Book Review: A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

In Birds, Book Reviews, Conservation, Endangered Species, Nonfiction, Trees by John Yunker


Reading A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold I am struck time and again by how contemporary it feels.

This is a testament to Leopold, who wrote this book back in the late 1940s, yet clearly had future generations in mind.

Leopold saw the environmental issues we are struggling with today because he was struggling with similar issues in his time.

During his life in the forest service and in teaching he had come to believe that we needed to develop a new relationship with nature, one no longer based on dominion and extraction. He saw the need for wilderness areas in a time in which people might have assumed we had more than enough wilderness, writing: Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow.

The Sand County Almanac is often cited along with Walden for its influence on the modern conservation movement, and rightfully so.

It is a collection of essays and observations, each of which can stand on its own.

My favorite essay is one in which Leopold turns the simple act of sawing through a fallen tree into a dive back into history, recounting the events that occurred during the period of each tree ring.

An ever-present theme to this book is that of loss. The loss of virgin prairies, virgin forests, virgin streams and bogs. The loss of passenger pigeons. Grizzly bears and elk. I found myself stopping again and again to jot down lines such as:

Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.

We grieve only for what we know.

And boy, did Leopold take issue with the recreational use of our national parks, the day-trippers and trophy hunters. He writes:

Because everybody from Xenophon to Teddy Roosevelt said sport has value, it is assumed that this value must be indestructible.

The trophy-recreationist has peculiarities that contribute in subtle ways to his own undoing. To enjoy he must possess, invade, appropriate. Hence the wilderness that he cannot personally see has no value to him. Hence the universal assumption that an unused hinterland is rendering no service to society. To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.

It is the expansion of transport without a corresponding growth of perception that threatens us with qualitative bankruptcy of the recreational process. Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.

Here in Southern Oregon, where mountain bikers now crowd hikers and birders off trails, I think of Leopold’s book often.

A Sand County Almanac