A Sand County Almanac Critique

A Sand County Almanac

In A Sand County Almanac we have the final statement, the fully ripened fruit of America’s foremost conservationist cum ecologist. As with all final fruit, it reads more philosophical than ecological, more poetry than prose, more profound than professional.

The book was nearly completed when Leopold died, and was published posthumously after a heroic effort on the part of friends and family, his progeny and editors to work the manuscript into its final form. The work was finally submitted to Oxford University Press within six months of Leopold’s death. Luna Leopold became editor-in-chief while Charlie Schwartz worked to complete the illustrations. After a great deal of discussion, Philip Vaudrin at Oxford prevailed in titling the book A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, which he felt grounded the book with a sense of place. Leopold had been using “Great Possessions” as his working title, but Vaudrin thought it did not convey the character of the book. Would we have bought and read and loved equally well a collection of essays called Great Possessions? That is one of those questions of the publishing world that will never be answered.

Leopold included essays that had long been a part of his bibliography along with new essays that more concisely explained his current thinking. After first conceiving of the book in 1941, he had thirteen essays arranged in this order by mid-1944: “Marshland Elegy,” first published in the October 1937 issue of American Forests, is now the first essay in Part II, Sketches Here and There. “Song of the Gavilan” and “Guacama,” about his travels in Chihuahua and Sonora in Mexico, and “Escudilla,” now in reverse order near the end of Part II. “Smoky Gold,” a hunting story that becomes the story of Leopold’s love affair with Wisconsin tamaracks, is one of the earlier essays to be included in Part I, A Sand County Almanac. “Odyssey,” another one of his great allegory tales, this time of natural history through atomic time travel, now placed near the beginning of Part II. “Draba,” a bit of free verse that now lies in Part I. “Great Possessions,” Leopold’s original title piece about the disparity between reality and legality, which became the turning point essay in Part I. “The Green Lagoons” and “Illinois Bus Ride,” both reflections upon travels, and “Thinking Like a Mountain,” all now included in Part II. Finally, “The Geese Return,” a pleasantly anthropomorphic tale of the end of Wisconsin’s winters heralded by the flocks of geese.

“Good Oak” is one of the latter group, written specifically for Leopold’s long-cherished notion of an illustrated book of essays in the early months of 1948. He had written “Axe-in-Hand” a few months earlier, also for the book of essays. Finally, Leopold wrote “The Land Ethic” as a capstone piece in the summer of 1947 by combining three of his most important essays written over a lifelong career in conservation along with a newly developed summary of his philosophy.

In “Good Oak,” Leopold first explains the “spiritual dangers in not owning a farm.” He softly chides civilization for the lack of awareness we suffer in not knowing where the essentials for life — food and heat — come from and how they come to be in our pantries and parlors. He then goes on to build a beautiful allegory for natural history, by explaining the current state of things in his neck of the woods through the rings of growth as his saw cuts through a mighty oak recently killed by lightning near the shack. By the end, he lets the reader know of his use of allegory for the telling of history, in which his saw cuts horizontally through the rings of time to display the evolution of philosophy, his wedge splits vertically across time to show the timeless nature of ideas and ideals, and his axe lops off the branches that are no longer useful to his goal. Civilization becomes an ancient tree that sprouted with man’s first settlement, survives the pitfalls of youth, and grows through good times and bad until a bold new idea — conservation, ecology, or even a land ethic, strikes as though hit by lightning.

“Axe-in-Hand” gives us the clearest example of Leopold’s relation to Henry David Thoreau. Leopold’s musing over why he should encourage one tree while another falls victim to his axe, is a perfect throwback to Thoreau’s beans in Walden. Just as Thoreau writes, “It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans,” Leopold is describing the thinker’s capacity for discriminating between philosophical teachings. After stating that there are really only two tools — the shovel for planting trees and the axe for felling them — he says, “But there is one vocation — philosophy — which knows that all men, by what they think about and wish for, in effect wield all tools. It knows that men thus determine, by the manner of thinking and wishing, whether it is worth while to wield any.” He sets the essay in November — that time of life from which a man can see enough of his own story to realize the underlying philosophy. He gives us his definition of a conservationist, “written not with a pen, but with an axe,” as “one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.” Yet, is not the soul of writing contained in words left unsaid as well as those written? A good writer painstakingly edits the stream of consciousness, that row of beans, that forest, in which “not all trees are created free and equal,” to present us with a unique signature upon the land of literature. A writer, too, is one “humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”

In “Marshland Elegy,” Leopold gives us a masterful turn of anthropomorphism to remind us of our place in the world. Rather than giving human characteristics to the sandhill cranes of Wisconsin’s bog marshes, he sets cranes and humans on exactly the same plane, each having the capacity to know and yet not know the significance of a place and its evolution. In fact, Leopold’s cranes understand evolution better than do his bureaucrats. The natural history of the crane dates back to the Eocene epoch of diversification of bird species and greater dominance of flowering plants. Through the eyes of the crane we see that all succession is as a sudden bloom when land is disturbed, but the seeds of that succession were watered by ancient inland seas. Leopold understands the present as a datum point in evolution, not a discontinuous point that has no origin and no destiny. Finally, he speaks of the paradox of wilderness, “for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” Think about this the next time you hike — even drive — through designated wilderness.

