Thursday, May 23, 2024

Estella Leopold's View of "The Shack"

This is a review of paleobotanist Estella B. Leopold's 2016 book titled Stories From the Leopold Shack:  Sand County Revisited.

Learning of her death earlier this year at age 97, I was motivated to write the previous post which looked back on her father's seminal work:  A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949).  So, it was wonderfully satisfying to come upon Estella's volume of very personal reminiscences of life at The Shack, the place that was the focus of the almanac portion of her father's book.  Hers is a much fuller exploration of this place and the work the family did together to fulfill Aldo's vision of its ecological restoration.  She also delineated its environmental and geological histories.  Finally, she closed the circle by describing the evolution of this land in the decades following her father's death.  Altogether, a captivating book and an important one for strengthening and expanding Aldo Leopold's legacy.

It might help to convey one of the aspects of Estella's book that I found most appealing to observe that, as I read it, I was reminded of the "diary" my wife's grandmother had written between 1951 and 1974 on lined pages in a small loose-leaf binder labeled "My Garden."  Though this was likely started to record the planting and harvesting of summer vegetables in the garden near her summer cottage, it quickly became much more.  Indeed, she recorded many aspects of the passing scene at her cottage from early spring to late fall for nearly a quarter century.  She was in her late 50s, I think, when she started.  The small cottage was (and is) nestled in a mature woods near a bay.  In simple, undramatic descriptions of the quotidian events that marked her time at this cottage, she noted what was planted, what matured to harvest, the birds she saw, which extended family members she visited and fed, and what activities reshaping the land around the cottage engaged her beloved husband (often referred to as "Dad").  Nothing of import beyond the family is described in these pages, but she captured the essence of this place and her life in it.

It's the endearingly personal and intimate voice of the My Garden diary that Estella Leopold's book shares.   There's a refreshing forthrightness in both works that captures person, family, and place.  Though, certainly, Estella's has a much broader meaning and general interest and stretches well beyond the confines of her renowned family.

Stories From the Leopold Shack makes the story of The Shack, its land, and the work that Leopold family accomplished in restoring it immediate and real to the reader in ways that her father's brilliant book did not.  Estella's book is organized in somewhat the same fashion as her father's work, moving from the very local to a broader perspective.  Her opening section describes life during the course of a year around The Shack, the refashioned old barn that stood on the tapped-out farm the family had purchased in Wisconsin's sand counties.   It's an approach that Aldo used in the almanac portion of his volume which is organized month-by-month; Estella's is season by season.  In the section titled Sketches Here and There, Aldo shifted focus from his farm to vignettes of his experiences with land and nature mostly in the western part of the country and concluded with essays that explored his land ethic.  Estella followed the almanac portion of her work with chapters that delineated what the family actually did to recover the land around The Shack, what happened to this land in the years since her father's death, and how each of Aldo's five children so embraced the concept of The Shack that in their own ways each found a "shack" in their lives where they could be stewards of nature and the land.  

Estella is a captivating chronicler of what it was like being a member of the Leopold family.  As I've already noted her voice in the book is direct, clear, and amazingly personal.  The entire volume is replete with anecdotes about her life as a Leopold and stories about the Leopold family, particularly her mother Estella.  Her explanation of how she and her mother shared the same name is representative of the personal touches that grace this work.

[I]n grade school the nuns could not pronounce my name, which used to be Eloisa Leopold. They called me "Eloise."  I consulted Mother and asked if I could use her name, Estella Bergere Leopold (I liked the Spanish Estella), and she said yes.  So I called myself by that name ever since, and I officially changed it in my high school years.  (p. 72)

At certain points in her book, she identified herself in pictures as "Estella, Jr."  Lovely.  There are many instances of where Estella welcomed the reader into her life and family, including the enchanting appendix in which she profiles the three crows she had as pets growing up.  How much more personal could she be?

Though she clearly had fun at The Shack and enjoyed freedom to be a child, there was an abundance of hard work that every family member (including the youngest) engaged in.  Among the overarching projects that marked the family's time at The Shack was the key one:  revive the native flora that had thrived prior to the arrival of European settlers with their sod-busting plows and soil-depleting crops.

