2006: The view from ‘The Shack’ - Golf & Environment
Thursday, June 30, 2011
It was a beautiful fall day in central Wisconsin, and rather than play golf, I was off with my wife in search
of an obscure cabin in the woods.
We were with Monroe Miller, a veteran superintendent from Blackhawk Country Club, a private club located 40 miles to the south near Madison, where he has worked for 34 years. Miller worked the grounds that morning, then joined us on our pilgrimage in search of Aldo Leopold’s world.
Leopold (1887-1948) was among America’s early naturalist writers and students of wildlife management.
He held the country’s first professorship in the subject and was a fixture at the University of Wisconsin – this after a career in park management and wildlife conservation that took him across the United States.
In 1935, Leopold bought an abandoned farm 12 miles northeast of Baraboo, in Sauk County. The property included an old chicken coop, and for the last 13 years of his life, Leopold came to the farm on weekends, for summer getaways and with his graduate students to talk and take field notes. He stayed, as did his family and visiting students, in that little chicken coop.
Known as “the shack,” the chicken coop was all of about 15 feet wide by 22 feet long, with
a wooden floor, bunk beds, a small writing table and no plumbing. Here, Leopold wrote what would become one of the best-selling classics of nature writing, the posthumously published “A Sand County Almanac.”
Miller, a longtime student of Wisconsin history, also is the editor of and chief contributor to the Wisconsin Golf Course Superintendents Association’s award-winning journal, The Grass Roots. He has visited Leopold’s shack many times, sometimes with another dedicated ecologist and researcher/writer, Cornell University associate professor Frank Rossi, who writes for our sister publication, Golfweek’s SuperNews. On this trip, Miller admits to us that every visit to “the shack” is as magical as the first.
“Each time, as I get on the farm road and approach the shack, my heart starts to flutter,” he says. “It’s so exciting.”
Reading and re-reading Leopold’s simple yet powerful book produces a similar effect. The message is clear, the detailed observations acute. Leopold was a close observer of all things natural, whether the migratory patterns of waterfowl, the history of plant succession on farm fields or the layers of ecological history to be found in the concentric rings of an 80-year-old oak.
Leopold was not a golfer, but golfers could become better naturalists if they absorbed some of his teachings and took the plant and animal world more seriously. Leopold called it “the land ethic.” Think of it as something just a little more varied than pursuit of “the par ethic.”
The cause of environmentalism in golf would be helped considerably if more golfers were actively in touch with the outdoors. Here, after all, is a game enriched with elements of the natural world in the manner of landforms, animal habitat, trees and other flora. Yet too many golfers, I fear, see wetlands as an unpleasant hazard, or animals as a source of dirt and disruption.
The elements play a considerable role in the four-hour round. It makes all the difference whether conditions are rainy, windy, sunny or overcast. Even more important is whether
the golf course is one that is pleasing and at one with the plant material and native topography, or whether it’s one of those manufactured, forced designs with harshly artificial edging and “signature” features like waterfalls, platform tees and 12-foot-wide, curbed cart paths.
I wish I could say with confidence that most golfers prefer a more natural, organic golf experience. But if that really were the case, would the overwhelming majority of golfers today trundle off to their rounds in motorized chariots?
My own anecdotal evidence is that golfers who prefer to walk have a more appreciative relationship with plants, animals and the land during a round.
Some people just focus on playing their games. Others take time to survey their surroundings before and after they’ve played their shots. The common reminder for this originally was articulated decades ago by Walter Hagen, who said “take time to smell the roses” during a round. Hagen, however, was a bit off the mark, because roses are a highly cultivated species that have no place on a golf course.
The invocation should be something like “take time to inventory the birdlife, mammals and diverse species of native rough you find out there.” Now that would be paying attention to the natural wonders that a golf course affords.
Our hope at Golfweek is that this Golf & Environment package provides some pleasant things to consider during your next rounds of golf. Whether it’s Michael J. Stott on golf course wildlife, Paul Thomas on the value of wetlands or Mike Bailey on how the golf industry finally has embraced the cause of ecology, the articles in this special section are designed to make golf more enjoyable.
If this time the emphasis is on birds, not birdies, and on Leopold’s shack, not the caddie shack, it’s because we always are looking for new ways to look at and appreciate the game.