American naturalist Aldo Leopold is best known for “A Sand County Almanac,” a book that achieved a success Leopold didn’t live to enjoy. Oxford University Press accepted the collection of nature essays in April of 1948, but Leopold died unexpectedly of a heart attack a week later while helping put out a grass fire on his neighbor’s rural Wisconsin farm.
Based on Leopold’s experiences restoring his own Wisconsin farm to ecological health, “A Sand County Almanac” has sold more than 2 million copies in 10 languages. In one of the more affecting scenes in “Green Fire,” a 2011 documentary about Leopold’s life, the author’s fans can be seen clutching worn paperback editions of his master work. The tattered volumes suggest that many of Leopold’s admirers take his prose along with them on hikes and camping trips, enjoying his reflections on the outdoors under the open sky that Leopold claimed as his private cathedral.
The Library of America’s new edition, Aldo Leopold: A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Conservation and Ecology, is a beautiful book, as all LOA editions are, but one can’t easily imagine throwing it in a knapsack. The book follows the LOA tradition of exquisite binding and acid-free paper, with a ribbon bookmark stitched into the spine, and the reader feels as if he’s holding a church hymnal. I felt the same way about reading this new Library of America version of Leopold as I did when I got the LOA’s Henry David Thoreau collection. There’s pleasure, of course, in seeing an American literary original inducted into the LOA’s canon – the closest thing in our national culture to a literary hall of fame. But there’s a fear, too, that any personality bound up in the LOA’s reverentially executed series will seem embalmed.
It’s a concern that LOA’s staff appeared to anticipate in the design of this new book, which forgoes the signature black LOA dust jacket – its in-house equivalent of a sensible shoe – in favor of a cover brightened by a photograph of ducks flying across an azure lake. A red, white, and blue ribbon underlines Leopold’s name on the cover – a not-so-subtle reminder that Leopold’s brand of patriotism had a love of the North American landscape at its center.
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.”
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.”