69 pages 2 hours read

Aldo Leopold

A Sand County Almanac

Nonfiction | Essay Collection | Adult | Published in 269

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Summary and Study Guide


A Sand County Almanac is a 1949 nonfiction book by the American naturalist and writer Aldo Leopold. The book is structured as a series of essays, beginning with Leopold’s description of a year on his farm and progressing to a series of essays on humanity’s relationship with nature, culminating in an argument for an ethical approach to the land. Published by Oxford University Press a year after Leopold’s death, the book is credited with having a significant role in the American conservation movement and continues to be a bestseller.


The book opens in January, amid a thaw following a midwinter blizzard on Leopold’s Wisconsin farm, where Leopold describes following the various animal tracks and traces. From here, he goes on to describe other observations he makes on the farm—particularly, the appreciation of where his food and fuel come from. The fuel comes from an oak felled by a lightning bolt, through which Leopold saws, contemplating along the way how each ring of the tree’s trunk corresponds to a year in the United States’ history. As the year moves into March, Leopold notes the return of the geese, following the path of their annual migration. On their journey north, geese are perpetuating an ancient cycle, helped by a relatively modern development: the existence of farmers’ fields, where geese can feast on corn before continuing their journey. Leopold also makes note of the environmental destruction taking place around him, including the loss of prairie flora such as Silphium.

As the year moves into autumn, Leopold describes how, by watching the signs on the landscape, he’s able to hunt grouse successfully, especially when aided by his dog’s powerful sense of smell. In the final months of the year, Leopold takes stock of his woodlot: the pests that have damaged its trees, creating better habitat for a variety of species than a pest-free woodlot could provide, and the different species of pines he has planted, each in the particular conditions that will allow them to flourish.

In Part 2, Leopold describes some of the locations in which he’s learned the principles of conservation, beginning with a Wisconsin marsh populated by sandhill cranes that in some ways is little changed from prehistoric times. Nonetheless, the marsh has been significantly altered by human hands, first by draining and then by reflooding. Leopold then describes another Wisconsin location: a wild river on which he met two young men on a canoe trip, celebrating a window of freedom before they had to join the army. The existence of wild spaces is crucial to the exercise of this freedom, Leopold notes.

In an essay on Arizona and New Mexico, Leopold describes the White Mountain, where he ventured on horseback as a youth and once killed a wolf under the conviction that removing predators would be better for herds of deer. As Leopold goes on to explore in the rest of the book, such actions in fact have a cascade of deleterious consequences for ecosystems, including the destruction of vegetation through overgrazing by deer. In the close of Part 2, Leopold visits another marsh, this time in Manitoba, where he searches for traces of the Western grebe, whose knowledge of the world, he says, exceeds that possessed by humanity.

In Part 3, Leopold argues for the cultivation of useless hobbies, particularly when they have to do with the outdoors. These hobbies can greatly enrich humanity’s understanding of the world, he writes, describing various amateur naturalists whose observations of wild phenomena expanded science’s knowledge of wild species and processes. That the contributions of these hobbyists are not always valued is a function of institutional science that prioritizes laboratory work and book learning without considering the importance of engaging with the natural world.

Part 4 sees Leopold arguing for the development of a land ethic whereby the conservation of nature can be ensured. Economic value and self-interest are antithetical to the conservation of nature, he writes; whether that economic value takes the form of resource development or outdoor recreation, any activity that considers the revenue that can be extracted from the land rather than the intrinsic value of that land and its right to exist will result in destruction. Nonetheless, Leopold sees hope in the widespread development of a capacity for perception among the American people. As more people come to perceive the beauty and complexity of ecosystems, he writes, so, too, will they argue for their preservation.

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