Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac

Joan Halifax’s The Fruitful Darkness also inspired me to re-read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac AND SKETCHES HERE AND THERE, a book I read a year or so ago but never commented on, largely because I was so impressed by it that I didn’t think I could do it justice at the time (I doubt that I can do so even now). It was so good I was amazed I hadn’t encountered it before, though apparently everyone who has actually taken classes in ecology knows Leopold and his writing. According to Wikipedia, “Leopold was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation” and helped to found the Wilderness Society.

Luckily, Sand County Almanac reads more like a literary work than a scientific textbook. It’s a delightful read; I’m enjoying it nearly as much the second time as I did the first time. One of the first passages I underlined on my first reading takes on even more significance on a second reading when it becomes clear that it introduces one of Leopold’s major ideas:

The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.

Although this passage might seem more appropriate in the introduction of a child’s tale than in a college professor’s journal, it offered an interesting perspective when seen in light of this passage which appears just a few pages later:

The rough-leg has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well aware that snow melts in order that hawks may again catch mice. He came down out of the Arctic in the hope of thaws, for to him a thaw means freedom from want and fear.

These diametrically opposing statements force the reader to see the same event from two very different viewpoints, something most of us seldom bother to do. It’s even more remarkable to see the event from the perspective of two different animals, and not merely from a human perspective.

A few pages more and the reader is offered yet another perspective of this winter thaw:

Further on I find a bloody spot, encircled by a wide-sweeping arc of owl’s wings. To this rabbit the thaw brought freedom from want, but also a reckless abandonment of fear. The owl has reminded him that thoughts of spring are no substitute for caution.

We tend to forget that different animals see the same event from very different viewpoints, and certainly not from man’s viewpoint. Leopold argues we cannot get an accurate view of nature if we only see it from an Anthropocentric viewpoint:

It was a bolt of lightning that put an end to wood-making by this particular oak. We were all awakened, one night in July, by the thunderous crash; we realized that the bolt must have hit near by, but, since it had not hit us, we all went back to sleep. Man brings all things to the test of himself, and this is notably true of lightning.

Immediately Leopold proceeds to relate all the different events that changed the environment during the life of the oak as he cuts it up for firewood, events that most of us have never heard of or, if we have heard of them, dismissed as unimportant because they didn’t directly affect our life, no matter how devastating the effect on the prairie environment.

In a later essay, we learn when Leopold first gained his famous perspective.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks. We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes–something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Raised as a city slicker and a life-long dog lover, I’ve never had to overcome a prejudice against wolves, but this anti-wolf mentality is ingrained in our society, as we’ve seen recently in local attempts to eradicate wolves once again. At the very least they are seen as competitors for wildlife, at worst as potential threats to humans. It seemed like a giant leap forward for a forest ranger to recognize that even he had been brainwashed into viewing nature only from mankind’s short-term viewpoint.

Once you’ve realized just how limited our anthropocentric view of nature is, you might even be able to see our environment from the view of the mountain,

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

no longer fixated on short-term gains but able to consider how present actions may affect the ecology, including our future generations.