A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

 

"We abuse 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." -- Aldo Leopold (1886-1948). Photo: Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

"We abuse 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." -- Aldo Leopold (1886-1948). Photo: Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

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

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.

Popular Appeal

"Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven," Leopold writes. Photo: © toschphoto - Fotolia.com

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

Leopold recounts the extermination of New Mexico wolves and entreats readers to "think like a mountain." Photo: © Mark Rasmussen - Fotolia.com

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.

Jordan Jones

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Jordan Jones’ Environmental Canon

The Revenge of Gaia – Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity

John J. Audubon – Iconic Painter of Birds

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

The Creation – An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

The World Without Us

Ansel Adams at 100

The Fine Print


Neither Jordan Jones nor Blue Planet Green Living received a complimentary copy of this book or any other incentive or reward for reviewing it.

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For more details about our review policy, please visit our Policies page.

Reading Changes “the Way You See the World”

July 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Blog, Books, Front Page, Iowa

Read to find the WOW moments that change your thinking — and perhaps your life. Photo: J Wasson

Read to find the WOW moments that change your life. Photo: J Wasson

Last week, I attended a brief lecture at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City. As I listened, I felt both delighted at the opportunity to learn from a noted writer and slightly guilty about not being at my Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) desk. Then Hugh G. Ferrer, Associate Director of the University of Iowa International Writing Program, connected his talk to me in a way I hadn’t considered.

Ferrer said that each of us possesses our own “bibliography.” By this, I understood him to mean something less concrete than a physical list of all the books we’ve read. I pictured a mental catalog that includes all the ideas we’ve absorbed, whether accepted or rejected; all the people that lived within the worlds we inhabited for a time; the experts who’ve shared their theories and experiences; and all the facts we’ve collected through our reading. His words called to mind the list of books our writers have reviewed on BPGL, including Jordan Jones‘ “Environmental Canon.” Our Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) bibliography isn’t a very long list so far, yet I have not managed to read them all. My bibliography is, like everyone’s, a work in progress.

But why should reading books be so important? Why not simply get our information from sound bytes on the news, short articles on the internet, or any number of other choices — including BPGL’s book reviews?

“The way you see the world,” Ferrer said, “is informed by the fact that you’re a reader…. Literate people see the world in a different way than illiterate people do.”

What I realized is that reading allows us to immerse ourselves in the ideas the writers are doing their best to explain to us. It allows the writers’ thinking to unfold, so that our own ideas can be tested, and sometimes altered, by the thoughts of others. Sure, we can learn from authors in a lecture. We can pick up the high points in a book review. But we cannot fully experience the work unless we read it. And when we do experience a book that touches us, it changes us.

Ferrer went on to say, “Focus on your WOW moments, the parts of books — the moments in books — where you were really wowed.” Although his talk was on an entirely different topic than environmentalism, these words of his struck a chord with me. I realized that my own “WOW moments” in the environmental books I’ve read are the ones that have changed me the most.

For example, Joe and I have both been incredibly moved by The World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony by Will Tuttle, Ph.D. The book is filled with WOW moments for us, leading us to the conclusion that eating animal products is not necessary for our health and may, in fact, be detrimental to it. We also learned from Tuttle’s writing about the absolute cruelty inflicted on the animals we slaughter for food; the offspring whose mothers’ milk is denied them; the chickens, ducks, cattle, and pigs who are squeezed into horrific conditions in CAFOs; and so much more. And so, we’ve changed our eating habits, becoming largely vegans. We’re not totally successful, but we’re making great progress, and it’s due almost entirely to this one book in our shared bibliography.

