Marc C. Hirrel, Leopold Education Project (Arkansas)

Late Autumn mornings are times to go on a hike and follow red lanterns to new discoveries. Fall is when deep breaths bring a chill to your lungs and sunlight paints mosaics of light and shadow on the ground. Not long on my path, I discover a fallen tree. Recent storms likely brought the old tree down, but not before fungi and insects had used up most of it. What was left was a mass of spongy woody tissue and little to identify it. Oak? Hickory? Pine?


Yet, even in death, the tree hides, feeds, and waters a myriad of organisms. A mighty fortress for those it harbors and protects. A biology course in every square inch awaits the curious. Tuition is the time you are willing to spend exploring.


Aldo Leopold’s farm on the Wisconsin River was in many ways like South Fork. He wrote,

“Every farm woodland, in addition to yielding lumber, fuel, and posts, should provide its owner with a liberal education.”

Like Aldo, I realized there are as many tree diseases as there are trees here in our woods. Leopold wished “that Noah, when he loaded up the Ark had left the tree diseases behind. But it soon became clear that these same diseases made my woodlot a mighty fortress, unequaled in the whole county.”

As in his essay, “A Mighty Fortress”, our “woods is headquarters for a family of coons.” And judging by their size, the eats at South Fork are pretty good.


Game cameras were placed near burrows at six locations around South Fork. Most of the burrows are in or under fallen trees that “… offers an impregnable fortress for coon-dom.”


Over a two week period in mid November images were collected of some burrow inhabitants along with other nightly browsers.

Clockwise from top left: Virginia opossum, White tail deer, Armadillo, Grey squirrel, Grey fox
Clockwise from top left: Virginia opossum, White tail deer, Armadillo, Grey squirrel, Grey fox

On your next hike through our woods take note of those mighty fortress oaks. Who pays rent in downed pines? Will negotiations work out so everyone wins or is all Hell going to break out? Our mighty fortresses are full of mystery and political intrigue written in the landscape of the South Fork Nature Center.

(A Mighty Fortress is a November essay in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac)