I first encountered A Sand County Almanac when I was in high school biology. At the time I suppose I thought that the teacher (I forgot his name) was just wasting time reading selections from Aldo Leopold book to use, but in hindsight I wonder if I should have appreciated his generosity in sharing Leopold’s words with us. In any case, I did not appreciate it at the time. There is nothing I can do about my ignorance and the lack of curiosity I had as a teenage. I wonder if I went to high school in any place except Wisconsin, would my teacher have had the same relationship to Leopold? (The growth of importance of the text is certainly ending whatever provincial character it had.) I can say, living now in Taiwan, at the time of year that I miss my home state most of all, reading Leopold’s little book is a joyous experience. While living in Taiwan, I suspended by Library of America subscription, but I did make a point of having this recent publication shipped here. Published in 2013, the LOA collection of Leopold’s writings is a wonderful contribution to the series.
For those who have not read A Sand County Almanac, I can only urge that they pick it up. It only takes a couple hours to read through the first section, the almanac proper. It is a series of vignettes from his life on a rather unproductive farm in Sauk county Wisconsin. The vignettes are arranged throughout the year, starting with “January Thaw” and ending with “65290” (about chickadee’s winter survival). Each month has at least one story, some have several. This is followed by a broader set of essays set in other parts of Wisconsin or in other states but like the almanac are autobiographical and tell complex stories of ecological systems through his own experiences. The first part are some of his more formal essays on conservation, including “The Land Ethic.”
Leopold always combines a serious scientific approach while casting doubt on the human ability to understand the minds, perspectives, and lives of the animals he writes about. Much of the power of the work comes from his subtle celebration of the diversity and otherness of the natural world. The reader sees this in his attempt to explain the inexplicable survival of chickadee 65290, banded by Leopold as part of his local conservation work. Falling short of learning very much, the banding experience gave Leopold a chance to just enjoy being in awe of the otherness of the chickadee, and in particular this small life. “I know so little about birds that I can only speculate on why 65290 survived his fellows. Was he more clever in dodging his enemies? What enemies? A chickadee is almost too small to have any. That whimsical fellow called Evolution, having enlarged the dinosaur until he tripped over his own toes, tried shrinking the chickadee until he was just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat. Then he regarded his handiwork and laughed. Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.” (81–82) Even in the small locale of his farm and surrounding forests, there was so much unknown about the plants and animals. One need not travel far to find radical otherness. Take for instance his discussion of the evening “sky dance,” put on by the woodcocks. “I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May. Since we discovered it, my family and I have been reluctant to miss even a single performance… It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them. ” (29)
A second thing that struck me while reading these vignettes was the deep sense of natural history. He reminds us that with every human act on nature we are intruding (and often ending) creatures with experiences deep into the past, making us neophytes at best. Most clearly laid out in “Good Oak” about the cutting down of an aged oak tree. With each pull of the saw blade, he goes deeper and deeper into that history, reversing (if only in his mind) the damage done to the Wisconsin landscape. ” The mental journey ends with the birth of the oak tree in the 1860s, “when thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered? They settled it, but they did not see, nor do we yet see, that the same question applies to the man-land community.” (15) Later, he writes: “It is an irony of history that the great powers should have discovered the unity of nations at Cairo in 1942. The geese of the world have had that notion for a longer time, and each March they stake their lives on its essential truth.” (20)
Another message, and one that is particularly important. is that we need the land in order to be free and creative. On one level, we learn about agency from observing the land and its residents. They are not simply following evolutionary programming but are engaging with their world. In one chapter Leopold describes himself as a landowner with tenants, but his sovereignty is completely contingent on the acquiesce of the animals. Bottom-up political systems had always been there, it just had to be observed. But I will say more on these radical political conclusions of A Sand County Almanac in the following posts.
With a book like A Sand County Almanac, I find it useful to just enjoy the beautiful prose and the profoundly simple prose, which can carry such significant ideas. I wish people could speak so clearly.