First, let me say a word about this edition. I requested A Sand County Almanac from my local public library, and took what they gave me. It was only by luck (or, more to the point, the wise purchasing decisions of said library) that I got this lovely anniversary edition, with introduction by Charles W. Schwartz and photographs by Michael Sewell. The introduction explains that Schwartz & Sewell spent time on Leopold’s ranch, the place where Leopold wrote, and that he wrote about; all the photographs were taken either on the ranch or in the surrounding environs (where Leopold wandered as well). If you can get a hold of this edition, by all means DO: the photos are to die for, and really add something to the text itself, and I found Schwartz’s introduction to be helpful in placing, and appreciating, Leopold’s work. I’m not completely clear on what’s included in every edition of the title ‘A Sand County Almanac‘, so please ‘scuse my ignorance, but this edition did include two essays following the twelve-month formatted almanac: “Marshland Elegy” and “The Land Ethic.” I’m not sure they’re included in every edition.
I was drawn to this book by its place in the genre of literary nature writings that I am recently enamored of; starting with Fire Season of course, which then led me through Edward Abbey and miscellaneous others. It was also recommended on the Gila National Forest’s recommended reading page (scroll to bottom), which I’ve been referencing in preparation for a trip there this summer.
Aldo Leopold was an pioneer in the conservation and restoration movement, early in the definition and creation of ecology or environmentalism. His Almanac belongs in line with the works of Muir, Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey. This is a beautiful book. Leopold is among the best of his genre: he writes lyrically, passionately, bringing to life and recognition the smallest and most seemingly insignificant pieces of his world. There is humor, celebration, and thoughtful consideration and development of a philosophy for the burgeoning movement; Leopold is one of its fathers, without question (see Schwartz’s discussion in the introduction of how far his influence extends today). This book is filled with calls to action, as well as quiet, reverent praise and celebration of the minutest members of the natural world.
Leopold writes from his ranch in the “sand counties” of Wisconsin, where he dedicated himself on weekends to restoring the land and its inhabitants to their previous state of nature, before agriculture, cattle ranching, and industry encroached. Schwartz’s introduction emphasizes that Leopold’s great work on conservation and restoration is now perhaps best applicable to restoration, as “almost all the wilderness that can be saved has been saved. For the duration of our time on the planet – for whatever piece of eternity we have left here – restoration will be the great task” (Schwartz). Leopold was quite successful on the 120 acres under his care. “On the road to extinction, traffic travels both ways,” writes Schwartz, noting the repopulation of sandhill cranes in the state of Wisconsin since Leopold’s day.
The loving and thoughtful process Leopold undertook on this ranch is contemplated in this book, first in twelve month-chapters, January – December, in which he describes what he sees and discusses the significance of the passing seasons, the migrations of the sandhill cranes, the felling of “the good oak.” Thus the reader is let inside the process, not only of Leopold’s growing and maturing love for his world, but of the development of ecological philosophy. As Schwartz points out, the philosophy has continued to develop beyond Leopold’s understanding: for example, he overplanted pines on his land at the expense of other trees; he was an avid hunter, which habit would at least come under discussion today. But his legacy is palpable. Following the twelve-month almanac, in two essays, he further develops eco-philosophies, for example, the concept of the pyramid of life, in which he takes our well-known concept of food chains and ties these innumerable chains together into an infinitely complex pyramid.
I found much to appreciate in this book. Leopold is thoughtful, writes beautifully, poignantly, evocatively, makes me want to see and touch and smell the world he describes. Sewell’s accompanying photographs complete the experience; the only thing better would be to be there, myself. It is an important work; despite being more than 50 years old now, the philosophies Leopold develops are, heart-breakingly, more relevant than ever.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite lines:
Books on nature seldom mention wind; they are written behind stoves.
Leopold has gotten out into the draft to bring back to us the sensation of movement. Read him!