Thursday, December 15, 2022

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

Source of book: I own this - a gift from my in-laws. 


Aldo Leopold was, along with Rachel Carson, one of the most important founders of the modern environmental movement. Arguably, Thoreau was the philosophical forerunner of both, but the two of them were the ones whose writings really kicked off the focus on the view of the earth as an ecosystem, which we are a part of, rather than separate from us, to be exploited. 


That this idea is controversial, is, of course, a whole discussion in and of itself. 

 This cover shows one of the original illustrations by Charles Schwartz, 
which are included in the LoA edition.

A Sand County Almanac is a classic, the best known of Leopold’s works. In my Library of America edition, it is the first section, with the others being his uncollected environmental writings, journals, and letters. 


This particular book is also divisible into distinct sections, only one of which is about the “Sand County.” The Almanac is a series of short essays about the events of each month living in rural Wisconsin. Leopold bought a failed farm and shack there in the realm of sand and slough and spent his time (as far as I can tell from his essays) in some combination of farming, hunting, and birdwatching. It sounds like a pretty good life. Leopold’s writing is lovely, and he has a love for nature and a sense of careful observation that really resonates with me. 


Many of the essays are about birds: the geese, the cranes, the woodcock and his dance. Others are about trees and wildflowers and the last remaining bits of real tallgrass prairie. 


Leopold, like me and other lovers of nature, notes that we seem to be in a minority. We need the wild, or we are not healthy in mind or body. We also see, as he puts it, “a law of diminishing returns in progress” - that is, while modern technological advances have benefited us, the increase in standard of living eventually is diminished by the cost to nature, and more stuff doesn’t bring more happiness. This is the theme of the book, I think, the way that endless exploitation of nature destroys us as well as it. 


Another bit from the introduction really made me think. 


Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. 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. 


I am not sure the “abrahamic” concept of land is limited to the great monotheisms, but I think Leopold is right. Unfortunately, at this present time, what passes for Christianity in our world is fundamentally incompatible with sustainable living. As Leopold later discusses, the problem is that our exploitative lack of ethics is particularly notable in our treatment of the natural world we are a part of. Ultimately, we destroy ourselves when we devour the natural world. 


From the first section, there are a number of passages that I want to highlight. This one is from “The Alder Fork - A Fishing Idyl.” 


I sit in happy meditation on my rock, pondering, while my line dries again, upon the ways of trout and men. How like fish we are: ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time! And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook. 


Another one I love is from “Great Possessions,” a description of his birdwatching (and listening) at daybreak. He describes his property as if it were an old estate, with tenants - the animals which inhabit his woods. 


At 3:30 AM, with such dignity as I can muster of a July morning, I step from my cabin door, bearing in either hand my emblems of sovereignty, a coffee pot and notebook. 


I’m not a morning person, although I will get up early for an adventure. And sometimes to go chase birds with my camera


In “Prairie Birthday,” Leopold talks about the distinct dates of flowering of various prairie wildflowers, specifically in a tiny corner of a graveyard where a patch of wildness still existed. 


Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.


The second section is “Sketches Here and There,” and continue the idea of small snapshots. In this case, rather than being of a particular time on his land, the essays are about particular places. Wisconsin, of course, but also Illinois and Iowa, Arizona and New Mexico, Chihuahua and Sonora, Oregon and Utah, and Manitoba. These are all places Leopold worked or explored during his years with the Forest Service - he would later serve as a professor at the University of Wisconsin. 


One particularly moving moment is in one of the essays about New Mexico. Part of his job with the Forest Service back in the 1920s was to kill bears and wolves. Yes, those were the days, and they pretty much exterminated grizzlies and wolves from the lower states. Leopold at one time killed a wolf, and talked about “"fierce green fire dying in her eyes." He was shaken, and thereafter advocated for the necessary role of apex predators in ecosystems - and he was completely correct about that. Later, Bruce Babbitt, then Secretary of the Interior, talked about Leopold’s influence when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. 


In this section as well, there are some moments of gorgeous language. I like this one from “Marshland Elegy” in the section about Wisconsin. 


Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words. 