There are other books that have influenced my thinking, of course. And, one day, I hope to make a physical list of my personal bibliography, to explore how my reading has shaped my thoughts. But I have only begun to learn of the books that can teach me about this environmental crusade I’m on. So, I’m asking you, What are the important books in your own bibliography? Which books should we read (and review) here on BPGL? What are some of the “WOW moments” that have profoundly affected your view of the world and our place within it?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Silent Spring

Springs like these were the subject of Carson's book. Photo: Joe Hennager

Springs like this were the subject of Carson's work. Photo: Joe Hennager

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


First published in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is undoubtedly one of the founding texts of the modern environmental movement. Indeed, as Al Gore noted in his introduction to a 1994 edition, “without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.” I suppose it is a credit to the book’s influence and power that many of its ideas have become widely accepted by the great majority of the public (surely by visitors to this site) and appear so obvious that it seems incredible someone had to write a book to prove them.

Silent Spring was the first popular work of nonfiction to document the dangerous and deadly effects of pesticides on the environment. We now take for granted that chemicals can blight the landscape and cause cancer, but in Carson’s day those ideas were largely unheard of, at least among the general public. The book was actually quite unusual for its time, not only for its scientific revelations, but also for the fact that it flew in the face of Progress — that great American ideal — and refuted the common view that the natural world was a limitless, yet easily subjugated, resource. In Silent Spring, Carson contended that science and industry would perhaps not be able to deliver on their promise of a better world. On the contrary, she told us, the scientific wonders ostensibly developed to help grow the food of humanity could perhaps be the end of it.

The present-day reader can be forgiven for being less than awed by Carson’s thesis, which is as follows: Through an overuse and over-reliance on pesticides, humanity is poisoning the flora and fauna of the land, as well as itself. The application of these chemicals causes them to become a toxic, almost ineradicable presence in the ecosystem, a presence which affects virtually all plants and animals. In addition, it is nearly certain that exposure to these substances causes disease (especially cancer) in humans. Oh, and by the way, pesticides are largely ineffective.

The impact of this book is hard to overstate. It is one of the few books in American literature that can safely be said to have changed the national discourse, belonging to the same rarefied circle as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. Upon its publication, it was immediately the subject of much discussion and controversy (as it is even today). As the clamor grew, so did the sales. The general public was fascinated and appalled by Carson’s findings, and Silent Spring enjoyed a long stay on the bestseller list, helped by its excerpting in The New Yorker and its selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her critics denounced her as a fraud, a liar, a pagan, and a Communist. (The reasoning behind this last epithet followed from the observation that Carson was unmarried, despite being attractive.) Ironically, the massive propaganda campaign waged against her by the chemical industry and big business only contributed to the book’s fame.

Before long, President Kennedy was forced to appoint a special panel to investigate the book’s dire findings. The panel confirmed Carson’s claims, and eventually Congress held hearings on the matter; Carson herself testified. Though she died of breast cancer in 1964, her book and her ideas lived on. The major environmental achievements of that era — the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the banning of the pesticide DDT, the passage of the Endangered Species Act — can be directly or indirectly traced to Carson’s explosive book and the outrage it provoked among the general public.

Silent Spring is one of those books that is talked about more than it is read, its fame and influence overshadowing its very considerable merits. This is really too bad, because the work is beautifully written, and Carson’s arguments are as devastating and persistent as DDT.

The book begins with a pastoral portrait of a prosperous, small, American town. The crops are plentiful, the fish bite, the birds sing, etc. But suddenly, the crops begin to wither and die, the fish are found belly-up in the river, and no birds sing. This results in a (wait for it) — silent spring! The rest of the book is an attempt to explain “what has already silenced the voices of spring in countess towns in America.”

Carson was a naturalist before she became a writer, and her fine prose demonstrates that the project was the perfect pairing of author and subject. She was already recognized as a great writer before Silent Spring, her fourth book — she was so good that The Atlantic Monthly even published her brochure copy — but she clearly pulls off something quite remarkable in this work. She writes like a woman who divides her reading time between scientific studies and poetry (the title was inspired by a John Keats poem). Here’s a sample:

“One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and to substitute grasslands.  If ever an enterprise needed to be illuminated with a sense of history and meaning of the landscape, it is this. For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it. It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread.”