In “Thinking Like a Mountain” we have Leopold’s great admission to past mistakes in predator control. He had been prodded by former student Albert Hochbaum to write an apology piece, one that would show how Leopold, “followed trails like anyone else that lead you up the wrong alleys.” Leopold had been as enthusiastic as anyone else about exterminating wolves and mountain lions from deer range, but had lived to see the range destroyed by too many deer. More than that, he had lived to see the beauty in the predator itself, its place within the ecosystem, and man’s inability to fully fathom the intricate workings of ecology. He says he was “young and full of trigger-itch,” which is undoubtedly true, but he was actually young and zealously devoted to game management, willing to sacrifice anything for the benefit of game animals — deer, pheasants, and waterfowl — and their human hunters. Unfortunately, he discovered through the devastation of deer range in the forests of the Southwest that the predator is as important to the ecosystem as the prey on which it feeds or the flora upon which the prey graze and browse. He saw through the paradox of wilderness to the core of Thoreau’s dictum — “In wildness is the salvation of the world.” A fact still lost upon civilization.

“Escudilla” is a companion piece to “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in which Leopold paints the looming mountain as the wildness that constantly threatens the safety of its human inhabitants. Progress, too, is a looming mountain that threatens each and every one of us. He admits again of his role in the demise of wilderness in the name of conservation. He relates his role in the Forest Service taming (murdering) of ecosystems to that of the early conquistadors taming (murdering) of Native Americans, and forces us to question our own actions in taming the world we inhabit. Escudilla looms over Leopold as a reminder of his own guilt in killing the deer range. But every generation has its own Escudilla, a mountain looming over us, reminding us of our own peculiar guilt in the destruction of wilderness.

“The Land Ethic” is Leopold’s crowning glory as a conservationist, an ecologist, and a philosopher. It is here, with this carefully crafted piece, that Leopold brings his triune nature together into one coherent thought — an ecological ethic in which philosophy and ecology finally merge into their inevitable unity. He presents land as a community in which man is simply a member, not the overlord. He simultaneously simplifies and expands our concept of community by inclusion of the land, the earth, and life itself. This inclusion is echoed today by communitarian philosophers such as John Mohawk, who writes: “The people who are living on this planet need to break with the narrow concept of human liberation, and begin to see liberation as something which needs to be extended to the whole of the Natural World. What is needed is the liberation of all the things that support Life — the air, the waters, the trees — all the things which support the sacred web of Life.” Leopold changes the role of mankind from conqueror finally to planetary citizen, and demonstrates that history is a product of the land upon which it took place.

He writes of an ecological conscience, in which we are made fully aware of conservation as a “state of harmony between men and land.” He decries the current state of land-use ethics, in which we will only take our stewardship of the land as far as our pocketbooks will allow, “governed wholly by economic self-interest.” Ethical evolution dictates greater obligation on the part of the land-holder, which, in the most public sense, is each of us.

Leopold convincingly portrays evolutionary versus man-made changes in the land with the metaphor of the land pyramid, based on ecology’s biotic pyramid of soil, flora, and fauna, all energized by the sun. Where evolution tends to increase diversity through changes slow and local, man wants to decrease diversity in the land through changes that are ecologically fast, even violent, and increasingly global. This is where man most endangers all life on the planet — through unthinking diminution of life for his own economic convenience.

Leopold relates himself to Tristram, the legendary medieval knight sent by his king to bring Isolde back to be the king’s bride. In the process of doing so, Tristram (known as Tristan in Richard Wagner’s romantic opera) falls in love with Isolde himself. Leopold is a knight sent out to recapture the beauty of wilderness for civilization, but must die with his love in the end for wilderness is too beautiful for civilization to appreciate, “in short, land is something [the civilized man] has ‘outgrown’.” Leopold goes about, axe-in-hand, “one of the time-tested few that leave the world, when they are gone, not the same place it was,” but a better place.

That this would be one of the last statements written by Leopold is truly remarkable. Here was a man fully cognizant of his role in the world. He had arrived at a point in his philosophy where he could see where civilization needed to go. He is somewhat pessimistic, as the current trend leads further away from a land ethic, not toward it. Yet he looks with eagerness to the brewing revolt that will force us to “quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem.” “Examine each question,” exhorts the Professor, “in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.”

A Sand County Almanac is significant for Leopold’s own admission to guilt in the current state of ecology. For this we should be eternally grateful to the role Albert Hochbaum played in urging his mentor to show us the complete man, the evolution of the ecologist, himself. Leopold was reticent to comply, believing he only needed to state what he now knew to be true, but Hochbaum persevered and we are the wealthier for it. More importantly, Leopold shows that he adhered to his own definition of an ecologist, which he gave to his students in Wildlife Ecology 118: A person is an ecologist if he is skillful in seeing facts, ingenious in formulating hypotheses, and ruthless in discarding them when they don’t fit.

If A Sand County Almanac were written solely for ecologists it would be a good book. What makes it a great book is that it was written at a level comprehensible to laymen as well as experts. Leopold understood that if we are to turn away from the path of annihilation of all things wild, we must each be an ecologist well versed in the land ethic. And his timing was perfect: it was written at a time (post-WWII) when Americans were becoming more willing to hear of their mistakes, set aside their new-found role as world conqueror, and take up shovel and axe as citizens in the community of land, ecologists.

A Sand County Almanac presents us with Leopold’s final philosophy, a land ethic that includes humans in a community of soils, waters, plants, and animals. It predates Arne Naess’ deep ecology by several decades, but it means the same thing. We and the planet are one.


Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold

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