(Reading time: 4 - 7 minutes)
Sand County Almanac Book Cover

Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, is near the top of many lists of environmental classics. It was published in 1949, and has sold over two million copies. He was born in Iowa in 1887, when Earth was inhabited by just 1.4 billion humans. It was an era before radio, television, automobiles, airplanes, computers, DDT, nuclear fission, and antibiotics. Most roads were dirt. Vast ancient forests still thrived. On the first page, Leopold informs us that this is a book for people who cannot live without wild things.

Part one is a series of twelve sketches, one for each month. They describe how the land changes during the circle of the seasons — the return of the geese, the mating ritual of the woodcocks, the rutting of the deer, the bloody snow where predators snatched prey. They describe what life was like in simpler times, before the sprawl, the malls, the highways, the tsunami of idiotic consumer crap. People were more in touch with the life of the land, because it had not yet been deleted.

In 1935, Leopold bought a farm in Wisconsin. The previous owner had tried and failed to make a living tilling the lean sandy soil. The place was cheap, far from the highway, worthless to civilization, but a precious sanctuary for a nature-loving professor. Luckily, the soil mining enterprise perished quickly, before it had time to exterminate the wildness.

Leopold loved the great outdoors. He loved hiking and hunting. Birds fascinated him. He spent many years working for the U.S. Forest Service, and later became a professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin. Sadly, he lived in a culture that was waging full-scale war on nature, and this drove him mad. It was so senseless. During his life, the population had grown from 1.5 to 2.4 billion, an era of staggering out of control disruption.

Part two presents observations, made in assorted times and places, about the damaged relationship between Americans and nature. This relationship was often abusive, because it lacked love. There often was no relationship at all. Many folks had no sense of connection to the rest of the family of life. For them, nature was nothing more than a treasure chest of resources that God created for the amusement of ambitious nutjobs.

Leopold was saddened by the trends. He learned to never revisit places that had amazed him in his youth. It was too painful to see the damage that commerce and tourism were tirelessly inflicting. It was best not to turn sweet memories into heartbreaking nightmares.

He was raised in an era when it was perfectly normal to kill wolves, coyotes, and other predators at every opportunity. These “vermin” killed too many game animals, depriving hunters of their rightful harvest. The most famous essay in this book is Thinking Like a Mountain. Having just shot a wolf, the gunman noticed a fierce green glow in its eyes. With the wolves eliminated, the deer multiplied in numbers, stripping the vegetation off the mountain, and wrecking the ecosystem. Deer lived in fear of wolves, and the mountain lived in fear of deer.

Part three is essays describing the need for a land ethic. Cultures have ethics to define right and wrong. Traditionally, these defined person-to-person interactions, or the interactions between individuals and society. Leopold lamented that American culture lacked a land ethic, rules for living with the natural world, the family of life. In our culture, as long as the land was not claimed and defended by someone else, you were free to do whatever you pleased.

Mainstream education was close to useless, because it was incapable of recognizing the glaring defects in the mainstream worldview. It loaded young minds with the crash-prone software of infantile self-interest. Generation after generation was being programmed to spend their lives as robotic servants to our economic system. The education system and the economic system were the two primary threats to the health of the land. Today, 65 years later, the lunacy has become a roaring hurricane. Leopold would be horrified and furious.

Leopold was a pleasant lad, glowing with love for the natural world, and a gifted storyteller. But this should not be the only ecology book you ever read. Since 1949, there has been an explosion of research in anthropology, archaeology, ecology, and environmental history. Many important discoveries have been made about hunter-gatherers, agriculture, deforestation, civilization, finite resources, climate change, and ecological sustainability. Today’s deep ecologists will sneer at a few statements in the book, but in 1949, no one was more radical than Leopold.

At the time, he knew we were on a bad path, and we needed to pay serious attention to where it was taking us. He clearly understood what we needed. He wrote, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” He was sketching out a concept now known as ecological sustainability. Here’s his land ethic in a nutshell: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Great!

Since the book was published, population has skyrocketed from 2.4 to 7.3 billion. Our leaders, educators, and the vast human herd remain lost in a dream world where perpetual growth is the only channel on the glowing screens. This story has paralyzed our culture, and condemned our descendants, but it’s running out of time. Hopefully, in its aftermath, important lessons will be learned and never forgotten.

Leopold’s book was written “for people who cannot live without wild things.” As the swelling mobs surge into vast cities, our disconnection from wild nature is almost complete. We have forgotten who we are, and where we came from. Well, we’re wild animals, and we came from wild nature, like every other critter. Darwin revealed this embarrassing secret, but it still makes us uncomfortable, since it clashes with our deepest, darkest myths, our grandiose illusions of superiority.

These anthropocentric myths have ancient roots in every civilized culture, and they are like venomous brain worms that turn us into planet thrashing monsters. In 1949, few expressed doubts about these myths, but Leopold did. He was a flaming radical in his day. He often dreamed that the progressive movement would eventually grow, flourish, and address the primary challenges of our time, but reality hasn’t cooperated.

His vision of a land ethic would have been a first step, but not a miraculous cure. No other animal needs a formal system of rules and regulations to discourage self-destructive behavior. Like our chimp and bonobo cousins, the others have never forgotten who they are, or how to live. Thinking like an animal has worked perfectly for millions of years. Thinking like a conqueror has been a disastrous failure.

Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989. [1949]


Richard Reese lives in Eugene, Oregon. He is the author of What Is Sustainable, Sustainable or Bust, and Understanding Sustainability. His primary interest is ecological sustainability, and helping others learn about it. His blog wildancestors.blogspot.com includes free access to reviews of more than 160 sustainability-related books, plus a few dozen rants.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

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