2002-03-30: A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac

With Essays on Conservation (1949)

by Aldo Leopold (1887-1948)

I don’t know when I first read this work, but it must have been before 1992, when I started writing these reports on my “serious” reading. However, it was likely not long before, as the very first of these reports that I wrote was for “The Compleat Angler”. I’m pretty sure I was in the mood for this kind of book about that time.

The book I first read was a paperback edition issued in 1989. That contained the Almanac, Sketches Here and There (which I vaguely remember fondly), and five essays. This book is a large format, glossy edition with photographs by Michael Sewell, and an introduction by Kenneth Brower. It was issued in 2001. It contains the Almanac, one of the sketches (Marshland Elegy), and one essay (The Land Ethic).

The notes to the book say it has been in print continuously since 1949 (it was published after Leopold’s death in 1948). As Brower says:

If the environmental movement has sacred texts – literary cornerstones – then they are Thoreau’s Walden, George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, Carson’s Silent Spring, and Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. The almanac is an epochal, seminal, ageless work. It is bible still for land managers; koran for those of us who work the soil where literature overlaps ecology; urtext for the ecological restoration movement.

In addition to his text, apparently his shack on his farm has become a shrine of sorts. The pictures here were taken near the shack in all seasons.

The almanac and the sketches are interesting, and I recommend them. As Leopold said in his Foreword, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” And for those of us who can for long stretches of time, but must have an occasional dose, they are inspiring. I can’t do them justice, so I simply recommend them.

The notes I do want to make have to do with the memetic struggle he alludes to in The Land Ethic. He says, “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it.” This is a pure expression of the Reflective Realm, and ought to serve as the core of an example of that kind of thinking.

In trying to explain his vision of the concepts that ought to form the core of ecological thinking, he introduces the notion of the land pyramid, attempting to displace the too-simple notion of “the balance of nature”. He fills the pyramid with food chains, circuits carrying energy in various forms between different types of lower and higher organisms. It would probably be easier in the age of the Internet to sell the notion of ecological webs, and dispense with a too-simple geometric image. Still the metaphor is used to introduce “three basic ideas:

  1. That land is not merely soil.
  2. That the native plants and animals kept the energy circuit open; others may or may not.
  3. That man-made changes are of a different order than evolutionary changes, and have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen.

These ideas, collectively, raise two basic issues: Can the land adjust itself to the new order? Can the desired alterations be accomplished with less violence?

His expression of ideas in the Reflective Realm is further illustrated:

It of course goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether of what can or cannot be done for land. It always has and it always will. The fallacy the economic determinists have tied around our collective neck, and which we now need to cast off, is the belief that economics determines all land-use. This is simply not true. An innumerable host of actions and attitudes, comprising perhaps the bulk of all land relations, is determined by the land-users’ tastes and predilections, rather than by his purse. The bulk of all land relations hinges on investments of time, forethought, skill, and faith rather than on investments of cash. As a land-user thinketh, so is he.

I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever “written.” Only the most superficial student of history supposes that Moses “wrote” the Decalogue; it evolved in the minds of a thinking community, and Moses wrote a tentative summary of it for a “seminar.” I say tentative because evolution never stops.

The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process. Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land, or of economic land-use. I think it is a truism that as the ethical frontier advances from the individual to the community, its intellectual content increases.

The mechanism of operation is the same as for any ethic: social approbation for right actions: social disapproval for wrong actions.

I have seldom found such a clear expression of memetic principles, even in people working more centrally in the social sciences.


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