Today's movement to restore wild places began more than half a century ago in a shack
in rural Wisconsin.
By Kenneth Brower
The Shack sits just above a sandy flood channel of the Wisconsin River, at a fork in the
evolution of Americans' regard for the land. The windows-salvage glass, white-shuttered in
dark, weathered walls-look out on a landscape formed toward the close of the last ice age,
the "Wisconsin," when the sand of the "sand counties" was laid down in
vast alluvial deposits. In one cataclysmic glacial outburst flood--a jökulhlaup,
Icelanders call it--500 feet of sand were heaped up in places in just days, forcing the
river to change course. It was down the broad, redirected stream of the Wisconsin, a few
thousand years later, that much of the North Woods floated as logs.
Just beyond the Shack's woodpile, a low ridge rises, an old glacial moraine forested
now with volunteer maples and transplanted pines. A short distance up the moraine, sunk in
the golden leaf litter of the maples, is a pit lined by rounded stones. This was the
basement of the man Aldo Leopold called "our predecessor the bootlegger, who hated
this farm, skinned it of residual fertility, burned its farmhouse, threw it back into the
lap of the county (with delinquent taxes to boot), and then disappeared among the landless
anonymities of the Great Depression."
The pines growing everywhere on Leopold's 120 acres are living monuments to his
experiments with restoration, symbolic of his ideas on stewardship. The pit of the
bootlegger's basement is symbolic of our landowning ethic before Aldo came.
If the eco of ecology has literary cornerstones, they are Thoreau's Walden, George
Perkins Marsh's Man and Nature, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and Leopold's A Sand County
Almanac. The almanac is an epochal, seminal, ageless work. It is Bible still for land
managers, Koran for those of us who work the soil where literature overlaps ecology,
urtext for the ecological restoration movement.
The beginnings of ecological restoration-the first systematic attempt to reassemble
disturbed ecosystems-came in 1934, when the University of Wisconsin at Madison, under
Leopold's leadership, set out to build a collection of native ecological communities on
abandoned farmland. (Leopold's ruined farm, bought the next year as a weekend retreat,
became homework in this endeavor.) First with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps,
then by enlisting faculty and students, the university's arboretum restored 30 distinct
systems-all the important plant communities native to the upper Midwest.
The restorationists quickly encountered a core problem of restoration: authenticity.
Rehabilitation of land is one thing; recapitulation of ecosystems is another. The American
landscape has been profoundly altered nearly everywhere by man. It is hard to know what
nature intended in any particular place. "To keep every cog and wheel is the first
precaution of intelligent tinkering," Leopold wrote. In land management that rule has
been persistently violated, nature's parts scattered and lost.
The problem of authenticity, once its intractability was acknowledged, seemed to fade a
bit. It dawned on the restorationists, as it dawns on most artists, scientists,
mathematicians, that the end-product of their work-the restored prairie, marsh, or
woodland-was no more important than the process of arriving there. The best way to learn
how a marsh or prairie works, it turns out, is to attempt to restore it. The science of
restoration ecology was born.
Restoration conferences and fairs proliferate now. Practitioners write essays on
restoration as theater, on restoration theory, on restoration aesthetics, politics,
ritual. Where once we had just one model-the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and the
Leopold farm-now we have models everywhere: the 30-year-old experiment at Auroville, an
oasis of millions of trees and sustainable farming in one of the most degraded regions of
India. Nonsuch Island off Bermuda, restored by David Wingate in his successful effort to
save a seabird, the Bermuda petrel. Wangari Maathai's Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, which
has grown from the seven trees she planted in her backyard in 1977 to 20 million.
From the beginning there have been preservationists who have argued that restoration is
premature. All available resources, they believe, should be devoted first to preservation
of authenticity-of wilderness-and restoration can wait till later. Later has arrived. In
the history of the environmental movement, the century or two of the Preservation Era will
prove to be prologue: an introductory chapter, noble but brief. For the duration of human
time on the planet-for whatever piece of eternity we have left here-restoration will be
the great task.
If the meditations of A Sand County Almanac have an epicenter, it is the Shack, a
converted chicken coop where Leopold and his family spent weekends on the farm. In October
of last year, the 50th anniversary of the book's publication, photographer Michael Sewell
and I took up residence. In our week on the place, we followed after Aldo, wandering all
over the Leopold farm and the adjacent Leopold Reserve to view the fruits of his
restoration labor. We found beaver-felled trees above a great marsh. We flushed wild
turkeys from the margins of Levee Road. In the interior "uplands," as the locals
like to call these imperceptible elevations, we surprised white-tailed deer.
The Wisconsin flows past the Leopold farm nearly as dark and tannic as Brazil's Rio
Negro. I followed skunk tracks down the river beach, excavated the torn parchment of
snapping-turtle eggs from little dunes at water's edge. Kneeling in the warm sand of the
last ice age, piecing the shell fragments together like a puzzle, I tried to decide:
hatched or eaten by predators? The Wisconsin is a big river. The great width of it opened
up the sky, and the riverbank was the place for vistas. We saw kingfishers, killdeer,
cormorants. A juvenile bald eagle watched us daily from its favorite snag on the far
One evening we labored, stung by nettles and mosquitos, to set up Sewell's camera blind
on Otter Pond in the great marsh. By morning light, the photographer, peering out, found
the water wall-to-wall in geese. Otter Pond had no otter during Aldo's tenure. The last
specimen of Lutra canadensis was extirpated before he came. Late in the 1980s, the species
recolonized. We found otter runs and otter slides here and there in the great marsh.
Radio-collared wolves now occasionally pass through, too. No one has seen wolves on
Leopold land, but their signals have betrayed them.
If there was a pivotal moment in Aldo Leopold's life, as revealed in Sand County, it
was his shooting of an Arizona wolf: "We reached the old wolf in time to watch a
fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that
there was something new to me in those eyes-something known only to her and to the
That fierce green fire glows again in the sand counties of Wisconsin.
Every evening, a half hour before sunset, I walked to the river to watch the flight of
sandhill cranes. Geese flew by twilight, and shorebirds migrated at night, but cranes, in
commuting from their daytime fields to the roosting beaches where they pass the night,
always seemed to allow themselves plenty of light. They passed overhead in synchronized
duos, threesomes, and squadrons. They honked the chortling, contrapuntal honk of cranes.
"High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles,
croaks, and cries," as Leopold wrote. On the far shore of the Wisconsin, still 200
feet above ground, they dropped their long legs in anticipation of landing. For Aldo
Leopold, a musical man, the essence of cranes seems to have been their sound. For me, it
was more visual: that moment at sunset when, high above Earth, their wings began to cup
and the long legs dangled.
In 1935, when Leopold bought his farm, there were only 25 nesting pairs of sandhill
cranes in Wisconsin. More than anything else, Leopold was a population biologist, and the
crane became a special concern. "The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and
the crane is wildness incarnate," he wrote. He corresponded with anyone in the state
who knew anything of the bird: the landowner who had a breeding pair on his property, the
Department of Natural Resources employee who had glimpsed one. Leopold was not optimistic.
The "Marshland Elegy" chapter of Sand County ends with an epitaph to the
"Some day, perhaps in the very process of our benefactions, perhaps in the
fullness of geologic time, the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward
from the great marsh. High out of the clouds will fall the sound of hunting horns, the
baying of the phantom pack, the tinkle of little bells, and then a silence never to be
broken, unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way."
Today there are 12,000 sandhill cranes in Wisconsin. Nothing would have cheered Leopold
more. Restoration works. On the road to extinction, traffic travels both ways.