Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Conservation and Ecology
The collected writings of American naturalist Aldo Leopold appear in a beautiful new edition from the Library of America.
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Born in Burlington, Iowa in 1887, Leopold expressed an early and prescient concern about the implications of development on the national ecology. As one of the first agents for the fledgling US Forest Service, he served in the Southwest, where he joined in the widespread slaughter of wolves that were considered pests. But after shooting into a wolf pack and killing the mother of the den, Leopold had an epiphany, concluding that such ham-fisted efforts to shape the natural world to man’s immediate needs would reap disastrous consequences. That change of heart, documented in a chapter of the “A Sand County Almanac” called “Thinking Like A Mountain,” has a distinctly mystical air: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.... I was young, then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the deer nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”Skip to next paragraph
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Leopold’s use of natural observation to yield cosmic insight places him in the transcendental tradition of Thoreau, a comparison deepened by the thematic similarities between “A Sand County Almanac” and “Walden.” Like Thoreau’s famous narrative, "A Sand County Almanac” organizes its first chapters around four seasons in a wooded landscape, although Leopold, a trained scientist, places more emphasis on a specific program of conservation.
Leopold’s life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, making him a bridge between seminal naturalists such as Thoreau and John Muir and modern commentators on the natural world such as Wendell Berry and Scott Russell Sanders. Leopold’s writing can seem antiquarian to contemporary ears; he was fond of quaint constructions such as “abed,” and he would sometimes refer to a companion as a “fellow.” Even so, many of his remarks sound as topical as the morning headlines. That’s especially true of “A Criticism of the Booster Spirit,’ in which Leopold notes that the “up-and-comingness of a town varies directly as the congestion of its billboards, luncheon clubs, and traffic, and inversely as its parking space.” That observation still bites today, although Leopold coined it in 1923.
Leopold’s “Booster” essay is among numerous writings that volume editor Curt Meine has included to supplement “A Sand County Almanac.” Meine is diligently inclusive; a letter from Leopold to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the organization of the US Forest Service bureaucracy, for example, will probably be of interest only to scholars. But there’s enough here to delight Leopold’s existing fans and perhaps attract some new ones.
“To band a bird is to hold a ticket in a great lottery,” Leopold writes near the end of "A Sand County Almanac.” “Most of us hold tickets on our own survival, but we buy them from the insurance company, which knows too much to sell us a really sporting chance. It is an exercise in objectivity to hold a ticket on the banded sparrow that falleth, or on the banded chickadee that may some day re-enter your trap, and thus prove that he is still alive.”