A Sand County Almanac

I finished reading A Sand County Almanac last week. Many of the writers I’ve been reading on the topic of biodiversity refer to this book and its author, Aldo Leopold, as a must-read to understand how conservation can work and why it’s so important. It’s also a slim volume (which I listened to as an audiobook), so it wasn’t too hard to get through.

Leopold structures the book as a series of monthly essays, from January through December, documenting the interwoven life of plants and animals on his farm in Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s. A game management professional and forester by trade, Leopold had bought his 80-acre farm after it had been destroyed by overfarming by one owner, then neglected by the bootleggers who owned it next. Leopold set out to restore the area as a habitat for native birds, mammals, trees and flowers.

The almanac format lets us follow Leopold’s thoughts through the cycle of the year, from January’s snow tracks of skunks and rabbits, spring floods, summer blooms, summer fishing, autumn hunting, and the preparation of wood to burn the next winter. It gives a real unity to the stories; by the time we get to December, I really felt a familiarity and care for his property.

Leopold’s main point becomes explicit at the end, with a series of essays unrelated to his own property. And it’s this: that ecosystems are complex, interconnected entities that need to be preserved and fostered, not chop-shopped and sold for parts. It’s an idea that seems pretty reasonable from the 2020s, but it’s hard to believe that he was thinking through it over 90 years ago.

One surprising part of the book is that Leopold’s approach to conservation includes taking from the environment; chopping down trees, hunting grouse, fishing in narrow creeks. It’s a direct interaction with the natural that’s not too precious to actually, you know, eat nature. I like the appreciation he shows to trees and birds that’s not just putting them on a pedestal, but integrating them into his life.

Another is how critical conservation seemed to Leopold in the 1930s and 40s. In the essay for February, “Good Oak”, he goes backwards in time for Wisconsin’s wildlife’s history, recounting the loss of marshes, the last lynx, the last elk, the last wild turkey, the rafts of pine logs that flowed down the rivers then ceased, the thousands of prairie chickens eaten, the unintentional and intentional introduced species. Even by his time, the natural ecosystem that had evolved over millions of years had been recklessly tampered with in a course of the previous decades.

The writing is really approachable. Throughout, Leopold lends a warm humour to the stories. He leaves in the variety and simplicity of the different plants and animals; some get Latin names, others common, but they all get a little description so you can get to know them. There are definitely anachronisms; he uses “Man” and “Mankind” to refer to all humanity, and there’s a joke about being “free white and twenty-one” that lands with a clunk.

The introduction by Barbara Kingsolver gave me a chance to prep for these, so I found his original point to be strong, and I appreciated getting a chance to go to the source that inspired some of the ecologists and conservationists I like now.

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