Review of A Sand County Almanac

Written in 1948, A Sand County Almanac demonstrates that Aldo Leopold is a writer’s writer as well as a naturalist’s naturalist. He taught and wrote about the new science of ecology, which he explained as ‘a reversal of specialization; instead of learning more and more about less and less, we must learn more and more about the whole biotic landscape.’

By ‘the whole biotic landscape’ Leopold meant life and everything which supports it. Sometimes the answer is not in the parts nor their sum. In fact, taking something apart may destroy it, and possibly more. He wrote: ‘you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism.’

He taught that ‘the competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the co-operations’ and that ‘natural history deals only incidentally with the identity of plants and animals…. It deals principally with their relations to each other, their relation to the soil and water in which they grew, and their relations to the human beings who sing about “my country” but see little or nothing of its inner workings.’

In fact, the whole universe and all its components, from quarks to galactic strings, may be less about the components and more about the relationships, because everything’s connected.

To show this, Leopold imagined the earthly history of an atom. For ages, it’s locked in rock. Released, it joins the dance of life, making many things possible, even shadow and song. How is the non-physical–such as song–connected an atom? Leopold provided clues in giving examples of food chains, not all links of which are physical–’the goshawk who named your river, … the quail who taught you a lesson in botany, and the turkey who daily gives you the slip.’ The atom is there in the goshawk, the quail, or the turkey, but not quite in the naming nor the lesson nor the dodge. Again, it’s not in the parts or their sum, but only in the whole picture. The dance, the mystery, our questing, goes on, probably until the end of time.

Leopold developed a land ethic that was ecological as well as philosophical. For Leopold, ‘land’ was simply an individual’s community enlarged to include the ground, the water, the air, and all life. All life is interdependent–the human is no longer conqueror but equal member.

He ordered things in food chains, and arranged those chains in a ‘land pyramid’ with large carnivores at the peak and plants and soil at the base converting solar energy to terrestrial food.

We now think of ‘webs’ rather than ‘chains’, creating a bio-feedback, for those near the peak become food for those nearer the base. Leopold himself recognized that a living ethic changes and evolves, as does the rest of life.

In an example of this bio-feedback, the giant whale dies and sinks to the bottom to feed micro-organisms. In so doing, energy, which has been accumulating from smaller to bigger, transfers from the large to the small and the whole maintains integrity. ‘A thing is right if it tends to preserve the stability, integrity, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong if it tends otherwise,’ Leopold is often quoted, for here is the pith of his land ethic.

Leopold ends with a ‘plea for the preservation of some tag-ends of wilderness’ and ‘building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.’ Thoreau knew that ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world.’ Leopold believed culture springs from the wild and continues to draw from it. But to preserve its wildness we can’t culture it. Hands off! Writing a half-century before about nature, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins warned that ‘even where we mean/to mend her we end her’, an irony Leopold noted. Rather than seeking to mend, perhaps we should leave things alone, for the ‘ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis,’ Leopold wrote, ‘to a question of intellectual humility.’

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