Escape the Urban Book Review: A Sand County Almanac

16 Jan

The world does not need another book review of Aldo Leopold’s classic ecological love song, “A Sand County Almanac.” Its author has already taken his place in the Parthenon, a select evolving lineage of naturalist writers: Thoreau begat Muir, Muir begat Leopold, Leopold begat Carson. The small, insightful observations of a year in a shack in the rolling mixed Wisconsin woodlands, the Almanac finds beauty and meaning in the footprints of mice in the snow and the rings of a felled oak tree. It has inspired several generations of environmentalists, scientists and artists alike, who revere and point to it as the genesis of their work. 

So instead of singing its praises with my small voice, let me instead point you towards a specific passage, Leopold’s own Forward from the first edition, for our deliberation and discussion.

I reproduce it in its entirety here, as Leopold’s prose is so tightly packed with nuance and meaning, any abbreviation eliminates the context and mood required for understanding. Although copywrited, I set it down here as it is freely available for your perusal at Amazon:

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.

Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher “standard of living” is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important then television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.

These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.

Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the esthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture.

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.

These essays attempt to weld these three concepts.

Such a view of land and people is, of course. subject to the blurs and distortions of personal experience and personal bias. But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal-clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings.

Perhaps such a shift of values can be achieved by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild and free.

Aldo Leopold

Madison, Wisconsin, March 4, 1948

I find the date of that Forward shocking – it was written not just before today’s hyper-kinetic Information Age, or the consumerism that blossomed in the 1970’s and ’80’s, but even prior to the post-war building explosion, the laying of the Eisenhower Interstates, and baby-boom driven materialism and sprawltopia. In an arguable Golden Age of cities and urban spaces, Leopold sees mechanization destroying the empty wild.

One is forced to draw, or perhaps choose among, several contradictory conclusions from the age and content of Leopold’s pleas. First, perhaps, that Leopold is a visionary who saw a battle looming before his time. Those who look to him as a Founding Father probably fall in this camp. Second, hopeless discouragement at the futility of the environmental movement, and that the dream of changing American culture is fool-hardy at best. And (or) third, that environmentalists are fear-mongers, carping hysterically in every epoch about the dangers to a planet that endures despite predictions to the contrary. There are certainly more televisions, mechanizations and bathtubs now than 63 years ago, and we’re doing just fine, thank you very much. 

Or are we?

The debate over Climate Change – its political divisions and incessent marketing – sucks the oxygen out of progress on environmental policy issues that are plainly understood and indisputable: habitat destruction, threats to endangered species, toxic waste emissions, clean water and air. These are issues that do not require easily mocked apocalyptic predictions or inappropriate meteorological evidence that can be easily dismissed as fear mongering. They are simply measured and spoken of. Our world’s population growth, sprawl and desire for more bathtubs leaves less room for the plants, animals and ecological processes that renew our air and water. We must find space for them to ensure space for ourselves. 

By that measure, while we are not doing fine, we are better than we have been in the not too distant past. Between Leopold’s writing and today we hit a low apogee that I hope we do not repeat. Our world does not need a double dip environmental depression.

So I do not see Leopold as a unique visionary: for as long as man has lived next to man, we have sought solitude from the hurly burly. I also not see him as a environmental Nostradamus, scaring us to change or else declaring the end as nigh. Instead, I see him as an eloquent laborer whose task has proven larger and more difficult than perhaps he and other naturalist progenitors initially realized. Rolling the ecological rock up the hill is not futile – there have been small victories along a long path. American culture is perhaps finally generally aware of its impact on the earth, and more and more of the general public is looking for ways to tread more lightly. That our collective choices are still generally harmful, or that “green” marketing is more about the color of money than of earth, does not mean progress has not been made. An ecologically mindful populace, one that makes a thousand small environmental lifestyle decisions a day, is a slowly molded vessel, and the creation of such a thing is still worth pursuing, 63 or 163 years later.

14 Responses to “Escape the Urban Book Review: A Sand County Almanac”

  1. BobbyCat January 16, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

    I took much the same path: Thoreau – Teddy Roosevelt – John Muir – Aldo Leopold – Rachel Carson – David Brower – Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. – Bill McKibben. Some of these environmentalists used to be called ‘conservationists” thus the synonym ‘conservative’. But today, I’m sure that most of these environmental pioneers would blanch at the name ‘conservative” and call themselves ‘liberals’ or progressives. There was a time when the term ‘conservative’ meant one who conserves things. Today it’s hard to find many republicans who support the environment. Clean air, water and soil are scoffed at by the right. They use epithets like ‘tree hugger” to mock environmentalists. Today they want to pump millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the earth to fracture the Marcellus shale and hydro-frack their way to natural gas riches. Our latest plan is to develop the outlet of the Hamburg Drain sewer and call it “Canal Side”. But I suppose I should sound more optimistic. Many the tourists won’t notice the floaters.

