Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold had a long career working with and studying nature as a government forester, university professor, founder of the discipline of wildlife management. He is remembered as author and popular proponent of wilderness based on his book A Sand County Almanac.

A Sand County Almanac is a collection of essays in three parts. The first part is a tour of his Wisconsin farm covering each month of the year. Actually, it is not a farm in the sense of being a business that produces food and fiber. It was abandoned as a farm and hiding place for illegal stills when Leopold bought it as a semi-wild getaway. To be fair, though, it was abandoned as a farm because of practices that destroyed much of its productive capacity, and Leopold’s theme is land management. He approaches that theme gently in the first part. A reader can have the sense of strolling around the place with Leopold as he points out the plants and animals that live there, full-time or seasonally, and shares his enthusiasm for them.

In the second part, Leopold expands the scope to cover many places in the central and western United States, and even a few places in Mexico and Canada. These essays also recount his personal experiences relating to wild lands. In some of these essays he begins to touch more firmly on points of land management and policy.

In the final part, Leopold’s essays are more direct. The point of the book is that, if Americans, or people generally, want to have a rich landscape, wildlife, and land that is productive for generations, we need to value land in a new way and take new approaches to managing it.

The culmination of this discussion is the land ethic. Ethics are essentially about community, and the appropriate and acceptable relationships between the members of the community and each member and the community as a whole. A land ethic treats the land as a part of the community. In land, Leopold includes “soils, waters, plants, and animals.” Land is a part of our community that produces things of both economic and ineffable value. The land ethic implies that we have obligations to each other and to the land to conserve it. Conservation isn’t simply a matter or protecting specific areas, plants or animals. There is a place for policy, but the ethic is also individual, and a successful conservation efforts will mean landowners will need to treat the land and something inherently valuable. We would conserve ethically out of a sense of humility, realizing that the land is much more complex that we understand, and that our progress can outpace our understanding with possibly irreversible undesirable results.

Reconnecting to the land, and learning to value it, is encouraged by Leopold. Arguably, the first two parts of the book are intended to give the reader a sense of connection to the land. On the policy front, he suggests that many of the things we do to connect people to wilderness is destroying the wilderness. A land ethic could be a curative for this because aware people could connect to the land (especially wild plants and animals) close to home, even in cities, and be able to appreciate even wilder places from a distance. He goes so far as to suggest that amateur wildlife research could become a new type of sportsmanship, and cites cases were amateurs managing their own small plots have contributed to our understanding of wildlife.

It should be noted that, in addition to being a collection of thoughtful essays on nature, A Sand County Almanac is beautifully written. He can be poetical and political in the same sentence, such as “Hemisphere solidarity is new among statesmen, but not among the feathered navies of the sky.” He expresses himself with a gentle, homey cynicism as when he wrote, “Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.”

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If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches from Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

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