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Book Review of “Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold

How could a book written more than seventy years ago sound like it was written yesterday? Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold is just such a book. It was a great hit with the Green Gettysburg Book Club, and if you are looking for something to read this summer, it could be just the thing.

Leopold was a scientist for the US Forest Service but also a hunter and fisherman.  His book, grounded in careful observation and wisdom gathered over a lifetime, was first published in 1949, a year after his untimely death at the age of sixty-one.

The first section of the book is, indeed, an almanac, and follows a year in the natural world around the “sand farm in Wisconsin” that Leopold and his family purchased and sought to restore.  The land there had been “worn out and then abandoned” but for Leopold it served as a “weekend refuge from too much modernity.”  The second section of the book includes essays based in his experiences in other places, mostly in the American West, and contains his often anthologized essay “Thinking like a Mountain.” In the third and final section of the book, Leopold develops some of his key ideas more systematically.

These key ideas are often credited with helping to launch the science of ecology and with promoting an ecological way of looking at the world. So, what are they and how do the work? Here’s quick look at some of them.

Throughout his book, Leopold emphasizes “relationship” as a key to how nature works. It’s the relationships among species that create an ecosystem and allow it to function. Change one relationship in a system and you will likely change many. Change too many and that ecosystem may collapse entirely. “Thinking like Mountain” means thinking in terms of the ecosystem as a whole and valuing the role played by all of its species, even the predators who may turn out to be essential to its survival. 

Leopold was among the first to recognize the importance of wolves, for example, even though in his early days he was often charged with shooting them. “In those day we never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf.” Describing one particular incident, he writes, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” and adds, “There was something new to me in those eyes,” a recognition that from the mountain’s point of view wolves had intrinsic value and a key role to play in keeping deer and other herbivore populations under control. Later, when wolves were removed from Yellowstone, for example, young trees and other plants were destroyed, river banks were eroded, and fish populations were dramatically reduced. Restoring the wolves eventually rebalanced the park and stabilized its ecosystem.

Another key idea of Leopold’s has to do with managing the time we human beings spend out in “nature,” particularly in wilderness areas. If it’s “a good thing for people to get back to nature,” he asks, what exactly is so good about it, and how can that good be accomplished without wrecking or at least severely damaging nature itself? “The disquieting thing in the modern picture,” he writes, “is the trophy-hunter who never grows up…. He is the motorized ant who swarms the continents before learning to see his own back yard.”

In fact, it’s in our own back yards that Leopold especially wants us to pay attention. “The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientist adventuring in the South Seas.”  The duty of the naturalist and the park ranger is to strengthen our capacity to pay attention and to educate what Leopold calls the “perception” of average citizens whether we find ourselves in Yosemite or Yellowstone or simply squatting down in our own backyards. “Recreational development,” he writes, “is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind”

What Leopold wants most of all, however, is for us to develop a “land ethic,” a sense of obligation to the land, both out in exotic wilderness places but also where we live and work and, especially, grow our food. This ethic rests on a recognition that we do not live apart from nature but are, in fact, members of a community. “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts…. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

Sand County Almanac may challenge the way you think about land and the creatures on it, and the human community, too!  I hope you take it on!

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Will Lane, a founding member of Green Gettysburg and the Green Gettysburg Book Club, is a Lecturer in English and Affiliated Faculty Member with Environmental Studies at Gettysburg College.

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  • My father was a wwII prisoner of war in Germany. He was the navigator of the Piccadilly Lilly. I have a lot of info.

  • Thanks, Will. I enjoyed reading your overview of A Sandy County Almanac. I look forward to finding this book and giving it a proper read!
    And I am really enjoying my recent admission to the Green Gettysburg Book Club! It’s helping me find answers to my questions about why I think I should tread lightly and leave the place better than I found it as well as finding people who think likewise.

  • Brilliant summary as usual from Will! We should still read the book, but Will captures its fundamental points in ways that make its relevance to us clear and compelling.

    • Good to go- just need to sustain the environment and maintain both biodiversity and ecosystems in place.

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