Speakers at Eau Claire’s first Aldo Leopold banquets years ago were frequently interrupted by rumbling overhead.
It sounded like an approaching thunderstorm, but audience members were really hearing bowling balls above them. The dinner was held in the basement of the Hilltop Recreation Center at UW-Eau Claire, home to bowling alleys. This was the location of the Environmental Adventure Center.
As part of the event, students in the university’s outdoor club held a wild game feed and listened to speakers with a conservation message. Invited speakers talked about a range of subjects in addition to Aldo Leopold, but it became known as the Leopold banquet.
The Leopold banquet eventually outgrew the Hilltop basement and moved to quieter and more spacious locations that included the Westgate Sportsman’s Club, Eau Claire Rod & Gun Club and the old UW-Eau Claire Davies Center.
As the event grew students couldn’t come up with enough ducks and deer to feed the growing masses, so they had to start serving regular food. The attendees were more respectable. Even the university chancellor came.
The last year it was held was 2015 — at least that’s the last record I could find. That year the UW-Eau Claire Environmental Adventure Center partnered with the university’s American Indian Studies Department, and the 10th annual banquet took place in Wabasha, Minn., at the confluence of the Chippewa and Mississippi rivers.
That event occurred at the conclusion of a “water walk” by Ojibway leaders who traversed the length of the Chippewa River, part of an attempt to bring attention to water quality issues.
The relocation was part of an effort to involve the greater public in the Leopold banquet. But it remained mainly a UW-Eau Claire event and fundraiser.
Now the Lower Chippewa River Alliance, comprised of academics, sportsmen’s clubs, activists and others, is trying to re-establish a Leopold-based event to bring his writings to a wider audience.
The first Eau Claire Reads Leopold event will be Saturday, March 3, at L.E. Phillips Public Library in Eau Claire.
In 1933, Leopold left a job with the U.S. Forest Products Lab in Madison to take on the newly created position as professor of game management in the UW-Madison department of agricultural economics.
Leopold was a prolific writer for academic and popular publications. His 1933 book “Game Management” was the major work in that new field, but it was his essays in “A Sand County Almanac,” reflections on nature gleaned from an abandoned 80-acre farm near Baraboo, that garnered Leopold acclaim.
Leopold died of an apparent heart attack at age 62 in spring 1949 while fighting a grass fire near a shack on that property. “A Sand County Almanac” was published later that year.
In 2000 Lodi, north of Madison, held its first “Lodi Reads Leopold” event in an attempt to bring Leopold’s ideas to a wider audience. Readers took turns reading different passages from “A Sand County Almanac” until they finished around 10 p.m.
Other communities around the state began holding Leopold-related events. In 2004 the state Legislature designated the first weekend in March as Aldo Leopold Weekend.
Eau Claire reading
The Eau Claire version of reading Leopold will not be a marathon reading session, said Sean Hartnett, president of the Alliance and a UW-Eau Claire geographer.
Eau Claire Reads Leopold will take place from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and will include a 12:30 p.m. screening of “Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time,” an Emmy Award-winning documentary film. The Leopold Foundation has waived fees for using the movie for this event.
“We’d like to involve as much of the community as we can. You don’t have to stay for the duration,” Hartnett said. “I think it’s read best when there are many voices reading — old, young, male, female.”
Hartnett was a regular speaker at the old Leopold banquets, always centered on a Leopold theme. In more recent years, Hartnett said, the banquet and speakers strayed from those themes and had a greater emphasis on fundraising.
This year event organizers want to focus on Leopold and his thoughts and writing, Hartnett said.
“Not only Leopold, but ‘A Sand County Almanac’ will be front and center,” he said.
However, the exact agenda is a work in progress, Hartnett said.
“A Sand County Almanac” starts with short observations about nature and wildlife from each month spent at the family’s fixer-upper of a farm along the Wisconsin River. Discussion at this year’s Eau Claire Leopold event will begin with different readers covering each month.
Also included as part of the event are planned discussions about “Thinking Like a Mountain” and “The Land Ethic,” two of Leopold’s best-known essays.
Everyone is invited to read and discuss their favorite Leopold quote. If the quote was already covered in the earlier readings from the almanac, that’s OK, Hartnett said, noting he plans to hand out worksheets used by Leopold in his classes.
Hartnett still uses them in a conservation class he teaches, assigning teams of students to research different animals, then producing a flow chart on how the different animals interact in the environment.
He said there may not be time to do the entire exercise at the Leopold event, but people will at least get an idea of what it was to be a student in one of Leopold’s classes.
Knight is a freelance writer who lives in the town of Seymour.