University of Wisconsin Arboretum

In 1934, at the dedication of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum (UWA), Aldo Leopold presented a “new and different idea” for an arboretum, a “land laboratory” devoted to ecological restoration. The UWA would be transformed into “a sample of original Wisconsin... a starting point in the long and laborious job of building a civilized landscape.”

Joining the pioneer ecologist on stage was John Nolen. In 1911, he authored Wisconsin’s first city plan, which included a recommendation for an arboretum “on the border of [Madison’s] open country, farmland and forest.” The venerable civic reformer had returned to receive an honorary degree and, in his acceptance speech, Nolen seconded Leopold: the nation needed a laboratory for conducting experiments “to repair the physical, biological and aesthetic wastes since... our stern Puritan forbearers subdued nature to their needs for liberty.”

Leopold and Nolen spent their careers redefining American ideals to procure a “civilized landscape.” They understood the foibles of the human species, but they believed, like Jefferson, that “the laws of nature” provided an ethical guide for creating a healthier, more admirable civilization. Educators as well as professionals, they sought to embellish the landscape with, Leopold wrote, “lifelong opportunities for study and even experimentation.”

Their influence would reach Rollins, helping advance what Hamilton Holt called, in a 1932 letter to Nolen, “our adventure in common sense education.” In 1931, the college hosted The Curriculum for the Liberal Arts College Conference, and Holt valued the input of Nolen, a Harvard instructor. Following Holt’s cue and Nolen’s sagacity, Rollins joined with the Elizabeth Morse-Genius Foundation to transform the Genius Reserve into a “living laboratory" with UWA as the model. This “adventure in common sense education” is chronicled in “Ecological Restoration: Cultivating a "Civilized Landscape" in the Liberal Arts,” which appeared in the December 2006 issue of Ecological Restoration, published by the University of Wisconsin Press.


“Ecological Restoration: Cultivating a "Civilized Landscape" in the Liberal Arts.” Bruce Stephenson. Ecological Restoration. December, 2006.

Ecological Restoration (Published by the University of Wisconsin Press)

University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum