The Rings of Life
Jeff Rennicke, English Teacher

Aldo Leopold’s famous essay “The Good Oak” was at the heart of the first week of lessons in “Wilderness Voices” (Conserve School’s English class). Using the experience of cutting down a lightning-struck oak tree on the property of his famous “Shack” in central Wisconsin, Leopold tells the tale of Wisconsin environmental history, cutting through the tree rings and the human relationship with the natural world.

Students doing an environmental history tree ring exercise in English Class.

To replicate the experience, students in English read the famous essay while sawing wood – smelling the same fragrant sawdust that Leopold wrote of, hearing the same singing of the saw, feeling the same ache in the muscles of the arms that Leopold himself felt, and cutting deeper and deeper into rings of the trees.

Two English students using a crosscut saw.

Then, using the tree rings as an example, students were led in an exercise to look deeply into their own environmental history. Each student was given a tree ring symbol. Using the center point as their date of birth and the outer ring as the moment they came to Conserve, students were asked to list three important dates in their lives that helped connect them with the natural world – books that they have read, camps they have attended, national parks visited, moments under the stars, collecting frogs, watching fireflies. Reflecting on both the environmental history of our state and their own “tree rings” in their relationship with nature, students sawed wood and looked deeply into their lives and the history of the world around them. Leopold would have loved it.

Photos contributed by Jeff Rennicke, English Teacher.