Book Review: A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac: with essays on conservation. By Aldo Leopold, Oxford University Press

A Sand County Almanac, published in 1948, is hailed as one of the sacred texts of the environmental movement. (Other literary cornerstones being mentioned in the Introduction of this book include Thoreau’s Walden, Marsh’s Man and Nature, and Carson’s Silent Spring.)

In Forward, Leopold says, “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” Leopold sees the law of diminishing return in progress, and opposes the Abrahamic concept of land, where one regards the land as his possession or commodity. The key message of the entire book is that human beings should see land as a community to which we belong, and should use it with love and respect. This would require ecological literacy and land ethics, and would enable a cultural harvest. (By “land,” Leopold means more than the soil. Land is a pyramid of energy flow, with complex inner circuits.)

This message might appear self-evident to today’s young environmentalists. But amid the post-war material progress and scientific triumphs, it was indeed courageous and perceptive of Leopold to advance such an idea. Also, Leopold was concerned about the lack of ecological literacy even among the most educated of his time. Sadly, this fear is still true after more than half a century.

A Sand County Almanac would serve as a good beginner’s course on ecology. In this book, Leopold talks about the interconnected flora and fauna around his farm in Wisconsin. He delves into how sick trees are essential to the various species and to the overall vigor of life in the local ecosystem.

In addition to introducing ecological principles and examples, Leopold fills the pages with a genuine and passionate love for nature, for wild things. I would say that such emotional and spiritual connection with nature is as important as the intellectual understanding of it.

At the same time, Leopold does not beat around the bush on the central dilemmas for conservationists and environmentalists. He says, “These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.” Also, he points out that in a capitalist society, economic value is the only “real” value --- if you can’t price nature, then nature would be free for all to exploit and consume. Thus, Leopold highlights the underlying contradiction between the logic of Nature and the logic of Capital.

Leopold’s words from more than 60 years ago are still true and powerful, if not more urgent. A Sand County Almanac remains an important part of the soul of the environmental movement. Let it be our companion and inspiration. 

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