In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold refers to the trees, plants, and wildlife living near him as his neighbors, which of course they were. I was captivated from the second paragraph of the foreword.
“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”
Almost 70 years have passed since Aldo Leopold penned the above words, yet they are just as pertinent today as when he wrote them on March 4, 1948.
I was pleased to discover a 1970 extended version of the book while browsing in a second-hand bookstore on a trip to Seattle, WA. The book I bought and read is entitled A Sand County Almanac: with Essays on Conservation from Round River.
A Sand County Almanac: with Essays on Conservation from Round River is a collection of writings by Aldo Leopold about life on his farm, wilderness and wildlife, and conservation. The essays and journal notes are grouped into four parts.
Part I: A Sand County Almanac
The setting for this part of the book is a derelict farm with sandy soils situated in Sauk County, Wisconsin that Leopold and his family purchased and rehabilitated over a period of years.
Leopold recounts what he and his wildlife neighbors were doing each month during the year. For instance, in the following excerpt from “May,” Leopold describes his visitors just in from Argentina, the upland plovers.
“There he sits: his whole being says it’s your next move to absent yourself from his domain. The county records may allege that you own this pasture, but the plover airily rules out such trivial legalities. He has just flown 4000 miles to reassert the title he got from the Indians, and until the young plovers are a-wing, this pasture is his, and none may trespass without his protest.”
Part II: The Quality of the Landscape
This section contains stories about the places Leopold lived and visited with a focus on conservation.
During a fishing trip in Mexico, Leopold marveled at one of the best examples of healthy land he had ever seen, the Rio Gavilan. In “Song of the Gavilan,” he bemoans the degraded watersheds in the United States.
“The life of every river sings its own song, but in most the song is long since marred by the discords of misuse. Overgrazing first mars the plants and then the soil. Rifle, trap, and poison next deplete the larger birds and mammals; then comes a park or forest with roads and tourists. Parks are made to bring music to the many, but by the time many are attuned to hear it there is little left but noise.”
Part III: A Taste for Country
A selection of Leopold’s essays and journal entries from his hunting, fishing, and exploring trips and his musings about conservation make up this part of the book.
Leopold lays out his definition of conservation in “The Round River.”
“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend: you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and co-operate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the co-operations. You can regulate them—cautiously—but not abolish them.”
Part IV: The Upshot
The book closes with the culmination of Leopold’s lifelong learning and ideas about conservation in the main essay entitled “The Land Ethic.” He proposes that we expand our concept of community and ethical behavior to include soils, waters, plants, and animals.
“A land, ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”
About Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold was a keen observer of nature, an original thinker, and thankfully a good chronicler of his experiences and ideas. He was a husband, father, forester, conservationist, philosopher, outdoorsman, and a college professor. He is often called the father of wilderness conservation in the United States.
Leopold was born in Iowa in 1887. As a child, he learned about plants, animals, hunting, wilderness, and adventure. In 1909, he earned a master’s degree in forestry and landed a job with the U.S. Forest Service in the southwest where he promoted radical ideas like managing wildlife game species, setting aside land for wilderness, and the importance of watersheds.
He married Estella Bergere in 1912 and the first of their five children was born in 1913. During the next couple of decades, Leopold had ups and downs at the U.S. Forest Service, worked at other jobs, and suffered debilitating illnesses.
In 1933, Leopold became the director and teacher of a new graduate program in game management at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. While at the University, he was instrumental in establishing the UW Arboretum with the purpose of recreating a sample of Wisconsin’s prairies, marshes, and woodlands as they were before the pioneers had settled the land.
A Sand County Almanac literally has roots in 1935 when Leopold bought an abandoned farm on the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, with a shack for a house, and began restoring the land by planting thousands of tree seedlings with his family. When he died in 1948, the land was beautiful, restored, and mostly wild.
The Bottom Line
Aldo Leopold’s writing is lyrical, enlightening, and often humorous. He was a good storyteller and he explained complex ideas in an understandable manner. If he was still alive today, I bet he would be in high demand as a speaker in environmental, hunting, and philosophical circles.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Sand County Almanac: with Essays on Conservation from Round River and I believe that Leopold’s ideas about conservation are important and still relevant today. In fact, if mid 20th-century citizens and politicians had implemented Leopold’s land ethic concepts, we would be a lot further along in acting as if we are part of nature instead of separate from it.
“Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.”
Reader Note: The above photo of Aldo Leopold preparing a journal note at the shack in Sauk County, WI in 1946 is courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
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