New Table from Historic Leopold Tree Arrives at Leopold Center

Director Mark Rasmussen and Chris Martin
Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Director Mark Rasmussen (left) and Chris Martin, Iowa State University professor of art and visual culture, with the new conference table made for LCSA from historic Leopold red oak. Photo by Chris Gannon, Iowa State University.

By its fall, the tree attests the unity of the hodge-podge called history.
-- from the essay, Good Oak, February in "A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold

Story by Ann Y. Robinson 

A new conference table has been delivered to its home in the office of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The table may be new, but it has a notable past.

Made of lumber from a large red oak tree, its story began in the 1880s in Burlington. It was planted by Charles and Marie Starker, to celebrate the birth of their first grandchild, Aldo. Or, depending on which descendent tells the story today, possibly this particular piece of wood came from the tree planted to mark the arrival of one of Aldo’s brothers, Carl or Frederic.  

Aldo grew up to become famous for writing the 1949 conservation classic, "A Sand County Almanac,” and founding the field of wildlife management. Carl and Frederic eventually took over the family furniture-making business. Their trees grew tall and broad to provide wildlife habitat and shade for the two adjacent Leopold family homes where they grew up on the bluffs of the Mississippi River. When a windstorm felled two of the Leopold siblings’ birth trees in 2013, the wood was salvaged by the Burlington city forester and volunteers and stored in an icehouse on the grounds.

Aldo Leopold's childhood home in Burlington, Iowa, in early 1900s, showing young red oak on the right. Photo courtesy of the Leopold Landscape Alliance.
Leopold red oak tree being sawed
Storm-felled Leopold red oak tree being sawed into lumber by Nelson Leopold Smith, a grandson of Carl Leopold. Photo courtesy of the Leopold Landscape Alliance.

Mark Rasmussen, Leopold Center director, learned of the wood when he was giving a presentation for the Leopold Landscape Alliance (LLA), which now owns the Leopold homes and the land on which they’re located. Rasmussen had an idea, hatched with LLA President Steven Brower -- use some of the wood to create something special for the center at Iowa State that honors Aldo Leopold’s name and the land ethics he promoted.

Rasmussen shared the idea with Chris Martin, Iowa State professor of art and visual culture and sustainable environments. Martin, an artist and artisan with a reverence for the natural world, has long had deep respect for Leopold and his writings. He took Rasmussen up on the offer of a commission to work with the wood. The two met, and in 2015, they travelled to Burlington to acquire some of the historic wood and start imagining what they could do with it.

Initially, they waited. The lumber needed more time to dry, so it was stacked in the rafters of Rasmussen’s garage.

Leopold conference table, held together with big clamps
The Leopold conference table under construction. Photo courtesy of Chris Martin, Iowa State University.

Inspiring table

Martin often says he’s not a big fan of red oak. “Red oak in Iowa is ubiquitous, so it’s usually not that exciting to work with,” he said. “But this wood was different. Its age and time in the icehouse gave it some nice character, and its history linked to Leopold, all made the project especially interesting and meaningful.” 

From the beginning, a table for the Leopold Center at Iowa State was part of the wood’s intended future. As Martin created his simple, slightly fluted design for the table, he said, "it became a “passion project.” The result was recently delivered to Rasmussen’s office in Curtiss Hall on campus.

The table’s polished top has the Leopold Center’s logo in the center, and a plaque underneath attests to the table’s heritage. Its unique legs and metal fittings are reminiscent of the brass brackets on surveying tripods from the early 1900s, something Aldo Leopold might have used in his work and travels.   

“It’s kind of inspiring to have it here,” Rasmussen said about the table. “I hope it will provide a tangible symbol of the center’s connection to the Leopold heritage for many years to come.”

Teaching sustainability

Before making the table, Martin used some of the oak as a special project for his wood design class. Students hand-crafted small, decorative boxes out of the wood while learning complex assembly techniques and working with power tools. Each box has an outline of an oak leaf and a quote from Aldo Leopold on its lid.

In the process, Martin had the students read “A Sand County Almanac” and consider how Aldo Leopold’s concepts of sustainability might apply today to their lives and careers.

The Leopold Center has used the boxes to share with special supporters. One of the students’ Leopold boxes now has a revered spot in the office of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Endowed Dean Chair Dan Robison, a Leopold fan and once a forestry professor.

Bowls made by Jim Spring, Frederic Leopold’s grandson, being sold at an event, “Ames Sees Leopold” in Ames, April 2016. Sharon Rasmussen, pictured, sitting. Photo by Carol Brown.

Wandering wood

Wood from the two Leopold birth trees has traveled far from the Leopold boys’ Burlington home. According to Brower, lumber from the downed trees has gone to a number of entities with links to the Leopold heritage and conservation mission, including the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie Center, Joliet, Ill.; the Leopold Foundation, Baraboo, Wisc.; and Les Cheneaux Club near Mackinac Island, Mich., where the Leopold family vacationed in the summers.

Some has stayed closer to home to be crafted into tables and a bed for the historic Leopold homes.  Other pieces have been used to create unique bowls, turned by Jim Spring, Frederic Leopold’s grandson, to support local conservation fundraisers.

“We still have a bit of the Leopold lumber left in Ames,” Rasmussen said. He and Martin intend to make good use of it.

About the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University was created through the 1987 Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. The Center's goals are to identify and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources as well as reducing negative environmental and social impacts.

About the Leopold Landscape Alliance

Aldo Leopold's birthplace and childhood homes in Burlington, Iowa are owned by the nonprofit Leopold Landscape Alliance. This re-unites the original Starker-Leopold compound for education and researcher/ writer/artist-in-residence programs. In addition to using the Leopold family homes for interpretation, the Alliance works on landscape scale conservation in the Iowa/Illinois Mississippi River region.  


This article is reprinted courtesy of Wallace's