First published in 1949 and praised in The New York Times Book Review as a trenchant book, full of vigor and bite, A Sand County Almanac combines some of the finest nature writing since Thoreau with an outspoken and highly ethical regard for America's relationship to the land.As the forerunner to such important books as Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and Robert Finch's The Primal Place, this classic work remains as relevant today as it was nearly sixty years ago.
And apart from Leopold's disarming style, the sheer scope of his natural knowledge is quite simply incredible. Leopold doesn't have to specifically elucidate his love for nature, because the fact that he knows the names of all the birds, flowers and trees (among other things) proves implicitly his adulation. Only thousands (millions?) of man-hours spent joyously and patiently outdoors could account for such a proficiency.
The 2nd and 3rd sections of the book do not ultimately sustain the magnificense of the titular "Sand County Alamanac," but it's hard to fault a book too much for not maintaining a state of perfect splendour. Both latter sections are still well worth reading. One of my favorite qualities of the first part is that it is entirely apolitical. Leopold doesn't have to come out directly and scold us for our misuse and destruction of the enviroment, because his simple devotion is by far the more effective chastisement. The 2nd and 3rd parts do become more explicitly critical of modern civilization, but it's never over the top. Indeed, it provides the reader with an entirely new way to appreciate his writing: as ideas decades ahead of their time. The fact that he was writing about the desperate need for conservation in the 30s and 40s is astounding. Leopold makes "youngsters" like Edward Abbey look like a hack. He is my hero.
A major obstacle to restoration efforts is changing people’s perception of how they should relate to nature. For the average person nature exists to satisfy their needs, whether that means using it for development, recreation, or simply ownership. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, humans have asserted a dominant role over nature, insisting that we can somehow control and change nature to suit our purposes. Rather than approaching nature with a sense of community of which humans are a part, we have long had an attitude of entitlement and ownership. Leopold proposes a major shift in paradigm by suggesting that we make an addition to our ethical framework that he calls a land ethic. He argues that we must enlarge the boundary of what we consider community to include the soil, water, plants and animals, in other words nature. Adopting the land ethic would change our human centered world-view to incorporate the natural world, thus shifting humans’ from the conquerors of the community to integral members of it.
). Leopold condemns the economic valuation of nature, therefore denouncing the current practice of sustainable development. Placing an economic value on something determines our relationship to it. A land ethic is about being a member of the land, not being the owner, and learning how to appreciate the intrinsic value of nature. While the intrinsic value of nature is crucial to the land ethic, as a conservationist Leopold understands the need for humans to exploit nature for the necessities of life. As a result, Leopold strives to create a perfectly balanced system that can protect nature’s integrity, while simultaneously meeting societal demands for goods and services. In modern economies, the large and growing population, along with improvements in technology, has put a serious strain on that balance. These days short-term economic models and commodity based society give little thought to how crucial it is to maintain natural resources, or to the correlation between their economic decisions and environmental degradation. Let alone how we are throwing away the resources future generations will come to depend on. The current trend cannot continue forever because ecology and economics are intertwined. For economies to survive, countries need to exploit its natural resources, but economic collapse is a direct consequence of resource depletion. Our only solution is to become more sustainable. Leopold felt that by upholding the health of the land, its capacity of self-renewal and regeneration could also be maintained. In the land ethic Leopold describes a way to maintain a steady relationship between people and the environment. By getting back in touch with nature, humans will come to better understand how their actions affect the environment.
For most of the population, the natural world is an abstract notion leading to gross neglect of the environment. Instead, Leopold advocates that the human population as a whole work together with an environmental ethic to become good stewards of nature. Becoming a good steward of the environment means that we have to take restoration more seriously, institute sustainable practices into our economy, and preserve wilderness for future generations. By incorporating a land ethic into our sense of values, we have the power to re-integrate ourselves with the natural world we have long forgotten. A quote from Leopold best describes the ultimate goal of any environmental conservation effort, “we end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
I focused here on the latter part of the book, becuase I think it had the largest impact on me, but the rest of A Sand County Almanac is well worth the read. Leopold writes with beautifully simply but passionate prose. His description of cutting a tree down, recounting its long history is simply amazing.
