A Sand County Almanac: & Sketches Here and There

By Aldo Leopold
Published by OUP
Paperback £6.99 available at Bookbusters

REVIEW BY TIM BARTON

Aldo Leopold died in 1948, helping fight a wildfire on a neighbour’s farm. He had worked in the US Forest Service and in game management. For years, he had a weekend farmstead as a retreat in Wisconsin’s ‘Sand Counties’, not regarded as ‘good’ (agricultural) land. He kept a close watch on the area’s flora and fauna, their patterns and tribulations. The first half of this book is taken from his month-by-month almanac of the seasonal changes nature wrought on his backlot – it is first class nature-writing.

The second half is themed around economic, political and philosophical thoughts birthed in his growing experience of the interconnectedness of the biomes he studied, the strengths and weaknesses of the web of life. The final chapter is The Land Ethic, built in the heady air of higher awareness and drawn from his preceding thoughts and learning.

This ‘land ethic’ became a keystone of the conservation movement, placing Leopold alongside John Muir and Henry David Thoreau, and the popularity of his Almanac amongst the American public laid the groundwork for the success of later key writers there, such as Rachel Carson and Jean Craighead George. Carson’s Silent Spring begat the modern environmental movement (and it’s battles are illustrated today in the Native American anti-pipeline protests in USA and Canada, and in the excellent new movie Dark Waters); George’s novels were a major influence on the more ecologically aware policies of the Kennedy administration (and channels the same frontier spirit as Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang).

Aldo Leopold’s awareness of our embeddedness in nature, of the complex interactions of all life on his farmstead, in the national parks and forests, and beyond, following the migration routes of the birds that each year visited the ponds and lakes of Wisconsin, grew in depth and subtlety. His astonishment at man’s easy way with polluting and degrading the land also grew. We continue to degrade the natural world to support our unsustainable ‘civilisation’, in ways that would shock and disgust Leopold.

‘We now know that animal populations have behaviour patterns of which the individual animal is unaware, but which he nevertheless helps to execute. Thus the rabbit is unaware of cycles, but he is the vehicle for cycles. We cannot discern these behaviour patterns in the individual, or in short periods of time [but] from a scrutiny of the mass through decades. This raises the disquieting question: do human populations have behaviour patterns of which we are unaware but which we help to execute? Are mobs and wars, unrests and revolutions, cut of such cloth?’ Leopold asks – to a large degree, rhetorically, as we can all be sure the answer to the first question is ‘yes, but not so blindly, whatever our excuses’ and to the second, ‘hell, yes’.

Thoreau said that wilderness was the salvation of the world. And over the decades many grassroots organisations have sprouted to confront the rape of the earth by an open-eyed greedy society – one that absolutely cannot, still, claim ignorance of the coming collapse. A balance ecology requires a return of large tracts of wilderness, and a backing away from our squeamish distaste for predators and for husbandry. Saving wilderness will also require ‘a militant minority of wilderness-minded citizens […] on watch throughout the nation, and available for action at a pinch.’

We can hope that Extinction Rebellion may grow and not be greenwashed and co-opted

We can hope that Extinction Rebellion may grow and not be greenwashed and co-opted by a media and industry whose short-term gain trumps our long-, and even medium-term interests. I suspect a more radical group will need to emerge from it, possibly a vigorously expanded ‘Deep Green Resistance’. There can be no doubt we will all be deemed ‘radicalised’ either way, although the truly dangerously radicalised organisations are the neo-liberal rapacious capitalist ones – they are the ones stealing the very tools needed for our basic survival, by demolishing nature’s web.

The land is ‘an organism’ with ‘the capacity for internal self-renewal known as health’, and has become increasingly subject to human interference and control. Leopold lobbies for a new Ethics to repair our relationship with the land.  Amongst the observations he makes are these two: Pines in old fields never reach the size or resilience to winter winds that those in uncleared forest soil do, and the reasons include that ‘in the latter case, the roots follow old root channels, and thus strike deeper.’ And, even whilst we ‘derange’ the wilderness, ‘it required only a few wild acres […] to discover why prairie flora is more drought-resistant than the agronomic flora which has supplanted it’ – as we also learn from contemporary work on tree-root systems, these ‘prairie species practise “team work” underground by distributing their root-systems to cover all levels’, whereas modern farmed agricultural plants do not. As Vernadsky, the Russian scientist who coined the word ‘biosphere’, pointed out, the soil down to the bedrock is alive and our industrial infractions upon it are having frankly apocalyptic side-effects. Only urgent and radical action can mitigate the damage done.

Undoubtedly, should he have survived his neighbours’s brush fire, Leopold would have written more on this philosophical level and, with his access to environmentally engaged US state institutions, may have helped altered the path Americans took from the late 50s onwards. His message is no less important today, and after decades of inaction is, like the 1972 Club of Rome report ‘The Limits To Growth’, all the more important.

This month, a new Penguin edition of A Sandy County Almanac is out. Bookbuster will be stocking the beautifully illustrated OUP edition at a slightly better price. It is a book worthy of its continuous availability in print. Bookbuster will be hosting a reading circle to debate the contemporary resonances of this wonderful book, probably after Easter – look out for it.


We hope you have enjoyed reading this article. The future of our volunteer led, non-profit publication would be far more secure with the aid of a small donation. You can also support local journalism by becoming a friend of HIP. It only takes a minute and we would be very grateful.