In chapters with names like “Rivers of Death,” “Indiscriminately from the Skies,” and “Needless Havoc,” Carson thoroughly makes her case against the careless and excessive use of pesticides (she never comes out against them entirely, as her detractors have claimed). She touches upon many subjects: the toxic effect of pesticides and their misuse, the prevalence of carcinogenic chemicals in daily life, the deceptive practices of the chemical industry, the natural cycles of different ecosystems, and the better, less dangerous (and even more effective), alternatives to pesticides.

Along the way, Carson takes the reader on a tour through the natural world, and I think it is this aspect of the book that makes it something special. Carson’s passion and enthusiasm for the natural world are evident even when she is writing about dirt (the “realms of the soil,” she eloquently calls it); the reader cannot help but share in her wonder. She reveals nature to be an extraordinarily interconnected system, a glorious monument to complexity, diversity, and — ultimately — empathy. In charting the murderous journey of a drop of poison up and down the food chain, she demonstrates that every living thing is connected to every other living thing. “In nature nothing exists alone,” Carson tells us.

For me, this revelation is what makes Silent Spring worth reading, because it is a revelation that is so easily forgotten. Sure, the science and statistics are old, but the message, the overriding theme of the book, is just as relevant today as it was then, if not more so. Indeed, if we consider ourselves environmentalists, it is our duty to remind ourselves and others of the reality of the natural world and humanity’s place in it. The book is almost fifty years old, so read it not for an up-to-date account of agriculture or medical science today, but to be inspired and stirred, as others were before you. Unless we do something soon, we will inhabit “a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight,” a world of devastation, of silent springs.

Jordan Jones

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Other Posts in Jones’ “Environmental Canon”

The Revenge of Gaia – Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity

John J. Audubon – Iconic Painter of Birds

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

The Creation – An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

The World Without Us

Ansel Adams at 100

Jordan Jones, Contributing Writer

January 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Environmental Canon, Jordan Jones

Jordan Jones, Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living is pleased to introduce Jordan Jones, who will be writing periodic book reviews in a column he calls the “Environmental Canon.” — Julia Wasson, Publisher


The “Environmental Canon” will be dedicated to examining the major and minor texts of environmentalism. We will explore the various books that have had an important impact on environmentalism, as well as the books that deserve to. My aim is to create a sort of informal catalog of the “great books” of the environmental movement, to examine their influence, history, and artistry.

The idea for this project came about from my own need to educate myself on these issues, which I feel to be the most serious crises facing humanity in our time. At the same time, I also had a desire to get involved in the conversation, to teach others and to learn from them. I hope to review a wide array of books, and I am always open to suggestion. After all, I’m learning right along with everyone else.

I am 23 years old and full of that empathetic enthusiasm so common to youth. Originally from Des Moines, I attended the University of Iowa from 2004 to 2008, graduating last spring with degrees in English and History. After graduation, I joined AmeriCorps and got a job at the Iowa Valley Habitat for Humanity affiliate, building houses for those in need. Sometimes I work in the Habitat ReStore, a shop that sells discount building materials and furniture. I love my job and I learn new things literally every day.

As I get older, I find myself increasingly interested in the world around me and what I can do to improve it. I will admit that I am by no means an environmental expert. But in place of technical knowledge, I bring a sense of curiosity, urgency, and an abiding belief in the need to nurture and protect the natural world. I look forward to educating others (as well as myself) and to advancing the cause of environmentalism, which, in essence, is a form of humanitarianism.

I currently reside in Iowa City and spend my free time reading, writing, and watching movies. I also just became a vegetarian, so I’ve begun to get a little creative with my cooking. You’ll usually find me hunched over a book at a coffee shop, pretending I’m still a student.

Jordan Jones (Top of Page)

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living

Jordan’s Posts

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

John J. Audubon, Iconic Painter of Birds

Book Review: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

The World Without Us

Ansel Adams at 100

Silent Spring

My 5: Jordan Jones, AmeriCorps