In the world of conservation and nature writing, “A Sand County Almanac” is described as a seminal work. Author and conservationist Aldo Leopold explores our connection with the outdoors and calls on us to take action to protect the land.
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot,” writes Leopold in his introduction. Divided into three parts, the first set of essays bring us along with Leopold on his walks to Wisconsin wetlands and forests. We see the woodcock’s sky dance; we see the Upland Plover arrive back from Argentina. In the second part, we witness Leopold’s appreciation of the crane grow as its history is revealed, and we take stock of our own recognition of wilderness and ask ourselves if the gratitude we have is enough. The third part of the book presents the concept of a Land Ethic, the section that has won the book acclaim over the years.
Leopold argues for a Land Ethic, the idea that as humans we must begin thinking about and treating land as a community member, rather than our property, in order to maintain it. Leopold writes that seeing ourselves as owners of land results in its destruction. “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.” Instead, he argues we must see ourselves as one part of a larger community in which land plays an equal role. “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
I appreciate Leopold’s advocacy for a Land Ethic and I dream of the day our society adopts one. While I don’t have the same level of misgivings for humankind that Leopold does, I do believe that we need people like him, who don’t mince words, who show us our faults and the harm they cause, and demand we do better. People like Aldo Leopold push us to think deeply about our actions, bring us to uncomfortable and yet critical conversations about our own ethics. The world would be a better place with more Aldo Leopolds in it.
There were several musings in this book that I feel warrant further discussion. One that reoccurred was the imbalance of appreciating wilderness while maintaining it. Leopold argues that we need to know and experience wilderness to have the motivation to protect it, yet to know wild places means using them and diminishing their wildness. He writes, “all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish.”
Another part of the book that stood out to me was Leopold’s scolding of mankind’s use of gadgets. “Then came the gadgeteer, otherwise known as the sporting-goods dealer. He has draped the American Outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, handihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them. Gadgets fill the pockets, they dangle from neck and belt. The overflow fills the auto-truck, and also the trailer. Each item of outdoor equipment grows lighter and often better, but the aggregate poundage becomes tonnage.”
These are two factors that contribute to the issue of access. We have people who are either not able or believe they are not welcome to participate in outdoor recreation. This is a problem I am deeply concerned about. We need to provide free and equal access to land. We need to destroy the illusion that only those with the means to acquire the newest and high-priced gear should be venturing into the woods. For-profit companies selling the gear and customers who have bought into this messaging and spread it like gospel are doing a great disservice to those in jeans and a t-shirt who are curious about an afternoon among the trees and streams, but are under the impression they won’t survive a minute in such attire. Let’s find a way to maintain our wild places while making them an inviting place for all.
Published in 1949, “A Sound County Almanac” is just as pertinent to conservation discussions today as it was 72 years ago. We still struggle to place value on land without over-running it with mass-use; we still fail to weave into education the workings of our natural world; we still debate the balance of conservation and perceived progress. Most importantly, we still need an accepted Land Ethic.
This book was chosen by the Bristol, NH Sustainability Committee to be the first in a new book group, Regenerative Reads, a partnership between the committee and the Minot-Sleeper Library. Much thanks goes to Jamie Bemis for the suggestion. I recommend this book to any group looking to explore topics of conservation, sustainability, and the ethics of outdoor recreation.
Up Next: “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things” by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
The next book in the Regenerative Reads book group series looks at how things are made and how we can rethink the lifecycle of products. We invite all to pick up a copy of “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things” at the Minot-Sleeper Library and join us on Monday, May 17 at 6:30pm for a discussion about themes presented in the book.