Leopold's words read like poetry. You immediately realize that you're in the company of someone who loves wilderness. The cover has a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle stating that this book belongs on the shelf with Thoreau and Muir. I heartily agree—so long as Sigurd Olson's right there with them. Even better than the shelf: this book belongs in your backpack.
I had to pull my canoe out of the water, and turn it over to shelter my pack. I stood at the base of a large hemlock tree and watched the spring-time hail bounce off the scarred underbody of my 14 foot red solo canoe. A mere 15 minutes later the storm was over and I was back in the water. Leopold's words far outlasted the storm.
Leopold's style has much in common with Henry David Thoreau, and it could also be argued that his ideas about conservation, forestry, and being close to the land are a natural outgrowth of much of Thoreau's ethic as well. I think I would've liked it better if I could dip into and out of it at the right times of the year - as it is, in fact, organized from January to December with one to three essays on each month - instead of rushing for a library due date. Too many essays in a row and it got a little run together and harder to focus. The particular edition I had was a 50th anniversary edition with oversize pages and lovely photographs of the farm where Aldo lived.
"These things I ponder as the kettle sings, and the good oak burns to red coals on white ashes. Those ashes, come spring, I will return to the orchard at the foot of the sandhill. They will come back to me again, perhaps as red apples, or perhaps as a spirit of enterprise in some fat October squirrel, who, for reasons unknown to himself, is bent on planting acorns."
The book starts with the actual sand county Almanac, which is a set of short observational essays representing one full year in the life of the farm he and his family retreated to on weekends. This was my favourite part of the book; above all else Leopold was a wonderful observer of nature and painter of scenes. There is some editorialising in this, but it's done with a rather light touch. More than anything else, it's a call to simply pay more attention to the rhythms of nature even as technology and urbanisation make it more and more possible to ignore them.
The middle part is a serious of descriptive and reflective essays written as Leopold travelled around North America. These are rather patchy, somewhat more editorial, and overwhelmingly sad. He had a very clear vision of what had already been lost to short-sighted overdevelopment, and how much more was on the cusp of being lost, and reading it 60-odd years later is actually quite upsetting. I like to tell myself that the destruction we've visited upon our own world was largely a product of ignorance, but essays like these are reminder of how untrue that is, at least for the "new world". We've had people calling this out for at least three generations, and yet we still have to fight the notion that nothing we do has any consequences.
The book closes with a set of much more prescriptive essays, about what should be done to halt the destruction. These made good for thought, but fall short of the perfection of his descriptive work. I found myself alternately agreeing, being made to think about concepts I hadn't considered before, and being frustrated by a few shortcomings:
- Leopold's vision doesn't scale to the size of population we have today. Perhaps in 1966 it would have worked to put brakes on urbanisation, but today we can't do that without turning entire continents into sprawling exurbia. I'm not sure if this was a blind spot of his at the time, or just something that hasn't translated to today.
- At times his focus on wilderness and emptiness is too narrow, and misses bigger systemic problems, such as the consequences of urban/suburban households all driving out to their dachas or the wilderness all the time. I suppose this is another instance of "does not scale".
- Sometimes he just seems indefinsibly optimistic about human nature, arguing that most if not all of the cultural change we need can come just from persuading people to intrinsically value nature. It makes sense that he should feel this way, since doing exactly that seems to be his greatest skill, but the faddishness of environmentalism since Leopold's time shows up the weakness of such an approach.
All in all, a great read - just take the polemical part with a pinch of salt, and consider the ways our collective experience since this was written critique it.
To modern readers, it may feel slow moving, a culturally unfamiliar; Leopold represents a dual character of both hunter and environmentalist, two camps often dived by a political gulf today.
As you might have heard Wes Jackson say, Leopold’s legacy was his “land ethic.” The concept that the earth might have rights, and that, as humans, we have an obligation to steward land, was prescient for a white American. Many of his ideas are still both radical and familiar today.