Monday, June 01, 2009

Book Review: Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1948)

With the Herring review finally over, I've decided to continue the book review theme by writing on a book a week. We'll see how long I can keep it up.

Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac is one of the classics of environmental literature. Leopold, a graduate of the Yale Forestry School and a biologist, was one of the founders of the modern wilderness movement. His sole book, published posthumously after he died fighting a forest fire on a neighbor's farm in 1947, remains a touchstone for environmentalists today. It's one of the few books I can assume at least some of my environmental students have read.

A Sand County Almanac is really a series of discrete essays. The first part of the book is its heart. Leopold looks at the ecology of his farm in the sand country of Wisconsin, a poor part of the country with infertile soil. In short pieces, he writes of each month of the year, talking of hunting, fishing, watching wildlife, understanding the land, migrating birds, trees, etc. The rest of the work consists of excellent if somewhat less lyrical essays about different parts of the country, the wilderness ethic, Americans relationship to the land and mistreatment of it, forestry policy, and natural and human history.

Many modern readers latch onto Leopold's discussion of wilderness and wildness. The most famous passage comes from his essay on Arizona and New Mexico, where he had served as a forestry official in the 1910s. Leopold talks of his conversion to an understanding of the necessity for wildness when he kills one of the area's few remaining wolves. He discusses watching "the fierce green fire" die in the wolf's eyes, realizing that much of what he had learned was wrong. Leopold became one of America's first advocates for wilderness, including spearheading protection for the high country of the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona in 1924. This area later became known as the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.

Many of Sand County's essays concern the need for wild spaces and that we will lose something if and when they disappear. Certainly in the mid 1940s it seemed that most of them would be developed. Many have, but Leopold might be somewhat pleasantly surprised to see how his work influenced the modern wilderness movement and the amount of land now protected. He's been less surprised to find the development ethic alive and well in the United States and the loss of millions of acres of land to development in areas not traditionally considered beautiful by western culture.

Nevertheless, I don't think Leopold's wilderness ethic is the most important lesson he has for us today. Ultimately, the core of Sand County Almanac are the discussions of his farm in the early part of the book. While most Americans can't live on a farm, Leopold is ultimately talking about his own back yard. His farm was no wilderness; in fact, it was a failed farm when he bought it. He revitalized it, cared for it, and learned from it, nursing it back to health. Maybe I can't spend half my days on my own piece of forest, I can go to my backyard, go hiking, go to the riverbed, find my own place to learn about nature. For all Leopold laments the loss of wilderness, he also cries out about the elimination of remnant wild nature too. His discussion of the last bits of wild prairie existing along highway medians and cemetery fences is great and it's as sad when those cemeteries get mowed as when Leopold kills the wolf.

What I like about both Leopold and Thoreau is the understanding that the wild is all around us if we go look for it. Even today, this is still true. By focusing on faraway wilderness areas, we forfeit the equally important battles to save small pieces of land next door--our neighbors engaging in scrape landscaping, the building of yet another WalMart, the building of another housing development in semi-wild places like Bend, Oregon; Whitefish, Montana; or any number of places in New England.

I've never taught Leopold, but I'd be real curious to hear my mostly vegetarian environmental students defend his love of hunting. While Leopold doesn't revel in bloodlust like Theodore Roosevelt, the thrill of the hunt is obvious. I've talked to old biologists who came of age soon after Leopold died and it's much the same with them. Most of these guys grew up in the outdoors during an age where hunting was something you did, almost without question, if you were an outdoorsman. Leopold clearly buys into ideas of sportsmanship created during Roosevelt's day; he inveighs against the use of technology in hunting for instance, claiming it makes things too easy and doesn't give a fair chance to the animals. From a modern perspective, that argument is pretty weak tea. If overhunting is driving animals to extinction, as Leopold claims, your hunting is just as much as fault as the suburban guy who drives out to the duck pond on the weekend. It's also elitist. Like Roosevelt and most of the early conservation movement, Leopold claimed rights to the land for himself and people like him and denied them to working class people. His training at the Yale Forestry School probably had something to do with this. The first forestry school in the nation and founded by Gifford Pinchot, the Yale Forestry School was a bastion of upper-class young men who wanted to spend their lives in the wild rather than in an office. In fact, as Louis Warren shows in his work The Hunter's Game, Leopold's first conservation campaigns in New Mexico revolved around kicking Indians off the range, enforcing hunting laws against these people and gaining support for the extremely unpopular United States Forest Service in the process.

None of this is surprising for a man of his time, but I think it's important to recognize the social context Leopold operated in rather than simply lionizing him. Sand County Almanac is a lovely book that I can recommend to everyone. It probably should be required reading in schools. But like everyone else, Leopold was a complicated figure who needs to be criticized, contextualized, and critiqued in order to glean his relevance for the present as well as the window he provides to the past.