A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
The following book review is part of a series writer Jordan Jones calls the “Environmental Canon,” books that have shaped the environmental movement. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
Environmentalism is a field of moral philosophy. Forgive me my bluntness but this is a fact all too often forgotten — by environmentalists and by the public at large. Environmentalism can be characterized (and caricatured) in all manner of ways, and its adherents are usually imagined to be one of three types: the lab-coated scientist, the long-haired hippie, and even, controversial as it may be, the gun-toting hunter. A figure usually absent from these disparate coalitions, however, is the philosopher. This is a grave omission, as it is the philosopher who provides the intellectual underpinning for the whole movement.
Indeed, it’s the philosopher (or the moralist, or the activist, or the intellectual — use whatever label you would like) who articulates the movement’s beliefs to the movement itself and the public at large. Environmentalism, like any other movement throughout history, has a great need for people of this kind, people who can explain to others, clearly and vividly, “What’s it all about?”
Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was one such philosopher. Though an accomplished scientist and expert in wildlife management, his greatest contribution to the environmentalism movement has been philosophical or moral in nature. He is widely considered one of the most influential environmentalists of all time, right up there with Rachel Carson, whom he predates. His great reputation and influence belies the fact that it rests primarily on one book, the slim, artful A Sand County Almanac.
First published posthumously in 1949 by his son, Luna (the name of an environmentalist’s child if there ever was one), the book was little noticed by the public at large until the environmental movement of the ’60s and ’70s took off (partly as a result of the work of Carson, Leopold’s intellectual heir). There are now over two million copies of the work in print, and its influence is still felt in the American conservation movement and in the vital school of environmental thought known as Deep Ecology. A Sand County Almanac is considered one of the seminal texts of environmentalism.
The Almanac contains no unified narrative. Rather, it is a loosely structured series of essays and prose sketches involving philosophy, ecology and memoir that, taken as a whole, succeed wonderfully in imparting Leopold’s unique insights and unified ethical philosophy. Leopold reveals himself to be a wise and gentle visionary, and it is fitting that this book was the last thing he would ever publish and would thereby serve as his monument.
Leopold’s Land Ethic
The book is divided into three parts. Part I, “A Sand County Almanac” reveals what Leopold’s family “sees and does at its weekend refuge from too much modernity: ‘the shack’ ” in rural Wisconsin. Part II, “Sketches Here and There” is a loose collection of autobiographical episodes culled from Leopold’s long career at the National Forest Service and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The third and final part, “The Upshot,” is a thoughtful meditation on the issues facing the environmental movement and the moral and ethical implications of environmentalism. It is in this section that Leopold articulates his famous “land ethic”: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” With these two sentences, Leopold authored the Golden Rule of our era.
While that may sound hyperbolic, consider the reciprocal nature of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There is an underlying sense of the importance of community and of mutual exchange. Respectful reciprocity, it seems, is the key to ethical behavior. What Leopold does then, is expand this idea to include the whole of the land and the biota. In doing this, he rightly points out that ethics is expansive in nature:
The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals; the Mosaic Decalogue is an example of this. Later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society. The Golden Rule tries to integrate the individual to society; democracy to integrate social organization to the individual.
Where do we go from there? To Nature, of course, the natural world. “All ethics so far evolved 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 the soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” It seems pretty reasonable when you consider that it is Nature with whom we have the most intimate and long-lasting interactions. No parent, child or lover comes close to, say, bacteria or the air we breathe. Nature is with us from birth, perhaps even before and after, depending on your metaphysical leanings. Within this system of ethics, then, humanity is but one component of the great order of things, one citizen (with all citizenship’s attendant rights and responsibilities) in a teeming metropolis.
While this kind of thinking is surely appealing to any serious student of ecology (or moral philosophy for that matter), it would be very uncharacteristic of the general public to embrace a book of philosophy. But A Sand County Almanac has a great many things that appeal to the general reader. First and foremost, Leopold is an elegant and witty writer, the equal of Rachel Carson, in my opinion.
A good example of this is the extended meditation on the nature of tree rings and of the saw. Felling a tree is, in a sense, a journey back in time: “We cut 1908, a dry year when the forests burned fiercely and Wisconsin parted with its last cougar. We cut 1907, when a wandering lynx, looking in the wrong direction for the promised land, ended his career among the farms of Dane County.” As the tree totters and descends, there is the elegant flourish: “By its fall the tree attests the unity of the hodge-podge called history.”
Leopold’s purpose is serious, yet he allows some humor into his writing — a good thing: “There seems to be the tacit assumption that if grizzlies survive in Canada and Alaska, that is good enough. It is not good enough for me. The Alaskan bears are a distinct species. Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.”
Leopold’s prose style is wonderfully clear, and he demonstrates a talent for summing up complex processes in simple stories (fables always being a popular way to impart lessons.) A bus ride through rural Illinois becomes an opportunity to describe the effects of industrialized agriculture on the landscape and to criticize the oblivious passengers to whom “Illinois is only the sea on which they sail to ports unknown.” Leopold may as well be describing our own increasingly urbanized society, we who benefit from industrialized agriculture, but who remain willfully blind to the devastation it has wrought. Like Leopold’s passengers, we talk about “baseball, taxes, sons-in-law, movies, motors, and funerals, but never about the heaving groundswell” of the heartland, the very thing that makes baseball, etc., possible.
Thinking Like a Mountain
Another striking anecdote can be found in the brief essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.” In recounting the extermination of New Mexico’s wolves, Leopold vividly illustrates the interconnectedness of the natural world. In the absence of their natural predators, the deer of New Mexico were allowed to reproduce uncontrollably and devastate the landscape. Leopold describes a mountain so barren it is “as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise.” In order to avoid such blunders, we humans must learn to see the whole picture, to “think like a mountain.”
“Thinking like a mountain” would seem to be the great challenge of humanity going forward into the 21st century. It is difficult, not just because of the complex considerations it involves, but because it requires a new kind of moral reasoning, one largely alien to our fast-paced, industrialized society.
As the Catholic Church (who, by the way, recently declared pollution a sin) will tell you, morality must be taught. Consider A Sand County Almanac, then, as a kind of catechism for a new age, an age which requires a sea change in our thinking, in our moral reasoning, if humanity and the Earth are going to survive. Enormous challenges face us, now and in the future. Luckily, Leopold, Carson and other philosophers have already bestowed their wisdom upon us and laid the groundwork for a new kind of thinking. We would be wise to revisit their teachings.
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