A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here and There, by Aldo Leopold ★★★

This book is very popular among environmental groups as it offers a strong case for the current environmental movement, and is often quoted by environmentalists. I became interested in the book only after reading another environmental book, Another Shade of Green, also recently reviewed by me. 

This edition is divided into 4 parts; 1) a fairly lengthy introduction by Robert Finch, which I’ll not review, 2) A Sand County Almanac, which is observations Leopold made on his farm in central Wisconsin for each month of a certain year. 3) Sketches Here and There, which are brief observations from various states of the USA and Mexico. 4) Leopold attempting to lay a philosophical basis for the environmental movement. Section 2 and 3 are very similar in their style detailing Leopold’s observations of nature, but are organized first chronologically, and then location-wise. 

First, I found it challenging to stomach the arrogance of Aldo Leopold. He is constantly making statements suggesting that he sees things in nature that other people callously don’t pause to notice. But, are you surprised? That is what Aldo is supposed to be doing. He has been trained to observe nature, and that was his occupation. He knows the names of minute plants and organisms. I scarcely am able to differentiate the names of various common trees. But, I am a trained surgeon and notice physical characteristics of the human body that go unnoticed by everybody else. Yet, I don’t insult or condescend to my patients for not noticing things that I have been trained to notice. That one does not quickly identify subtle changes in nature, or take note of obscure plants that wax and wane over the year, does not reflect on one’s absence of appreciation for nature. Similarly, my patients appreciate good health, even though they are not always cognizant of subtle signs and symptoms that reflect a loss of that good health. 

Leopold appeals most to the irrational emotions of people by creating a Disneyesque nature to our world. Animals talk and think rationally. Animals think out a rationality to nature that simply doesn’t exist. In the process, Leopold turns our world into a giant version of Disneyland. The technique of personalizing beasts of the field and birds of the air leaves for delightful reading. Doesn’t one often have curiosity as to what animals are thinking about? It’s ok to be creating scenarios of sentient creatures, but don’t sell it as a plea to protect our world.

Leopold is often hypocritical about protecting nature. He loves to hunt but laments how hunting has altered the ecosphere. He loves nature but complains when others get out into nature in a different style than him, such as through the use of RVs and motorhomes, etc. He bemoans over-population but doesn’t volunteer to help reduce human population by eliminating himself. Clearly, he lives in a solipsistic world that has reduced tolerance to those different from himself.

The greatest thing I noticed in reading this book is that Leopold remains entire blind to the most obvious fact observable in nature, that of a Creator. Leopold will frequently refer to Biblical stories, though they are treated more in a fairytale fashion than actual history. His god is evolution which created his beloved environment through time and chance from the primordial slime. Yet, the heavens and firmament are screaming at deafening volumes as to a loving, wonderful God who gave us a beautiful earth. It is sad that Leopold doesn’t see the forest because of the trees, and fails to realize that there is a connectivity, and moral rationale for protecting nature based on a desire to care and nurture the world God has given to us.

I found part 4 of this book the most interesting, but also the most muddled in thinking. He agonizes about a “land ethic” but never defines it completely. Then, he details the two types of environmentalists, those that are mostly hunters/RV campers/occasional participants in the outdoors, and those that have a strong interest in going as natural as possible and preserving wilderness as a natural phenomenon. He could have picked two names, Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, to make his point, but he didn’t. His idea was that the more “natural” we keep nature, the higher good is obtained. Now, I have my repulsion for hunters and RV campers, but that doesn’t make me establish a superior attitude to them. We all enjoy nature in different ways. I tend to side with the later (John Muir) camp, but also realize that we have a responsibility to care for nature. I also have a very difficult time identifying that the more natural things are, the better off they are. A perfect example is the California forests, which are burning up because of the absence of forest management. Another example is the rise of Lyme disease in the Northeast because of the return of farmed lands to “nature”. It is difficult for me to grasp exactly what the most proper natural state of the biosphere would be. I also have difficulty seeing the moral superiority of a burned-out piece of wilderness over a carefully managed piece of wilderness. The most aggressive environmental pundits long wistfully for wilderness in the Daniel Boone sense, but that is a wish that is similar to wishing that one could again believe in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. An expansive wilderness that covers half a continent simply will never again happen. 

Aldo Leopold paints a very fancy picture of the outdoors and longs wistfully for the wild untouched land of yesteryear, but that doesn’t help when attempting to create a rational policy toward wilderness and natural sites management. The environment remains an emotional issue for all. Who is there that cannot gaze upon a majestic mountain scene or a stately elk in its native environment, and not be overwhelmed with emotion. These emotions don’t help when attempting to formulate public policy. Leopold worked in the public sector all his life and should have known better. In my opinion, wilderness speaks for itself. Most people agree that we must not destroy the natural beauty of our world. How we go about saving our natural areas, and exactly what is meant by saving our natural areas remains a topic of discussion. Overmanagement might be a grave evil, but so is undermanagement. This is our earth, and we must care for it diligently but cautiously. 

I can appreciate the witness that Leopold gives to the beauty and majesty of our natural world. I don’t appreciate that he fails to discuss the most obvious conclusion of his observations, that…

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

…yet, there remain so many folk, especially educated elitists like Leopold, that close their eyes and remain deaf to the obvious, that we live in our Father’s world, and because it is His, we darn well better take good care of it!