  2. Chris Sasiadek January 17, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    When I read this book my senior year in high school my mind was thoroughly blown. Leopold’s take on conservation, preservation, hunting, farming, forestry and stewardship seemed completely new and innovative to me, even though it was over 60 year’s old at the time. I’m going to dig up my old copy and read it again.

  3. Leo Wilson January 17, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    I gottta admit, I’m one of those Bobby speaks of, so fed up with the condescending shits who can’t just make their point and go home, they have to stand there making accusations until the weak either break or lash back… people who say things like, “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” about the neighbors who have worked hard to be productive, honest and community-spirited only to find themselves disparaged for what they are most proud of and would most willingly share with others.

    This book sounds good. I’ll look it up, give it a read and try to hear what the author says rather than what contemporary screamers project.

  4. Leo Wilson January 17, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    It may be different for others, but from my perspective, lining this book up in a reference as one in a series that leads to contemporary envirionmentalmentals does it no favors.

  5. Brian Castner January 17, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

    @ Leo: This is the danger in letting off-topic, wrong headed and inaccurate comments go unchallenged. I try to ignore BobbyCat so he goes away. But when I do, reasonable readers assume I agree with him. I do not.

    BobbyCat is wrong, both in his lineage, and the meaning of words such as “conservative.” I wrote an apolitical column, and on this side, in the Escape the Urban outdoor series, I aim to keep it that way. You need not fear the list of writers I provide, and as modern as I get is Rachel Carson for a reason. After that let BobbyCat’s mind go wherever he chooses. Thoreau is the American father of the secluded cabin treatise. Muir brought his explorations of the West to a wide audience. Leopold found beauty in the simple, artistically and scientifically. Carson brought to the American mind the concept that seemingly small choices (DDT) can have large impacts on nature (no more Bald Eagles). Leaving it there is fine.

    • Alan Bedenko January 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

      “Conservation”, “Conservative”, and “Communist” all start with “co”.

      Think ABOUT IT!!11!!

  6. Leo Wilson January 17, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    I’m sure it’ll line up with my taste in books. I do like Thoreay and Carson, and find a consistently interesting read in fiction that revolves around environmental activism.

    I’ll try to avoid showing the other side when I find some remarks, usually from weekend warriors who consider a trip to Crystal Beach a trip back to nature, condescending.

    I’m still recommending that Pat McGee trail that starts in the town of Cattaraugus and runs on an old railroad track all the way to Salamanca as an adventure worth taking in snow or warm weather, Brian. No four-wheelers, few snowmobiles, lots of spectacular geology and re-forestation efforts.

  7. Leo Wilson January 17, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    Rails have been torn out, easy passage. For the weak of resolve (which I am; I’ve only done the whole length on bicycle), there’s usually a pamphlet at access points that explains how to arrnge buggy rides for its whole lenght.

  8. Brian Castner January 17, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    Leo – I know you made that suggestion before, and I did note it. Sorry I didn’t acknowledge that before. I always like suggetions of new places to try out and “review,” so to speak. I’m heading south to Ellicottville next week for some snow shoeing/x-country skiing. So I don’t know if I’ll be able to do the Pat McGee trail this winter – it may be a summer bike trip.

  9. BobbyCat January 17, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

    @Brian. I’ve noticed that you are not the only blogger who takes umbridge when anyone has the audacity to disagree with you. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone agreed with you, thought like you thought, believed what you believed? What’s wrong with those people? Can’t they see the light?

    So you want me and other divergent voice to go away, eh Brian? I hear that a lot. The road to narcissism is paved with those ideas.

    BTW, Did you know that John Muir founded the Sierra Club? You might want to remove him from your list. .

  10. Brian Castner January 17, 2011 at 8:05 pm #

    @ BobbyCat – I love it when people disagree with me. I think you will find the comments section of my articles filled with me having rational discussions with people I disagree with. If people didn’t disagree with me, I wouldn’t write. The world would be pretty boring if we all had the same opinion.

    So my problem isn’t with disagreements, its with you. I don’t have time to discredit all your incorrect facts (“conservative” and “conservation” have almost nothing to do with eachother, including TR). I don’t have time to respond to your broken-record tediousness. If you hear that a lot, I would say its probably you, and that’s not narcissism. Please feel free to comment if you desire, and thank you for reading, but I have better things to do than “argue” with your blind ideology and grammar confusion. In your case alone do not confuse silence with agreement.

  11. BobbyCat January 17, 2011 at 8:58 pm #

    That’s fine with me Brian. I find most of your blogs boring philosophical slogs. That is to say, I ain’t crazy about em.

  12. Brian Castner January 17, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    Excellent! We seem to have found an understanding then. “Philosophical slog” is usually the effect I am going for, and as that is not your cup of tea, then we should do fine from now on.

  13. Ethan January 17, 2011 at 10:49 pm #

    Well, at least you don’t put hashtags in your titles. 🙂

    I’ll lend you a copy of Nudge if you’ll lend me a copy of Leopold.  (not like I have time to read, mind you, but I do like to have the right books on the table when I am sitting at Spot, being seen and all.)

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