I agree. I find condors - not the most “pretty” of birds, to be beautiful in that unspeakable way. 


Another passage, about the Passenger Pigeons that used to blot out the sky in the Midwest but are now all gone forever, really struck me as profound. 


It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live, a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise. 


There are so many implications of evolution and deep time that a certain subculture (the white, conservative - and especially Evangelical subculture) are resistant to, and this is one of them. The true religious beliefs - capitalism, money, social hierarchy, supremacy - are threatened by the truth that we are a part of nature, and not an exception to it. Which is why “christianity” has become so syncretistic as to be unrecognizable. One of these sorts is described in “On Top,” about an Arizona plateau.


The old man was dead now; in his later years his heart had thrilled only to his bank account and to the tally of his flocks and herds…


As Wordsworth put it:


The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!


The last section is four essays on conservation. These encapsulate Leopold’s philosophy, and are outstanding. 


The first, “Conservation Esthetic,” examines the question of what benefits and harms tourism causes, and how it can be made better. For Leopold, the endless building of roads is a problem, and even more so, the way that being out in nature has increasingly become an industry, with more and more gadgets to mediate the experience. This is something many of us have noted, even as we enjoy the modern advances that make it easier to be out in nature. In my case, everything from comfortable boots to my trailer that has extended our camping and hiking season dramatically falls in this category. 


But how about this conclusion Leopold comes to about what the real benefit of outdoor recreation is - the chance that more of us perceive that we are a part of nature. The advantage is that there is no tradeoff involved here. One person gaining in perspective does not diminish it for others, or for the natural world. This is why, in a later essay, he advocates for a shift in recreation away from hunting and fishing (because of overharvesting among other things) toward a more esoteric hunt - scientific research by amateurs (such as birdcounts) and the kind of hunting I do with my camera. All the thrills, yet no loss to flora and fauna. 


To promote perception is the only truly creative part of recreational engineering. 


The essay, “Wildlife in American Culture” is fascinating. Even though it was written nearly 75 years ago, already Leopold was seeing the trends that would accelerate into the present. Specifically, the way that media has gone from information and idea based to sales-based. Magazines about nearly every sort of outdoor recreation are pretty much sales catalogs for gadgets now. Infotising. 


The sportsman has no leaders to tell him what is wrong. The sporting press no longer represents sport; it has turned billboard for the gadgeteer. 


“The Land Ethic” concludes the collection. And it is profound. It starts with the idea that ethics is really no more than symbiosis reduced to thought. “Does this lead to thriving or not?” While the complexity of co-operative mechanisms has increased as populations have grown, the idea is still the same. It is a regulation of behavior for the common good. (This is what the American Right Wing has completely forgotten, making “ethics” into a combination of “might makes right” and “nothing should ever change.” Leopold tells an interesting historical story: the way that we went from considering women and children to be chattel to seeing them as having rights - in other words, as being governed by ethics, not expediency. 


During the three thousand years which have since elapsed [since Homer], ethical criteria have been extended to many fields of conduct, with corresponding shrinkages in those judged by expediency only.


And this is the great shift that Leopold sees as necessary for ecological survival. We need to see our relationship to the nature we are a part of in light of ethics, not expediency. We need to see environmental harmony and sustainability not as a matter of “what profit is there to be made” but as an ethical issue. As we would not countenance the treatment of women as property (at least most of us wouldn’t), we should not tolerate the treatment of the ecosystem our lives depend on as something to be bought and sold by the wealthy. 


I want to end, therefore, with one final observation. 


In human history, we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating. Why? Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what or who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and this is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves. 


This book is both beautiful and sobering. It is encouraging that Leopold was able to start a movement that many of us are a part of. It is discouraging that the pillagers of nature continue to win. And it is not comforting to know that this will be self-defeating, because self-extermination is the most pyrrhic of victories. I think my kids’ generation understands this better than mine - and a hell of a lot better than most of my parents’ generation, raised as they were on a belief in the inexhaustibility of nature and the imperative to conquer exploit. Let us all hope that the future will be better. 


Take a look at this book, both for its beauty, and for Leopold’s true ethic of sustainability and symbiosis. 




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