, where I bought quite a nice acreage. We had family gatherings where we built a fireplace and put a new roof on it and made it very nice. It’s very much like the Leopold Shack, very simple.

JB: In your memoir and also in your father’s memoir, there’s a sense of the idyllic. Today, not many of us experience the idyllic in nature very often.

EL: Well, I think that it is a matter of patience. For example, a child can just wander off and begin to explore and see bugs or a beautiful flower or maybe a pool of water or birds. It is just patience and curiosity. I remember one time when Mother and Dad were taking a nap and I wandered into the woods, over the hill, and down to the wetland. And here was a tiny deer with big white spots and big brown eyes, a little fawn hiding in the bushes. And I was just so impressed, because that little creature was so beautiful and so quiet. I was very careful to back away and not frighten him, because I wanted to make sure that his mother could find him again. That I will never forget.

JB: That’s a beautiful story. Would that our young could someday tell such stories, although they are experiences that cannot be replicated totally. They also must experience them.

EL: Well, there are several ways of having experiences. One way is as an ecologist who can look at a bit of vegetation and realize that it might be a nice pasture, but it has been grazed heavily and it has changed from what it used to be. You wonder whether it can be brought back more to its original condition. And, of course, that’s what we were wondering at the Shack. We were trying to bring it back to something more like its original cover by planting and burning the prairie, and so forth. But even in rough country where you have basically over-used, over-grazed vegetation, there are wonderful things to see and to hear. Even if nature isn’t perfect, as in the original cover before we exploited it, it’s beautiful. There are places of beauty everywhere; so we just have to be patient and look for them.

JB: Yes. And as a paleobotanist you have experienced nature that was for human beings uninhabitable, particularly in prehistorical times.

EL: Yes, the periods of severe volcanism. We’ve been studying such times in Colorado. And in those periods the lands were completely uninhabitable (unless you were an ant!).

JB: As human beings have come into a world that is inhabitable and that nurtures them, many have tended to ignore their natural surroundings and often to defile them, to work against their own best interests. Humans need the natural world because they belong to it. And that idea seems to me to be what your family has devoted itself to reminding us of.

EL: Yes. We certainly enjoyed the natural conditions. But when we got the Shack and its surrounding land, it was certainly in poor shape. Where we now have prairie was a depleted cornfield, and it was full of sand burrs. And you couldn’t think of going barefoot there. But gradually we began to use seeds and brought in other kinds of prairie grass, and it began to change. It was perfect, but gee, it is a beautiful, flower-rich prairie now, and we are very proud of it.

JB: Estella, as we close the interview, I wonder whether you have any final thoughts about your book and how you hope it will fulfill your purposes.

EL: Sharing these kinds of observations of nature and experiences together is kind of jolly. It’s wonderful to think that perhaps some of the children will be interested in reading how it used to be in that part of Wisconsin and what can be done to enjoy it. Even an old cornfield full of sand burrs can be a challenge. But I hope that young people will enjoy seeing the experiences that some of us had. We were fortunate to be free and to wander around and take walks over this land together. And that made a very good family. Togetherness. Going birding in the spring when those warblers were coming up from the south. And you could enjoy seeing these absolutely spectacular birds coming in, not to mention the sand hill cranes. We used to have these flocks of geese. That’s quite exciting, just to see, to hear, and to feel their presence. They talk to one another.

 JB: Yes, and I think that your book conveys that so well. And let’s hope that your book contributes to promoting the interest of future generations in what you call “familiarity with nature and togetherness.”

EL: There’s a group in Milwaukee that acts out parts in nature, little acts to interest children in nature. And they tell me that they are going to be using my book to stage some of the things for their audiences that happened to us at the Shack.

JB: What’s the name that group?

EL: It is Kohl’s Wild Theater program for the Zoological Society of Milwaukee. Dave McLellan directs a very active group of three actors, and their audiences are young kids in Milwaukee. They sent me a script that was quite amazing. It wasn’t like what I had experienced exactly. But it touched on some of the things that were fun.

And I want to thank you, Jim. It’s a pleasure to share with you some of the experiences that I treasure. And I appreciate the opportunity to expose some of the ideas I have in my book with others through this interview. 

JB: It has been a great pleasure. I personally think that anyone who teaches or reads A Sand County Almanac should consider your memoir as a postscript to your father’s classic. Your book complements that more philosophical text, and both are beautifully written. Thank you so much, Estella.

  • James Ballowe

    James Ballowe is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Bradley University. Since retiring from university teaching and administration, Jim has written a biography of Joy Morton and a monograph history of the Morton Arboretum.
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