Aldo Leopold

A Sand County Almanac

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A Sand County Almanac Summary

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Recognized as one of the most important and influential books on nature and ecology ever penned, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold holds an honored place right alongside other similar classic, non-fiction nature writings, such as Thoreau’s Walden. The collection of essays, published in 1949, served as a seminal work for the early American conservation movement, and it continues to this day to be a cornerstone of modern environmentalism.

Although acknowledged and honored for his expertise in the areas of environmental science, philosophy, wildlife management, and forestry, with the publication of A Sand County Almanac Leopold gained great respect for a completely different type of skill — writing. Within his essays, the lifelong outdoorsman displayed an amazing adeptness with words that many say rivaled, or even surpassed, Thoreau. Certainly a similarity in writing styles can be seen, as Leopold (like Thoreau) uses powerful, vivid, even visceral language with great mastery. Leopold’s writing is poetic, yet, accessible; it is emotionally evocative, yet intellectually stimulating. And through it all, the core theme of the book — the interconnectedness of humans and nature, and the importance of maintaining harmony through what Leopold termed a responsible “land ethic” – weaves through every essay, every memoir, and every observation.

Starting with the foreword, it is quickly made clear what Leopold’s views are and what central theme will drive the collection. Perhaps it is expressed best when he writes, “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (page viii). There is no doubting how much Aldo Leopold loved and respected the land, and no doubt that his goal in writing the various works that would eventually make up A Sand County Almanac, was to reach the readers of his words in a way that would bring them to love and respect the land as well.

The book is a compilation of short writings that allow the reader to share in Leopold’s special view of the world, to experience it through his eyes via descriptive nature observations and personal anecdotal stories (and how the two interconnect). Structured into three unique sections, each serving a different purpose and expressing different themes that support the central theme of harmony between nature and humanity, the book walks the reader from the emotionally evocative, seasonal experiences at Leopold’s farm in Wisconsin, to the internal landscape of the writer’s (and reader’s) mind, where a more intellectual exploration of the theme is presented.

In section one, arranged under the heading, “A Sand County Almanac”, a series of essays are placed within twelve sections, each section representing a month of the year.  Between one and four essays are presented for each of the months. These essays use a wonderful sense of storytelling and Leopold’s gift of words to explore the living, changing ecosystem of his home near Baraboo, Wisconsin. (Leopold’s home was not actually in Sand County, as there is no such county in Wisconsin. The term refers to areas of the state with sandy soil.) These “sand county” essays explore the balanced interactions among the animals and plants of the region and the impact of the seasons on those interactions. There are observations on the end of winter and the “freedom from want and fear,” a theme that can be found in various pieces. The migration patterns of a returning flock of geese, marking the return of spring, act as metaphor for the idea of humanity’s eventual concept of “unity of nations.” There are spring floods, summer fishing, and diseased and dying autumn trees that transmute into living animals. Each anecdote and story gives insight into nature — educating, inspiring, and creating connection.

The seasonal epochs enjoyed through Leopold’s stories in section one, give way to a wider, sometimes darker, exploration of landscapes and important themes of consequence and responsibility in section two, titled: “Sketches Here and There.” (In some printings, the section is titled: “The Quality of Landscape.”) Here we are treated to a deeper understanding of the author himself, his formation through his experiences. These essays tend toward the biographical and historic, sharing many thoughts and experiences of Leopold’s time exploring various farms and wild places throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Indeed, the essays are divided thematically based on place. Many of these stories take a slightly darker turn, addressing issues such as declining natural habitats, consequences of overhunting, and the problem of invasive plants. However, the section is also filled with lovely and more light-hearted fare, such as the amusing observations of a Sierra Madre parrot and the story of a mysterious civilization that lived in harmony with the Gavilan River and could hear the local nature’s secret music.

In “The Upshot,” the last section of A Sand County Almanac, Leopold turns his focus more towards the philosophical and scientific. Having lead readers from the poetic beauty of a world in harmony and through a growing insight into the consequences of humanities disconnection, he now pulls us into the world of possibilities. Here he presents a thorough look at the issues with conservation: its importance, its ironies, and his concept of a “land ethic” — an ethic that promotes the idea of a responsible, respectful, connection between humanity and nature, where the focus is on an eco-centric, rather than anthropocentric, worldview. The essays address things such as the negative effects that outdoor recreation can have on wilderness, the importance of responsible wildlife management, and the need for science in helping to cure the land. The importance to Leopold of these ideas, and his attempt to guide the reader to a new perspective, can perhaps best be understood in his concluding essay, “The Land Ethic”: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (p. 224 – 225).