Quotable quotes plus profound philosophy

I'm reading the most Instagrammable of nature writers, Aldo Leopold

Hi! I’m Hannah James, journalist, writer and editor, and this is where I review nature books, and think about nature-related topics out loud. Thanks for reading!

What I’m reading

I have known I should read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac for a very long time. A conservationist, forestry professor and father of the environmental protection movement in the US, Leopold wrote this classic of nature writing in 1949, shortly before he died.

It’s evidence of an extraordinary mind and an extraordinary career. I haven’t read another author who excels equally at lovely, lyrical nature writing and tightly reasoned philosophical arguments on how urgently we need to develop a collective ecological conscience in order to save that nature.

Leopold contrives to do both by dividing the book into sections. First is the titular almanac: month-by-month descriptions of the plants and animals living on his 80 acres of sand country in Wisconsin: classic nature writing. Second comes a series of essays titled Sketches Here and There, with glorious wilderness descriptions that lead into broader discussions of the way humans treat nature. And the final part is titled The Upshot, his conclusions about where to go from here, which incorporates a famous essay called ‘The Land Ethic’ that’s apparently still taught in universities.

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My edition has an introduction by Barbara Kingsolver who sums the book up as “a seminal 20th-century work that shifted human understanding of our environment”. She also points out that when it comes to humans and nature, “salvation begins with love”. In his own foreword, Leopold agrees:

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.”

His almanac traces the tracks of wild creatures, the story of a lightning-felled oak he saws up for firewood, tales of migrating geese, floods and spring flowers.

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His writing is delicious:

“There is a peculiar virtue in the music of elusive birds. Songsters that sing from the topmost boughs are easily seen and as easily forgotten; they have the mediocrity of the obvious. What one remembers is the invisible hermit thrush pouring silver chords from impenetrable shadows; the soaring crane trumpeting from behind a cloud; the prairie chicken booming from the mists of nowhere; the quail’s Ave Maria in the hush of dawn.”

And the rhythmic quality of his prose is deeply poetic. This can be literal: the February chapter describes sawing up an oak for firewood, and with each tree-ring that’s sawn, he tells the history of the corresponding year, punctuated by the repeated refrain:

“Rest! cries the chief sawyer, and we pause for breath.”

His poetry’s more abstract, too - the rhythm of this paragraph sang to me:

“When dandelions have set the mark of May on Wisconsin pastures, it is time to listen for the final proof of spring. Sit down on a tussock, cock your ears at the sky, dial out the bedlam of meadowlarks and redwings, and soon you may hear it: the flight-song of the upland plover, just now back from the Argentine.”

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Another of his many literary skills is an almost Wildean ability to coin clever, neatly balanced, quotable aphorisms that unlike Wilde’s are also deeply felt and deeply true:

“Every farm is a textbook on animal ecology; woodsmanship is the translation of the book.”

“Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

And famously:

“Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness.” 

This is where Leopold’s ecological thinking was so prescient - it’s quite extraordinary just how ahead of his time he was. (Sadly not in regard to gender, though - whenever a generic pronoun is called for, it’s always ‘he’, and the human race is always ‘man’. It’s striking that a writer leaping so far ahead of his time in one way should be so mired within it in another.) He’s profoundly aware of how Native Americans lived in harmony with the land - the essay ‘Song of the Gavrilan’ beautifully extends the musical metaphor - and how far short Western societies fall of that ideal. I don’t think many university professors were preaching this concept in 1949.

Similarly, in an essay memorialising the extinction of the vast flocks of passenger pigeons that once crowded American skies, he points out:

“Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of passenger pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange.”

Ecological grief, or solastalgia, is something I’ve only heard about in the past two or three years - yet there was Leopold in 1949, wandering the worn-out soils of his beloved sand county, blissfully singing its beauty, yet acutely aware of the destruction progress has wrought and calling it grief.

And his proposed land ethic is a pungent diagnosis of the problem that rings true today:

“There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it… the land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.”

As well as a thoughtful, realistic proposal of a solution:

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.”

That culminates in an urgent call to arms:

“Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.”

Just look at those repeated curling Es (which is why I retained the American spelling of ‘esthetically’). The form of Leopold’s philosophy - his language - always reflects its content: it’s beautiful and intelligent and prophetic, and always rings profoundly true.

In her introduction, Kingsolver says A Sand County Almanac is one of those books she rereads every year. As of right now, so will I.

A Sand County Almanac was book 19 for 2021. I’ve also been reading:

  1. Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

  2. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

  3. Robert Dessaix, The Time of Our Lives

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