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The Shack: how a forester kickstarted restorative farmsteading

“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know-how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree —and there will be one. If his back be strong and his shovel sharp, there may eventually be ten thousand.”

When we visited Aldo Leopold’s farm in June 2017, we had not heard about a concept that was gaining steam in ecology despite its controversy among farmers fearful of the reintroduction of predators in their former habitat, such as the grey wolf in the Rockies. Known as the “ecology of fear” and theorized in a paper submitted to the Journal of Mammalogy in 1999, it described the necessary psychological impact of predators in their native ecosystem. Their sole presence controls not only the population size of the animals they prey on but shapes the vegetation and, ultimately, entire landscapes.

When I tried to explain this almost psychological paradox in nature on our car trip to Aldo Leopold’s shack and farm, Inés, our oldest daughter, felt skeptical. How can they know what the elk and deer feel? And how does feeling the danger of the marauding of their ancestral predator in areas such as Yellowstone affect the herbivore’s grazing dramatically? She, for example, felt hungrier when nervous and tired. Then we searched for a definition of the butterfly effect. The random, nonlinear relation between small changes and significant consequences we can observe did attract the back audience at the back seat of the car mainly for its name: how to feel wary about such thing as a “butterfly effect”? Wolves, I thought, maintain their bad press among the younger generations (despite the success of campaigns such as “how wolves change rivers”), cultural inheritance did work. But butterflies! Butterflies gained support at the back of our car. I was joking when I pointed out butterflies could become a dangerous pest for healthy crops, to no avail; or at least, that’s how I want to read the notes I took that night, which now bring a sense of impermanence. The cause was lost when I turned at a Baraboo intersection.

Memento mori, said Nietzsche about the curse that people who want to live have to face. Nothing stays the same; all we can do is celebrate our moments of life affirmation. Aldo Leopold did know a thing and two about the paintings he wanted to reflect on when writing at night after a day’s work planting trees:

“Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed by successive generations, in each of which are likely to be found a few appreciative eyes. I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work, erases it forever.”

‘What good is it?’

Attempts to reinstate old trophic cascades (causal interactions that help keep entire ecosystems healthy, as predators limit the density and behavior for their prey, enhancing a chain of reactions down the different trophic levels) still face a powerful bias against predators, and not only by farmers who fear for their animals but for the rural population at large, as wary of “environmentalism” as they are about long-distance bureaucracy. In Yellowstone, the successful reintroduction of grey wolf populations had shaped the park’s elk population and landscape, but more than twenty years later, the hunt of grey wolves is intensifying again in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

In North America, the westward expansion meant the reshaping of vast stretches of land and their idiosyncrasies. With the buffalo nearly exterminated in the 1880s, wolves turned to cattle, and “nature lovers” of the day called for the wolf’s extermination at the end of the nineteenth century. Ranchers, trappers, hunters, and even the government agreed on it. A few decades later, observers such as Teddy Roosevelt and, eventually, Aldo Leopold, discovered that predator eradication had not created a hunter’s paradise but had led instead to paradise lost. More deer and elk meant overgrazing, erosion, and ecosystems collapse. Few noted such interconnectedness:

“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Our links with nature and food sources are anecdotal, and few of us grow what we eat despite the popularity of gardening and homesteading insights in pop culture. Reason may tell us that maintaining an edible garden or even a farm are high-maintenance, Quixotic enterprises that belong in pre-industrial times of ignorance and subsistence. Yet there’s nothing more related to this pathetic literary knight than faith in a reality worth fighting for, no matter the odds. When they share details about their “food forests,” normally a series of trees, shrubs, bushes, vines, and more conventional vegetable crops that, combined, feed and provide all sorts of indirect local benefits beyond their direct utility as food and interchangeable goods —a richer habitat, a more pleasant microclimate, an opportunity for enchantment, and a healthier place to live in.

