I have been living with Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac for several years, listening to his monthly ecological reflections on tape on my way to work, read by former Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall. I have absorbed many of the phrases and—I hope—much of the sensibility and sensitivity to our natural world that Leopold’s writings inspire. Now, there is a new edition of the book to re-inspire readers, with an introduction by ecological novelist and essayist, Barbara Kingsolver. Re-issued by Oxford University, which published the first edition in 1949, and sponsored by the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin, this edition gives a new generation of readers a chance to drink from the source of some of the best ecological thinking and writing of the twentieth century.
Essays like “Thinking Like a Mountain” and “The Land Ethic” have shaped environmental policy and the broader culture. Leopold’s thought and insights have also influenced more than a generation of great writers and thinkers. Pulitzer Prize-winning western novelist and conservationist, Wallace Stegner, quotes Leopold and synthesizes many of his insights in his own ecological reflections. In his essay, “A Sense of Place,” Stegner recalls watching a poisoned hawk die, which calls to his mind Leopold’s famed description of a dying wolf in “Thinking Like a Mountain.”
Tastefully illustrated with many of the same handsome woodcut-like drawings (by conservationist and wildlife artist, Charles W. Schwartz) that graced the first, this new edition’s 212 sturdy paperback pages are a joy to hold and read. Kingsolver’s characteristically direct and no-nonsense introduction situates the book right in the middle of today’s fraught discussions of the environment, calling it “a civic hand grenade” because of the strong and polarized responses that it evokes. It was “dragging a heavy heart,” she says, that she returned to A Sand County Almanac in this fiftieth year since Earth Day, only to discover in its pages a route to “détente” in the culture-war that now surrounds environmental issues such as global warming. The way to détente, Kingsolver concludes, is love. She finds that Leopold’s “open-hearted affection” for every living thing can cut through a lot of the knots into which the culture-warriors on either side of environmental debates have tied themselves.
Leopold has an inimitable style. When I read Leopold, it calls to mind that iconic picture of him sitting outside his “shack,” with binoculars around his neck, his sturdy shirt and open collar suggesting he is about to set off—or has just returned from—an invigorating tromp around his Sauk County, Wisconsin farm. He purchased the farm in 1935 when its soil had been depleted by poor farming techniques and outright neglect. One can imagine Leopold’s “land ethic” growing directly from his interaction with those depleted acres; acres that he and his family planted with trees and other flora to renew or increase its “biotic capital,” a favorite Leopold phrase.
Among my favorite sections of the Almanac proper (Part 1 of the book, which features the relatively short, monthly reflections that Kingsolver says might, today, be considered blogs) are those on the “The Good Oak” (February), the chickadees (December), and—being a trout fisherman—“The Alder Branch” (June), which has a deliciously surprising ending.
As the Aldo Leopold Foundation notes, Part II of the book, “Sketches Here and There,” highlights lessons that Leopold learned through his travels. The section on Wisconsin shows the greatest love. The first paragraph of “Marshland Elegy” is a prose poem with the sandhill crane as a leading character. Leopold concludes that “the ultimate value of the marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate.” “The Sand Counties” resembles the monthly reflections, rich in evocative description and whimsical insight. “Do economists know about lupine?” he asks at one point. Favorite Leopold native species like lupine, Draba, and the jack pines “favored by the clay-colored sparrow,” are among the creatures he reflects on. Sections titled “Illinois and Iowa,” “Arizona and New Mexico,” “Chihuahua and Sonora,” “Oregon and Utah,” and “Manitoba” contain valuable observations derived from Leopold’s life in the United States Forest Service and later as a wildlife management professor.
“Do economists know about lupine?”A. Leopold, The Sand Counties
In Part III, “The Upshot,” Leopold explores broader themes in conservation. “Conservation Esthetic” critiques the country’s growing appetite for various forms of outdoor recreation, and wears well more than sixty years after it first appeared. One of the strongest statements comes at the end of the essay when he says, “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” Further sections on “Wildlife in American Culture” and “Wilderness” provide insights into Leopold’s assessment of the past and vision for the future.
“The Land Ethic” is an ambitious capstone essay that calls for “moral responsibility for the natural world.” A man of the early twentieth century, Leopold defines an “ecological conscience” in terms whose foundation is a fundamentally Judeo-Christian consciousness. Citing the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah on the evil of despoiling the land, he goes on to argue that an ecological conscience is still evolving. “Conservation,” he says, “is a state of harmony between men and the land.” Like Henry David Thoreau, Leopold was a visionary who left many of thedetails of that vision for future generations to fill out. And now it is we who are the future generations. To the layman’s ears, “We may bolster poundage from depleted soils by pouring on imported fertility, but we are not necessarily bolstering food-value” sounds like an insight lost on agribusiness today.
A Sand County Almanac requires of the reader a certain attitude toward nature to be fully appreciated; and at minimum, an openness to new ideas. As Leopold himself says, growth in perception is called for. For that reason, some may find the book excessively tendentious, which merely shows how far down the road toward accepting despoliation of our environment we have traveled. Yet, it is a book that can still engender a receptive attitude toward nature, because of the attentive observations and reflections, which are the heart of its perennial appeal.
The new edition is available through the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s online bookstore at www.aldoleopold.org.
Ed Block is Emeritus Professor of English at Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI, where he taught courses on (among others) Denise Levertov and Czeslaw Milosz and workshops in creative writing. His interviews, essays, reviews and short stories have appeared in AMERICA, IMAGE, LOGOS, U.S. CATHOLIC, ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER, and a variety of other journals. He has published two books of poems, Anno Domini, and Seasons of Change. Visit him at www.greendalebrushandquill.com.