Book Discussion Series #3: A Sand County Almanac

snow nature trees mountain
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We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

I can’t remember if I ever read this book in it’s entirety before but I studied certain passages of it so much at university that it all blended into one in my memory, so I was super keen to re-read this as part of this discussion series.

Aldo Leopold was a remarkable man, a hunter turned wildlife advocate, his writings have certainly given many an environmental student food for thought. I was first introduced to Leopold by one of my favourite teachers, prof Brian Moss, who evidently held him in extremely high regard – and I can see why. In fact I vividly remember being shocked and upset when asked to study the above passage, I was naïve and its subtle nuances were lost on me initially. Leopold, like all of us, had an impact on the environment, yet he had the sense to acknowledge it and question whether what he did was right, in a time where it was not commonplace to do so.

Leopold was a fantastic writer, colourful, exuberant, passionate, I have long been an admirer, in fact the name of this blog derives from a passage of his, albeit not from this  particular book.

It should be noted that unlike other older environmental texts (like Silent Spring that mostly reads like it could have been written yesterday) this book is very much rooted in its time, the vernacular is often dated and there are some analogies that would definitely not be socially acceptable these days. However much of the prose is pure magic, Leopold just got it. He got the importance of the seasons, of ecological balance, of economics. His positions as a forester, farmer and somewhat of a scholar give him a unique and experienced quality that some one firmly rooted in one or other perhaps would not possess.

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There is a collection of essays first published in 1949 and is split into three parts. The first details a year in the life on Leopold’s Wisconsin farm. The second details observations from elsewhere in the Americas, and the third and most inherently philosophical lays out his Land Ethic. The concept of the land ethic is the idea that community extends beyond the world of men, to incorporate the wider environment and that people can have an ethical and caring relationship with the land.

In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

There are many excellent, informed and nuanced examples from his writing but one of the first ones to capture my imagination and leave a lasting image is in the chapter February when he cleverly uses the felling of an oak tree for fire wood not only to illustrate the natural history of its 80 year life but also, in a round about way, describe the carbon and nutrient cycles and highlight our growing disconnect.

“There are two spiritual dangers about not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace”

Leopold argues that even what we perceive as worthless in the environment, really is valuable, both inherently and economically. Different species all have their place in an ecosystem, thus having an indirect value to the economy. I wonder then what he would have made of the current trend in evaluating land with regards to its ecosystem services?

He also realised that in order to get people to care for the land those people needed to maintain their connection with it, a concept now ingrained in the environmental education field.

Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.

Yet, he also suggested that our interest in “conservation” of the land is one of the very things that causes loss of wilderness. After all, can somewhere be truly wild if it’s littered with paths, hides and interpretation boards?

All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.

Sadly Leopold met an untimely end whilst fighting a fire on a neighbouring farm aged just sixty-one, and a year before the publication of A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. The Aldo Leopold Foundation was set up in 1982 by Leopold’s five children as a non-profit to inspire an ethical, caring relationship between people and nature through his legacy.

With passages that conjure beauty and devastation, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There truly is a work of genius, Leopold’s philosophy and wisdom still hold a lot of credence today and I would encourage anyone with an interest in the natural world to pick up a copy.

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.

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