Applying a pattern language to a rundown apartment building

A mathematician and interdisciplinary scholar, the California-based, Austrian-American Christopher Alexander helped break the customary barriers keeping architecture and urbanism away from the important things that make a local place worth living. Feeling hostility by purists reminded whoever wanted to hear that “most of the wonderful places in the world were not made by architects but by the people.” Christopher Alexander helped put together an influential book, A Pattern Language, a refreshing, iconoclastic compendium of scalable, interconnected advice on architecture, urban design, and community livability, but can be applied to social design, no matter the field or scope. Its 253 chapters awed students and curious readers since its publication in 1977, an intertextual format that works like an early version of hypertext, reminding us of the complexity of an underlying world we insist on not seeing.

Such little things that, together, improve our lives, or so thought Ole and Maitri Ersson, a Portland-based couple in their early seventies that, in 2007, they decided to build the life for the community they had been dreaming of. For the transformation to happen, there was only one little contingency: they were tight on money, so they used credit to finance the purchase of a rundown apartment building with a typical concrete annex of parking space.

With their own work and that of their tenants, they transformed the apartment complex into an apartment-based intentional community, Kailash Ecovillage, a permaculture coliving space with 55 happy tenants. Soon, the concrete parking lot in the backyard became the epicenter of a “food forest” the Erssons consider a “coliving agritopia” that fit their emotional and practical needs, keeps them fed with healthy food, provides an opportunity for community bonding, and has reshaped an “undeserved” place into an aspirational one. Keeping rents low on purpose, they currently have a waiting list of over 300 people interested in moving in.

We visited between the second and third US waves of the Covid-19 epidemic, and a couple of residents mentioned how they had seen outright clearly the importance of self-reliance in a context of supply chain disruption, bureaucratic dysfunction, and social panic. They were eager to share their particular workarounds to secure food and water: they top their rainwater collection with strategic storage, the garden and food forest yield all-year-round produce, while the building’s sewage follows a process of natural pathogen sterilization, before fertilizing the garden. It turns out “humanure” makes for great nitrogen and compost gardening supplements.

A small almanac written from a chicken coop’s desk

Before Christopher Alexander’s work coordinating different disciplines applied to the real world, few rational scholars had more faith in the Quixotic enterprise of ecological restoration and the healing of old relations between man and nature than Aldo Leopold, a forester who, while teaching at the University of Wisconsin, decided to revert the lost battle he felt he needed to fight —his giants were the scars of Wisconsin impoverished farming land. Excursions by car brought him to desolate, abandoned farms, testimonies of overexploitation, dust storms, and the rural exodus of the Great Depression.

In 1935 he set to take over an old chicken coop to transform it into a family cabin: “The Shack.” With the aid of his wife and children during weekends, Leopold set on his own ecological restoration experiment: the reversal of a worn-out farm by the Wisconsin River near the town of Baraboo, a rectangular property of 120 acres at the time of the book, reaching 150 acres in 1948. Aldo Leopold’s family didn’t only grow together around the project of restoring a farm perceived worthless, but their adventures inspired a little essay book as unpretentious as it has been influential for environmentalism, quoted with ease and out of pomposity by informed farmers, senators, scientists, or writers, all of whom tried to imitate in one way or another an effortless, beautiful prose fed out of the ability to celebrate in awe the American countryside, flora (“When dandelions have set the mark of May on Wisconsin pastures, it is time to listen for the final proof of spring”) and fauna (“Whoever invented the word ‘grace’ must have seen the wing-folding of the plover”), even when it has been ravaged and all you can feel is a promise of slow restitution.

“Wilderness is the one kind of playground which mankind cannot build to order,” Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, and though behind his words we sometimes hear the rationale of the informed forester, most times we hear the innocence of children in awe, the responsibility of a father trying to learn along with how to heal Dust Bowl land, the transcendent epiphany that comes from sensing the magic that one can enjoy in wilderness —if patient enough. “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm,” he writes as he gets ready to cut a tree hit by lightning. “One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

As human culture was detaching itself from nature, Aldo Leopold set up an even more Quixotic task: to convince colleagues and decision-makers of the need to spread the word about the deep interrelations within nature, because knowing them, anybody could “expand indefinitely” his mental and material wealth: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” But to remain healthy, farming and urban land needed to let go their short-term, hypochondriac mentality, “so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.”

