with Three Leopold Foundation Interns
Here we share highlights of the conversation we had with three members of the 2001 Aldo Leopold Foundation internship program—Amy Sommers, Joshua LaPointe, and Steffan Freeman—as they describe how they have translated Leopold's Land Ethic in Central New York, Chicago, and Jackson Hole, respectively into their workaday lives. Not surprisingly they have all stayed in touch with one another over the years, despite geographic distances, thanks to the bonds forged during a memorable time spent together with the spirit of Aldo Leopold in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Sommers’ Harvest Farm,
Central New York
Lunch With Nina Leopold
When I came back from the Peace Corps in Niger where I had been a soil
conservation volunteer, I wanted to work in restoration ecology. The first day of my internship at the Aldo Leopold Foundation we burned a prairie. We then got to participate in all the steps of restoring a prairie, from controlling invasive species, to collecting seeds, to planting prairie. We worked with landowners and learned about people’s different desires to do restoration— from the person who spent vacation time at a second home, to the farmer who wanted to respect his land.
One of the most meaningful parts about my experience as an Aldo Leopold
intern was getting to spend time at the Shack, even being out there on the
coldest of the winter nights. Nina Leopold, Aldo's daughter, asked me in the
morning if my toothpaste had frozen.
At lunchtime we would go into the study center with its giant window overlooking bird feeders and prairie and sit with Nina.
She had a journal and she encouraged us to record first blossoms and first
bird sightings in it. Interacting with her was one of our favorite parts of the day.
“Leopold Country is a Communal State of Mind”
I spent two years working at Troy Gardens, a 31-acre site that was acquired
from the state of Wisconsin by the Madison Area Community Land Trust in 2001and converted into a community farm, restored natural areas, community
gardens, and mixed income housing. I remember one night being out in the
prairie, we had harvested some hazelnuts, and we just sat around in a grotto
cracking and peeling them. It was an amazing experience to have with people
when you were in a city.
None of us would have peeled the hazelnuts alone, but being out in that prairie, spending time as a community, made all the difference.
I enjoyed being in that urban setting just as much as I did the time I spent living on an island with only one other person and thousands of birds.
The Economics and Aesthetics of Private Land Restoration with the Community in Mind
As a farm manager, I need to understand the land I work so I can preserve it for
the long term, which for me also means continuity of economic income.
Everything I do in farming also involves thinking of land as community. I designed my farm landscape to immerse people in edible landscapes that mimic and are intertwined with natural areas where you are getting both economic and
Unfortunately, we eventually learned that we couldn’t buy the rural farm site we were renting and had so carefully designed. But, we were able to turn that disappointment into a wonderful opportunity to transform our typical yard, inside a village, into a similar landscape. We are farming the half-acre lot for ourselves while continuing to intertwine edible and natural landscapes. The space between our sidewalk and the street isn’t your typical green lawn with a tree or two, but rather a prairie in its early stages, and I dream of the day when our fruit trees mature and our driveway is bordered with a profusion of peaches, apples, plums, and raspberries.
It is interesting to talk to neighbors, to see what peoples’ interactions are with it. Mostly it has been positive. People ask about the different things we are
growing and some are thinking about bringing some of those things to their own property. Sidewalks make a huge difference, people walk around the block.
You can’t expect everyone to pick up Aldo Leopold so how do you get it in someone’s view who is not necessarily thinking about land sheds and environmental impact?
How do you sneak in there and get them to talk about it and introduce them to Leopold and the land ethic? Being in a village situation is a huge advantage and you can reach more people.
Hardwired to love nature in all its diversity
At the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies where I did my Master’s work, they expect students to pursue a course of study that includes a social focus. For my Master’s thesis, I restored an area of prairie using a variety of seeding densities to study whether seeding densities affect the diversity of prairie. Diversity would indicate that the restoration was successful from a scientific standpoint, but I also wanted to look at whether or not diversity was important from a social standpoint. I then invited people, who either worked as restoration ecologists, were landowners restoring their own property, or had no real involvement in restoration work, to walk around the site and determine which plantings they thought were more successful and describe what factors influenced their decision.
I hoped diversity would influence their choices. A farmer summed it up by saying, “I walked around and said, “where would my wife and I like to go for a walk on a Sunday afternoon?” and it was where there was a lot of different things to see.