Wisconsin’s Walden, and an ecological call to arms
The book is divided into three parts. The first section, A Sand County Almanac, is a nature-writing memoir similar to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. While at the University of Wisconsin, Leopold purchased a plot of land outside Baraboo in Sauk County (there is no Sand County in Wisconsin; the phrase refers to the region’s sandy soil). Leopold and his family spent their weekends on this farm and woodland, living in a shack that is now a National Historic Landmark. Leopold records a year in the life of this sand county land, describing the sights and sounds of each season and explaining the natural processes taking place. Amidst these empirical observations, Leopold emphasizes the holistic unity of all natural phenomena that comprise an ecosystem. He also frequently recounts the natural history of the region by discussing the changes in the biome over time. Leopold’s nature writing is some of the best ever written in the English language. He combines scientific objectivity with philosophical thoughtfulness, often giving the reader new insights into familiar species. Unlike Thoreau, Leopold doesn’t venture off into philosophical asides or literary flourishes. He sticks to the subject of nature, and his prose is quotably eloquent, articulate, and accessible to readers of all levels.
The second part of the book, Sketches Here and There, is a series of writings about places where Leopold lived, worked, or traveled, among them Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Manitoba. The writing is similar in style and quality to A Sand County Almanac but starts to introduce more discussion of land and wildlife management. The highlight is Leopold’s vivid memories of two canoe trips he took through the Sierra Madre in Mexico.
The third section of the book, entitled The Upshot, consists of four chapters in which Leopold stresses the importance of wilderness, criticizes current practices of land management, and outlines his own plan for conservation. A lifelong hunter, Leopold does not object to recreational use, but laments the trend in outdoor sportsmanship towards gadgetry and convenience and away from traditional woodcraft and communion with nature. He proposes the formation of a land ethic where nature and its resources are not judged by their monetary value but by their value to the overall health and well-being of the Earth. To adopt such a land ethic, mankind must view himself as an equal participant in nature rather than a master with dominion over it.
Leopold died shortly after the completion of this book, but his call to arms has not gone unheard, and this book has proven very influential to the American environmental movement. He would no doubt be pleased at some of the developments that have taken place since his passing, such as the establishment of large national parks in Alaska and the reintroduction of predator species. One would also have to admit, however, that we are still a long way from living the land ethic of which Leopold dreamed. Nevertheless, Leopold’s insightful writing does succeed in changing the way one thinks about nature. Whether you are a hunter, a farmer, a birdwatcher, a tree-hugger, or just someone who enjoys a walk in the woods, there is much to learn from A Sand County Almanac, and much to enjoy.
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