Friday, October 22, 2010

Shock troops of the prairie (and one lucky dog)

It's been a long time since I have read A Sand County Almanac, probably dating back to when I complained to my advisor that it wasn't required reading for a forestry degree at the University of Minnesota in the late 1980's.  Come to think of it, there wasn't a lot of required reading at all.  Required calculating. Required memorizing.  But very little required reading, and probably even less required thinking.

My favorite sections of SCA are, of course, "The Good Oak" and "Bur Oak."  I have always loved his description of the bur oak:  "Have you ever wondered why a thick crust of corky bark covers the whole tree, even to its smallest twigs? This cork is armor. Bur oaks were the shock troops sent by the invading forest to storm the prairie; fire is what they had to fight... Engineers did not discover insulation; they copied it from these old soldiers of the prairie war."

Leopold goes on to explain that when settlers plowed the prairie in the 1840's they deprived the prairie of its "immemorial ally: fire."  Most of the trees in Leopold's part of Wisconsin dated to the 1850's or so, when the balance of power in the prairie wars shifted from grass to trees.

But even that change was just one of many throughout the millenia; the moving front in the battle for ecotype supremacy shifted over time - sometimes the hardwood trees advanced as far north as Lake Superior, sometimes they retreated nearly to the Illinois border.  And European settlement surely wasn't the first wave of human impact that influenced the cover type in that area.

Of the bur oaks that pre-date the 1840's shift from prairie to plowed field and woodlot Leopold writes, "Thus, he who owns a veteran bur oak owns more than a tree. He owns a historical library, and a reserved seat in the theater of evolution.  To the discerning eye, his farm is labeled with the badge and symbol of the prairie war."

I have another, very strange connection with Aldo Leopold.  In the late 1990's we lived in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Our next door neighbor was Aldo Leopold's great granddaughter.  At that time we owned - or, more accurately, were owned by - a sweet but utterly incorrigible chocolate lab named Maggie.  We were moving to Tucson, Arizona and would be living in an apartment for an undetermined but extended period of time.  We had chosen an apartment that accepted pets, but were dreading living with this 100 pound bundle of energy and mischievousness in a tiny apartment with two small children.  On the last day before we were to move our neighbor rang our doorbell, and asked if perhaps we might want to leave Maggie to live with her grandmother.  Nina Leopold. On the 1000+ acre "Sand County" farm. With another chocolate lab. And a pond to swim in.  We thought about it for approximately 1 nanosecond and said yes!

So we got to meet Nina Leopold Bradley, a very sweet lady, and see the Sand County farm.  We later received a letter from Nina saying that Maggie was doing great - she spent her days completely unleashed and free, and her nights sleeping snuggled with Nina's other lab. 

So Maggie the impossible and incorrigible chocolate lab spent her remaining days in her - and my - idea of heaven, Aldo Leopold's farm.  Lucky dog.

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