Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reconsidering Aldo Leopold in the Kettle Moraine

One of my favorite passages from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is from a story called “Great Possessions:” He says, “…at daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over. It is not only boundaries that disappear, but also the thought of being bounded.” How often in my explorations of the urban wilderness I have tried to make those boundaries disappear! Leopold left his home in Madison and made his way to his hobby farm in rural Sand County in order to get that experience. Now and then I too feel the need to leave the city for more unbounded spaces.

Lynn and I stayed in a delightful B&B in Eagle. It was situated on 20 acres that the owners had put into conservation easement. 20 acres sounded like plenty of room to roam in until I’d spent the 15 minutes it took to reach the neighbor’s boundary. Like Leopold I could have walked right through, but I’d be walking across the lawns and roads of an exurban subdivision instead of farms. I drove off to the state park.

The sky was just beginning to pale as I pulled into the Ice Age Trail lot off Highway 67. I considered skipping the required day pass. At this hour no ranger was likely to come by and I didn’t relish taking off my gloves to fill out the form. Besides, I reasoned with myself, my other car has an annual parks sticker. My arguments didn’t overrule my sense of obligation – or perhaps that nagging fear of getting caught. Some of the boundaries we experience are the ones we carry around inside. I used the stubby pencil provided and stuffed $7 into the too-small envelope – why they don’t have an envelope large enough for the bills they are intended to hold?! And, yes, my fingers ended up feeling like icicles. My toes were already cold, too, from standing there.

Even at this early hour on a Saturday, cars went by now and then. The Ice Age Trail led off parallel to the road. There was another obviously well used but unmarked trail heading off away from the road and toward the Scuppernong River. It was a relatively “blank spot on the map,” to use another Leopold expression, and therefore more appealing.

I needed a brisk walk to get blood flowing to my extremities but numerous footprints had frozen into the packed snow making it both uneven and slippery. I also had to dodge dog turds melting their way towards the ground. The dog walkers turned back at the flooded prairie where the trail became a sheet of ice thin enough to fracture with every step. In places I broke through.

Then a creek crossed the trail. Probably no more than a trickle in summer, it was swollen with snowmelt. I unwisely tried to position myself for a shot of it and ended up with icy water in one of my boots. I briefly considered aborting my hike – I still hadn’t warmed up. But also the sun still hadn’t risen and I had taken only that one unlucky photograph. I plunged through the stream and on down the now less travelled path.

By the time I reached the river I was warm, the sun was just breaking over the ridge to the east, and the prairie grasses lit up like fire. I was able to make a few satisfying photographs, but the greatest reward was more ephemeral. I had gone far enough from the road to hear…nothing. No animals rustling the grass; no birds calling; no wind in the trees. Nothing at all, except the ringing in my ears – perhaps the accumulated residue from the urban cacophony I had left behind.

After a while a small plane interrupted the peaceful silence. Its distant transect of the sky reminded me of the one mosquito that gets inside a tent, small but impossible to ignore, knowing what it will do as soon as I fall asleep. I was reminded not to be asleep to my own impact upon the earth. 

The plane was followed by a long line of geese, honking with undecipherable urgency. In “March” Leopold writes, “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is spring.” Although we had a thaw last week, it is February yet and I didn’t need this week’s snow to remind me it is not spring. Those geese, contrary to instinct, likely have grown accustomed to surviving through the winter in Wisconsin, surviving off the detritus – or voluntary largesse – of a society that likewise finds itself untethered to the seasons.

I walked back, warmed and thoughtful, observing patterns and discovering curiosities encased in the ice that I’d rushed across before. Where I’d broken through a new sheet of ice had already healed over the wound. It broke more easily in its weakened state. For three hours I had walked over many acres, across the unbounded spaces of the park, and was thankful for the opportunity. Like Leopold I consider land stewardship a moral imperative. In a time of ever dwindling natural areas, it is also that much more important for economic sustainability as well as psychological health. But the ice has gotten very thin. We must tread more lightly than ever.

To see more images from my excursion in the Kettle Moraine, go to my flickr page.

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