To get a sense of the physical labor this entailed, consider that from 1936 into the 1940s, the Leopolds typically planted two to three thousand white and red pines every spring, a backbreaking and often futile task because most of the seedlings died during the Dust Bowl years.  Estella's spring breaks from school in Madison were spent planting pines at The Shack and hauling water.  She recounts how one brother skipped his high school prom because pines needed to be planted.

Then there was the project to recreate prairie in the worn-out corn field near The Shack.  As part of that effort, family members traveled around the area in pursuit of little fragments of original prairie that still survived in places like cemeteries, road cuts, or railroad rights of ways.  They carefully and judiciously dug up specimens which were brought back to The Shack and transplanted.  It took much trial and error (mostly error) to get the process right:  propagating them by seed turned out to be the much better course of action.  The enormously long taproots of some prairie plants often defied efforts to dig them up, offering an insight into how those plants could survive prolonged droughts.  Estella recounted how this effort to restore prairie led to a recognition that controlled burning, a practice followed by Native Americans before Europeans arrived, was critical its health.

I particularly appreciated how Estella sought to orient the reader to the lay of the land around The Shack.  She included several maps.  The first of which (p. 7), I consulted frequently to locate places special to her, where she had adventures, or where family activities took place.  A map (p. 178) showing the line of the moraine that marked the limit of the westward progression of the glacier that shaped The Shack is complemented by a topographical map (p. 179) showing clearly how the glacial flow and ebb marked that land.

I will conclude by offering an example of how Estella's narrative voice significantly differs from, and complements, that of her father.  Aldo, in his almanac portion, recounted vividly what the land and nature had to offer to him over the course of the year.  He is present as narrator, of course, but, actually, sometimes he is often somewhat anonymous in the landscape.  In contrast, Estella herself is always very present in her detailed descriptions of activities and events.

A prime instance of how these two approaches to narrative differ concerns the cutting up of the "Good Oak," an 80-year-old tree killed by a lightning strike.  In the February portion of Aldo's almanac, he created a metaphor, positing that, with each motion of the saw blade through a tree ring, "we" (he and some unnamed others) were cutting through pages of history, stretching from the present back through the decades.  He noted the events that marked each period as the blade continued its journey.  Though the metaphorical import of what was happening is clear and powerful, for me, at least, the actual scene is not.

Estella's account of that same event fleshes it out, placing it in its setting and in the context of a regular, joint family activity:  cutting wood, which was a critical activity if The Shack were to be kept warm during Wisconsin winters.  On a weekend in late March (not February as Aldo had it), 1946, after a snow storm, the author (aged 19), her father, her mother, and a visiting ecologist

walked to the old oak tree carrying our long two-man crosscut saw, a smaller bucksaw, an ax, and some other tools.  The blue jays were calling at us.   (p. 70)

Daughter Estella is sent up into the tree to cut off some of the lower branches.  As she readied herself in the tree, she heard and then saw four swans flying toward the Wisconsin River.

I held my breath as these beautiful white glistening birds sailed quietly right over us.  Their wings were swishing.  I grabbed hold of a branch and looked straight up at them.  We all watched in awe as these gorgeous large birds sailed quietly above us.  It was a moment of reverence for all of us; a heart-warming moment.  How very wonderful!  We all chattered about this marvelous omen, and those graceful birds, introducing us to the coming of spring.  They seemed like a symbol of something wild and free.  (p. 71)

In her narrative, returning to the task at hand, all four of them took shifts with the two-man saw.

Periodically Mother would shout out "REST!," the signal for Dad to slow down and take a breather, and for someone else to take his place for a time.  Mom was very protective of her husband, in a very dear way.  (p. 71)

That specific aspect of the sawing made its way into Aldo's account.  In his version, as they cut through rings laid down in 1870,

Rest! cries the chief sawyer, and we pause for breath.  (A Sand County Almanac, p. 15)

Aldo's account is poetic and quite pointed in its depiction of the insults inflicted on the land and nature over the years, whereas Estella's is unadorned and, oh, so, personal.  The contrast is bracing and why I think anyone enamored with A Sand County Almanac should read Stories From the Leopold Shack.

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