A Sand County Almanac

sand_county_almanacAldo Leopold (1887-1948) was an American pioneer in environmental thinking. I have often seen his influential book ‘A Sand County Almanac’ referred to, but only recently read it. Here is my brief review.

This book gives a gripping insight into the development of the American environment and environmental thinking. We are still a long way from taking on board the practical implications of all that this wise observer of the natural world has to say.

To begin with, this is nature writing of a high order, based on close observation and immersion in the natural world. For example:

“Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.”

What is particularly striking to me is the insight Leopold gives into the gradual effects of the settling of America, in relatively recent times.

“In the 1840’s a new animal, the settler, intervened in the prairie battle. He didn’t mean to, he just plowed enough fields to deprive the prairie of its immemorial ally: fire. Seedling oaks forthwith romped over the grasslands in legions, and what had been the prairie region became a region of woodlot farms.”

In a relatively short time, the armies of hunters eliminated the previously innumerable passenger pigeon.

“Our grandfathers were less wellhoused, wellfed, wellclothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons.”

Leopold gives particular insight into the gradual removal of the top predators – wolves and bears – from the US, inspired by an experience when he was young and shot things with abandon just like his fellows. This one was a wolf:

“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.”

The plight of wolves since then is vividly described:

“Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the southfacing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails.”

The result is, of course and explosion of the deer population, which destroy the trees and their own food source.

“In the end the starved bones of the hopedfor deer herd, dead of its own toomuch, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the highlined junipers.”

He similarly describes the plight of bears in his lifetime:

“In 1909, when I first saw the West, there were grizzlies in every major mountain mass… [at time of writing, 1949] only five states have any at all.”

This was all done with US government support:

“The Congressmen who voted money to clear the ranges of bears were the sons of pioneers. They acclaimed the superior virtues of the frontiersman, but they strove with might and main to make an end of the frontier.”

One thing that particularly struck me was his report on the Colorado river delta, that was a genuine wilderness without trails when he visited it with his brother as recently as 1922. Since the management of the Colorado waters, the building of the massive Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, the delta had actually dried out. Thus was wilderness casually destroyed. Recently, I read that limited water flow is being restored to the delta in an attempt to reverse this catastrophe.

Further insight into the destruction of wilderness comes from predator control:

“One of the most insidious invasions of wilderness is via predator control. It works thus: wolves and lions are cleaned out of a wilderness area in the interest of biggame management. The biggame herds (usually deer or elk) then increase to the point of overbrowsing the range. Hunters must then be encouraged to harvest the surplus, but modern hunters refuse to operate far from a car; hence a road must be built to provide access to the surplus game. Again and again, wilderness areas have been split by this process, but it still continues.”

Leopold reflects:

“Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

“Paleontology offers abundant evidence that wilderness maintained itself for immensely long periods; that its component species were rarely lost, neither did they get out of hand; that weather and water built soil as fast or faster than it was carried away. Wilderness, then, assumes unexpected importance as a laboratory for the study of landhealth.”

There is much more in this book – the dimming of human awareness of nature, the separation from nature caused by gadgets and ‘sporting goods’ seen in any American mall, reflections on the behaviour patterns of populations of which individual animals are unaware, and so on.

Leopold concludes by highlighting the need to change our relationship with the land and develop a ‘land ethic’:

“The landrelation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations… There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it… All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for)… The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

“No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions… In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.”

The challenge for us all is clear, and this book is as relevant as the day it was first published.

Featured image of Aldo Leopold by Howard Zahniser
(NCTC Archives/Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons




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