“I’ve been coming here since I was three. My first memory of this place, I was knee deep in the marsh with my brother’s old, oversized boots on … mud was sliding over the top of the boot and slithering down to my toes, that, of course, were wiggling and wriggling in the cool wet muck.”
At Aldo Leopold Nature Center (ALNC), memories like Althea’s, a Junior Naturalist, are created every day, and upon arrival, it isn’t hard to see why. Situated on nearly 20 acres of restored prairie, basswood forest, oak savanna, and wetland habitats—and nestled between Woodland Park and Edna Taylor Conservation Area—the nature center provides the perfect spot to explore the land and connect with nature, especially for the youngest adventurers among us.
“I clearly remember the tall cattails swaying in the wind … and that I wasn't paying much attention to the list of creatures living in the marsh that the naturalist was calling out. That is, until I heard, ‘And snapping turtles.’ I spent the rest of that hot sunny afternoon catching tadpoles and identifying life in the pond.”
Through immersive educational programs, such as school field trips, summer camps, preschool, home school, and after-school programs, and family-friendly public events, such as Maple Syrup Fest and Fall Fest, ALNC is leading the way to engage, educate, and empower the next generation of land stewards for a healthy, happy, and sustainable future by providing a conduit for children and adults to build connections and foster memories.
“My eighth grade year was very hard. It was an awful year. When summer came, my parents signed me up for ALNC’s Porcupine Mountain backpacking trip. It was my very first week away from my parents and I was terrified. But when we returned Friday evening and my mom was waiting for me in the parking lot, I wasn't ready to go home. Something changed … I had the most amazing experience.”
The benefits of getting outside and building connections with the world extend far beyond the time spent outdoors, and at ALNC, we see it firsthand. Unlike a generation ago, children today have little exposure to the outdoors, with most children—especially those from economically challenged homes—spending just 1 percent of their time outside, missing out on the countless benefits a connection with the natural world provides. Study after study has shown that children who participate in nature-based programs, like those offered at ALNC, reap physical, emotional, academic, cognitive, and even transcendental benefits, such as better overall physical and mental health, improved academic scores and test performance, and greater respect for oneself, others, and the environment.
“On the trip, I had gotten to know the leaders, Virginia and Brian. I was able to open up to them and gain trust and admiration for them. I also made two new friends, Jenna and Liam, who are now two of my best friends and whom I refer to as my nature Brother and Sister. The whole trip was truly life changing. That week away was incredibly cleansing after an awful year … to tromp through the mountains, away from the city, and be so exhausted and sore at the end of the day, to then just wake up and do it all again … it honestly changed my perspective and made life that year a little easier.”
It’s through these connections with the land and with our community that magic occurs. When we, young and old alike, get outside and connect with the earth, something happens, and our perspective on life changes. When we walk the prairie or hike the basswood forest, noticing seasonal changes and cherishing the fleeting sights, we are connecting with the bigger world and gaining an appreciation and an understanding of our earth, our home. We are, in our own ways, adopting Aldo Leopold’s land ethic.
“I have percolated my dreams at ALNC. I want to go to college and major in vocational rehabilitation. I want to help people with disabilities get out into nature on backpacking, canoeing, and camping trips. I have learned from the nature center that everybody needs a connection to nature, and my dream is to ensure that people who have been told they can’t [are given a chance to] get into nature. I want to share the joy nature brings me with people who might not get the chance.”
Aldo Leopold wrote, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” With his awareness of interdependence and responsibility, Leopold proposed establishing harmony between people and nature as a moral obligation. In return for this harmonious relationship, we experience meaning and purpose, coexistence, inner peace, joy in nature, and sustainability.
In light of stories like Althea’s and visions like Leopold’s, the ALNC is looking forward to the next 25 years. After recently engaging our community in strategic planning, a new energy is moving through the nature center, and, in the spirit of Aldo Leopold, we have reaffirmed our mission to engage and educate current and future generations, empowering them to respect, protect, and enjoy the natural world.
In addition to our core programming, we’re gearing up for some exciting new initiatives, starting with accessibility. This year, we are expanding equitable access by eliminating public admission fees to all of our exhibits and indoor play spaces by working with community partners to strengthen and expand our scholarship programs and by opening our family-friendly events to the public at no charge.
And this is only the beginning. Stay tuned…
“My mother grew up in the woods and wanted my brother and I to have the same experience, but was worried she couldn’t provide it since we lived in the city. She was thrilled that she found the Aldo Leopold Nature Center when my older brother was little … and frankly, I am too.”
Cara Erickson is the Marketing & Communications Manager at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.
Aldo Leopold Nature Center
330 Femrite Drive
Monona, WI 53716