Those who resisted monocrops

Through the restoration process of his homestead, where he engaged the whole family to plant 50,000 trees over more than a decade, we also enter an enchanted reality in which we can see the American prairie before the arrival of what he calls “the Abrahamic concept of land.” There is also a geological time and a pre-modern conception of human activities, observation of the surroundings, and an effort of engaging with nature capable of overcoming its abstraction as a mere means for human development. Natural history was indeed the forgotten science.

How did Aldo Leopold envision healthy farmsteads, and which relation did they maintain with urban populations? Did he envision a pre-industrial, Jeffersonian utopia of one-acre, self-sustained homestead, or his restoration work was rather the effort of a pragmatist with little faith in imposing his fellow citizens (most of which craved the easy comfort he despised) a discipline of a simpler, more meaningful and fulfilling living? The essayist died in 1948, leaving such questions open as the world prepared to take advantage of Norman Borlaug’s high-yield crop varieties and chemical fertilizers, leading to the big-scale production increase publicized as Green Revolution.

The benefits of such an industrial approach, praised across the board, soon reduced soil fertility, the genetic diversity of crops, as well as soil erosion. As food production increased scale and accelerated mechanization, the agrarian population became marginal in advanced economies. Suburban areas and impersonal, interchangeable non-places of tertiary economy buried neighborhoods in which gardening, farming, and homesteading had persisted as a lifestyle, secondary activity. Some idealist farmers began refusing the argument of nearly-automatized food production decided not to apply for subsidies to “modernize” their operations. Some refused the argument expressed by pragmatists: why spend several hours a week working to maintain a (balanced, aesthetically pleasing, soil-nurturing) edible garden when easier jobs existed aplenty? Time spent growing food was not worth the price of the outcome when sold at market prices.

Aldo Leopold, a dying wolf, and the mountain

With time, a counterculture of food growers joined the minority of old-timers maintaining their polycropping techniques and caring for farm animals as if it deserved lives as close to their own nature as possible. Also, such misfits (some of whom would kickstart the intersection of whole-systems thinking and traditional techniques of regenerative agriculture, such as permaculture) explored potential high-yield techniques compatible with soil fertility. Growing one’s food and killing one’s own dinner was not a feasible goal for the society as a whole, but few of them fancied such big-scale plans: their effort was sometimes individual, at times local, and any literature or sense of belonging remained at the margins of mainstream society.

In the summer of 2021, four years after our visit to Aldo Leopold’s estate and foundation, we visited an intentional community and educational center that had pioneered restoration agriculture. In 1994, seven friends had taken over a debt-ridden and derelict 1974 organic farm north of San Francisco (the first Organic Agriculture Easement in the country), which would become the Sowing Circle community. They had set shop to explore compatible ways of farming, wildlife restoration, and water management, raising their families and learning by doing during the process. Aldo Leopold’s example had endured the intergenerational test, but at what scale and with which intensity?

In Aldo Leopold’s love book to his family and to nature there’s also a determined call to action. We read in between lines how the Leopolds will learn to see land “as a community to which we belong” so they can use its resources with love and respect. To use the land in such a way capable of “contributing to culture” meant first to understand the intricacies of complex ecosystems depending on time and human mindset.

The first time Aldo Leopold had sensed the importance that powerful indirect interactions such as the presence of a predator can have in any territory, no matter the intensity of the pervasive human impact, he was 22. He had just graduated from Yale’s School of Forestry. In Arizona’s Apache National Forest, Leopold and his crew had killed an old mother wolf and her six adolescent pups at the foot of the mountain. Those were days when nobody passed up a chance to kill a wolf. But what followed changed his course and influenced his life’s work:

“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 mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Restoring a pioneering farm while raising 7 families

Leopold would go on to develop such idea in Thinking Like a Mountain, the section Sketches Here and There from A Sand County Almanac. The biological theory of the “ecology of fear” is not the first one bringing game theory into land management. The presence of wolves transforms the grazing intensity and patterns of other animals under stress by predators, and forests regrow where there’s no farming or the fire management that allowed the Great Prairies to regenerate their native grasslands before the arrival of land grants and European settlers. How to use such patterns of interconnectedness and build an ecosystem across the United States that could integrate human impact in the picture? Were the ever-growing human settlements around exurb service areas acting as a deterrent of ecological restoration, or were they also an opportunity to induce ecological change in areas often depleted by intensive agriculture and monocrops?

