Book Review: A Sand County Almanac


By Cheryl Scott

If you curl up with A Sand County Almanac by a window, you may soon be looking outside and seeing a passing dog as a “professor” of scents. You may imagine how if a nearby chickadee worked, it would have a “Keep calm” sign above its desk. Aldo Leopold’s classic book combines such memorable and humorous observations of flora and fauna on his Wisconsin sand farm, as well as his thoughts and philosophy on conservation.

The Nature Book Club of the Trailside Museum of Natural History will hold a free discussion of A Sand County Almanac at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 8. The museum is located at 738 Thatcher Ave., in River Forest. Call 708-366-6530 for details.

A Sand County Almanac is a collection of essays with illustrations that is divided into four parts. The first part describes life on Leopold’s sand farm during each month of the year and includes humorous observations about the animals and plants he encounters.

“The county records may allege that you own this pasture, but the plover airily rules out such trivial legalities,” Leopold wrote. “He has just flown 4,000 miles to reassert the title. . . this pasture is his, and none may trespass without his protest.”

Leopold later discusses his “tenants,” various birds that announce which tree is theirs at daybreak in calls and songs.

Leopold often anthropomorphizes plants and animals, or gives them human characteristics, usually in a comedic way. He pays attention to the “small-talk and neighborhood gossip among pines” to find out the different pine species’ views on when they are old enough to get married (when they bloom) and what their constitutions state about the terms of office for needles. (Spoiler alert: Pine needles have overlapping terms of office to appear “evergreen.”)

In the other sections of the book, Leopold delves into conservation and land ethics. Although Leopold’s book was first published in 1949, his views on conservation remain relevant today. He often questions whether progress is worth the destruction of nature or whether there is a way to have progress and preserve nature at the same time.

“Perhaps we grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange,” Leopold wrote of the extinct passenger pigeon. “The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than pigeons did, but do they add as much glory to the spring?”

Leopold believes that conservation is harmony between mankind and land. To achieve the harmony will be difficult because Leopold points out that private landowners tend to abuse their land and will only conserve it if it’s in their self-interest; that is why the government is often given the task of conservation. Without using the phrase “tragedy of the commons,” Leopold describes the concept of farmers and landowners caring more about themselves and what is profitable than the good of the community. Industries tend to complain about the government’s environmental regulations, but they do not take the alternative route of voluntarily practicing conservation, Leopold wrote.

Instead of people having a land ethic, Leopold points out that the problem is economic motives trumping all other interests. In order to convince people to care about endangered species, “. . . the evidence had to be economic in order to be valid,” Leopold wrote. He notes that private citizens will need to develop an ethical obligation to the land because the government cannot take on all conservation tasks that landowners fail to perform. He doesn’t have a clear answer on how to persuade people to value and love land, but education is one suggestion.

However, he notes that Darwin taught us that humans were passengers with other animals in the journey of evolution.

“This new knowledge should have given us a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise,” Leopold wrote. “These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.”