Sand County Alamanc

Jana just got back into her house so we met at Leslie’s, who Trader Joe’d fine grub for us. Apparantly there is a coffee table version of the book, as well as the trade and standard paperback versions of this classic of the modern conservation movement.  Bob kept us to a small commitment, for it was a wee book. We discussed the decline of our world, and why it was important that birds live, and how to keep the world from poisoning itself. Some liked the Wisconsin scientest’s style, and others liked his ‘shack’, and other parts of his

book. One review I liked:

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of a seminal work by a weekend homesteader, teacher, philosopher, and the man proclaimed by many as the father of the modern conservation movement. Aldo Leopold died in 1948 without seeing his book in print, but when A Sand County Almanac was published in 1949 it spoke his voice clearly and plainly, and has had a profound effect on its readers ever since. On its fiftieth birthday, there’s a beautiful, hardcover anniversary edition ofA Sand County Almanac available, along with a paperback edition in its umpteenth printing. If you haven’t read A Sand County Almanac (or you haven’t read it in awhile), get the anniversary edition or the paperback and dive in. Leopold’s message is both timely and timeless, and deserves another look as we pass into a new millennium.

A Sand County Almanac is built around three main ideas:


  • Land is a community of living things. This idea argues for the study of ecology.
  • Land is to be loved and respected. This idea argues for conservation ethics.
  • Land yields a harvest of culture. Leopold calls this “a fact long known, but forgotten recently.”

Leopold bathes the reader in these ideas through argument, explanation, description—in essays that build toward the final section of the book, which outlines the famous Land Ethic that has so strongly shaped the modern conservation movement. But the strength of the book isn’t just that it proposed an idea whose time had come (and which is still as vital as it was in 1945). A Sand County Almanac has survived because it helps the reader experience that idea. Reading this book creates a continuing awareness of land as a living community, a thing to be loved and respected, and the deepest source of all our cultural harvests.

Vital awareness

Throughout A Sand County Almanac, Leopold argues for the supremacy of awareness over book learning. He describes the March goose who is “staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake…with the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.” He compares this goose to a well-educated woman who says she has never heard or seen the geese who yearly proclaim the seasons. He asks: “Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers” (page 20).

It is to Leopold’s credit that he listens to his own advice, and creates a living land in the mind to help us see the importance of a land ethic. The book begins by taking the reader through the seasons on his farmed-out farmstead in central Wisconsin, providing a rich and detailed picture of the rhythm of life on the land. In Part II the book expands in both territory and time, taking the reader to various areas of the country and describing the natural and human history of each place. By the time the reader reaches Part III (“A Taste for Country,” a set of essays from Round River inserted in 1966), there is an experiential foundation for the philosophical ideas presented. When Leopold finally presents the Land Ethic in Part IV, we’re fully ready to absorb it, based on the awareness created by Leopold’s luminous prose.

The culture of a tree

As he begins A Sand County Almanac, Leopold sets aside teaching through argument and instead uses experience to create an ongoing awareness of the continuity between human culture and the land. The simple act of cutting a dead tree for firewood becomes a lesson in the interweaving of natural history and social history. Each bite of the blade into an earlier ring of the tree gives us a story, both human and natural. And as the “fragrant little chips of history” fall (6), we see the complex and ongoing interrelationship between the tree, other trees, and the humans living around them.

Leopold repeatedly imbues the world with deeper layers of meaning, adding the awareness of birds and animals to our own. For example, to the mouse a January thaw means the exposure of his “maze of secret tunnels, laboriously chewed through the matted grass under the snow” (4). However, to the hawk the thaw means a meal in the form of “some worried mouse-engineer.” To the hawk, “a thaw means freedom from want and fear” (5). Calling the mouse a “sober citizen” who is grieved by the thaw is surely anthropomorphism, but it is of the best sort. It attempts to make us see meaning in nature as it affects the animal, rather than making animals illustrate what our values and meanings are, as animal personifications usually do.

Wild beauty in words

The sense that land is to be loved and respected, one of Leopold’s basic tenets, is created not by argument (how can one prove an idea like this by logical proofs?), but rather by letting us experience the wild beauty of his land. There are descriptions that take the breath away. Leopold lets us see and feel the leaving of geese in November:

The flock emerges from the low clouds, a tattered banner of birds, dipping and rising, blown up and blown down, blown together and blown apart, but advancing, the wind wrestling lovingly with each winnowing wing. When the flock is a blur in the far sky I hear the last honk, sounding taps for summer (71).

Or listen to his description of finding a hidden bay in an otherwise drab lakeshore:

You are seized with an impulse to land, to set foot on bearberry carpets, to pluck a balsam bed, to pilfer peach plums or blueberries, or perhaps to poach a partridge from out those bosky quietudes that lie beyond the dunes. A bay? Why not also a trout stream? Incisively the paddles clip little soughing swirls athwart the gunwale, the bow swings sharp shoreward and cleaves the greening depths for camp (178).

At the crux of Leopold’s argument is that we need to broaden our view of value beyond economics, so that we can see the immense intangible values associated with the land. He begins the book by observing that “society is like a hypochondriac—so obsessed with its own economic health that it has lost the capacity to remain healthy” (xix). True health comes through the knowledge and experience of things that can’t be accounted in a bankbook; as Leopold states, “things hoped for have a higher value than things assured” (57). He argues for a “revolt against the tedium of the merely economic attitude toward land” (203), but rather than merely providing an argument, Leopold helps us feel the rush of beauty in moments that defy any economic attitude:

What one remembers is the invisible hermit thrush pouring silver chords from impenetrable shadows; the soaring crane trumpeting from behind a cloud; the prairie chicken booming from the mists of nowhere; the quail’s Ave Maria in the hush of dawn (57).

In these moments of beauty, Leopold helps us see that the land is the bedrock and source of all human culture. Man and the land are interwoven as a community, and this fact creates a powerful motivation for living by a land ethic that preserves diversity, wilderness, and the entire spectrum of life whether or not we see any immediate economic value in it.

Thinking more deeply about “improvements”

A Sand County Almanac provides abundant thought for those of us working in community forestry. Although Leopold states that “planting a pine is an act of creation” (86), he also argues against a mere “zeal for roadside beauty” (193) that doesn’t take into account the history of the land or the balance of its historic species. He warns that changes made in the service of improvement can also bring wounds:

Each substitution of a tame plant or animal for a wild one, or an artificial waterway for a natural one, is accompanied by a readjustment in the circulating system of the land. We do not understand or foresee these readjustments; we are unconscious of them unless the end effect is bad…we are so busy with new tinkerings to think of end effects (197).

The power of A Sand County Almanac is that it helps us see in so many ways that the land is an organism, a circulating system, of which we are but a part. If and when we tinker, we must exercise ultimate care. But the beauty of this book is that it does so not by merely exercising our minds, but by helping us see, hear, feel, and experience the land organism as it moves and breathes—by working a wonderful experiment in what Leopold calls “that dark laboratory we call the soul.” (89)

Note: All page references are for the paperback edition.


Background images taken from Entering the Grove, photos by Gary Braasch, text by Kim R. Stafford. Published by Gibbs Smith. Used by permission.

(Last Month we read Richard Russo’s ‘Bridge of Sighs’. I didn’t attend the meeting, and am still reading it. I’ll keep you posted about it.)




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