In the town of Occidental, California, the Sowing Circle community had shown a medium-scale alternative to suburban developments detached from their surroundings and uninterested in improving them beyond the manicured rows of trees and lawns connecting impersonal streets and access roads. Natural predators were beneficial for the equilibrium of ecosystems as “the mountain” agreed with “the wolf,” Aldo Leopold had poetically explained, in the need for keeping at bay herbivores, which trickled down a trophic cascade of effects that affected the overall health of all populations, from big mammals to plants and soil microorganisms. Restored farmsteads, such as the Sowing Circle, would add 80 acres of healthy and diverse farmland and native landscape, explained Brock Dolman, one of the seven founding friends of the community.

The surrounding area, stressed in the last decades by resources depletion and the growing danger of droughts and fires, also benefits from the existence of eighty acres of restored ecosystem. But Dolman doesn’t think there’s such a thing as a template for sustainable farmsteading to be replicated anywhere. Showing an unpretentious but articulated, factful knowledge, Brock Dolman insisted that people should listen to their predecessors rather than trying to follow strict formulas. In the Americas, modern agroforestry and multiple cropping can still learn from techniques already used along the Mississippi and in Mesoamerica before the arrival of Europeans, compatible with high yield techniques with increased resistance to pests.

When short term “economic health” blocks our “acts of creation”

Aldo Leopold had tried to spread the word about the need of a deeper, integrated environmentalism in which modern human societies could belong, though he was skeptical about what difference abstract education could make without the implication of experience and learning by doing. An unwritten moral code to engage with nature in a long-term, respectful way had to come through experience, as humans were natural tinkerers and knowledge could advance through a process of conjectures and refutations. A person —a farmer, an owner, a city dweller who relied on food systems he had come to take for granted and despise— had to be a steward of the land:

“I have read many definitions of what a conservationist is, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”

Society’s complacency with global energy, industrial, and food supplies highlights the fragility of a model relying on networks easy to undermine, clog and disrupt: “But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal-clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy,” stated Leopold in the foreword of A Sand County Almanac, which he later elaborated in Thinking Like a Mountain:

“Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know-how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree—and there will be one.”

Thinking like a mountain

Informed self-reliant and real-life, knowledgeable environmentalism did not disappear in Wisconsin with the Leopolds. In the early nineties, Mark and Jen Shepard left their previous life in Alaska and bought a cheap, degraded, 106-acre corn farm in Viola, Wisconsin. They began the ecological restoration of their property, transforming it into what they called the New Forest Farm.

Over three decades, Mark planted 250,000 trees, exploring natural patterns in a property that has become a valuable riparian habitat; a walk through the property shows the apparently aleatory patterns of the main agroforestry crops present: chestnuts, hazelnuts, and apples, followed by walnut, hickory, cherry, and pine (for the nuts). Several gardens hold annual crops, from grains to asparagus, and the roaming farm animals (cattle, pigs, lambs, turkeys, and chickens) provide valuable pest control nutrients.

Mark insists he transformed his formerly depleted monocrop farm into a restored property that generates an income for the family, from seeds to tree breeds he gets through a method he’s dubbed STUN (Sheer Total Utter Neglect), consisting in planting trees at random with the greatest-possible phenotype diversity, then letting pests and disease to help him pick the best specimens.

No matter how we call it, but the tradeoffs of post-modernity are accelerating a detachment from things that always mattered, such as learning how to improve our surroundings in a way that feels healthy to us, to our neighbors, to the surrounding culture and ecosystems, and to future interactions in the life-cycle of our corner of the world, a little perspective of the eternal return of things.

Here’s Aldo Leopold’s reflection of the times past. They were hard; he didn’t want to idealize his own version of the current social media-friendly homesteading fad. Yet he was sure modernity was bringing us away from important perspectives:

“Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of [passenger] pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?”