Leopold Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Aldo Leopold’s classic nonfiction work A Sand County Almanac, which investigates the human and ethical side of environmental philosophy, has had a profound impact on the environmental movement and on governmental legislation on wilderness and public land use.

Summary of Event

In 1949, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There was published by Oxford University Press, a year after the author’s death. Written by Aldo Leopold, a career worker in the forestry and conservation hierarchy, the text became both a cornerstone of the developing environmental movement and a masterpiece of nonfiction prose. Sand County Almanac, A (Leopold) Environmentalism [kw]Leopold Publishes A Sand County Almanac (1949) [kw]Sand County Almanac, Leopold Publishes A (1949) Sand County Almanac, A (Leopold) Environmentalism [g]North America;1949: Leopold Publishes A Sand County Almanac[02780] [g]United States;1949: Leopold Publishes A Sand County Almanac[02780] [c]Environmental issues;1949: Leopold Publishes A Sand County Almanac[02780] [c]Philosophy;1949: Leopold Publishes A Sand County Almanac[02780] [c]Natural resources;1949: Leopold Publishes A Sand County Almanac[02780] [c]Publishing and journalism;1949: Leopold Publishes A Sand County Almanac[02780] Leopold, Aldo Muir, John

A Sand County Almanac is primarily an anthology of the writings of Leopold and is divided into three highly disparate sections. Part 1, entitled “A Sand County Almanac,” is a month-by-month series of sketches concerning the Sand County region of southern Wisconsin, the location of Leopold’s 120-acre farm. Part 2, “Sketches Here and There,” "Sketches Here and There" (Leopold)[Sketches Here and There] is a collection of Leopold’s travel essays in which he records his impressions of the Midwest, Southwest, and West, the areas where he most often practiced as a professional in his fields of expertise. Part 3, “The Upshot,” "Upshot, The" (Leopold)[Upshot, The] contains Leopold’s most famous individual essays, including “Conservation Esthetic,” “Wilderness,” and “The Land Ethic.” The concluding essays contain the most succinct and persuasive of his arguments and serve as generalizations of the various particular and more specific examples presented in the first two sections of the text.

Part 1, “A Sand County Almanac,” contains seasonally assorted essays that range across a number of topics. Leopold’s writing in this section is impressionistic and demonstrates his ability to generalize from the seemingly random particulars with which he begins his essays. The winter essays “January Thaw” and “Good Oak” deal with bucolic themes associated with Midwestern winters. “Good Oak,” the longer of the two essays, uses firewood and firewood cutting as the vehicle for a natural history lesson, recounting the life of a storm-damaged oak that ends up heating the Leopold farm. Leopold uses this rubric to chronicle the decline of wilderness and wildlife in southern Wisconsin and to catalog the various governmental attempts at conservation.

In one of the springtime essays of part 1, “Bur Oak,” Leopold again uses the oak tree to illustrate a historical point. Here, Leopold cites another onetime Wisconsin resident and one of his spiritual forefathers, John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, to demonstrate the importance of the white settlers’ influence on the environment. The settlers’ farming and fire-control practices resulted in the prairie’s demise and supplantation by oak thickets during the time of Muir’s boyhood. One of Leopold’s favorite topics, game management, is explored in his summer fishing essay, “The Alder Fork,” which captures the essence of the sport. His hunting essays investigate the ethical side of the blood sports of small-game hunting. Part 1 closes with another winter essay, “Pines Above the Snow,” in which Leopold tells the story of a banded chickadee, number 65290, which defies all odds and survives five Wisconsin winters. The story of a small bird brings the year’s musings to an end, with a wish from Leopold that 65290 has found happy chickadee hunting grounds.

Part 2 of the text, entitled “Sketches Here and There,” is a treatment of land and game conservation topics concerning particular states and provinces. The Wisconsin section contains an analysis of the causes and significance of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. The section on Illinois and Iowa features Leopold’s musings on the almost complete destruction of the Illinois prairies and the resulting loss of history and sense of place. His sections on the wilderness areas of Arizona, New Mexico, Chihuahua, and Sonora reveal the pessimistic side of Leopold, who refused to revisit a wilderness area once he had seen it, knowing that most likely it would have been destroyed by either development or by well-meaning tourists. In these sections, Leopold begins his detailed discussion of the aesthetic nature of the wilderness and how easily it is destroyed. His concluding sections on the Western United States and Canada complete his geographical tour by describing the invasion of foreign species into natural environments and the imposition of monocultural agricultural practices.

Part 3, the final section, contains Leopold’s most famous theoretical statements on the environment. These concise and tightly structured arguments probe the ethical depths of environmentalism. As much psychological as philosophical or scientific, the four essays examine the aesthetic, moral, scientific, and ethical dimensions of environmental activism. The first essay, “Conservation Esthetic,” argues that the concept of recreation has taken away from the true enjoyment of nature and the wilderness, which has become another playground for motorized gadgets. Leopold notes that recreation often leads to the destruction of the very habitat that people claim to want to enjoy, especially when predators are killed to increase the numbers of more “desirable” game animals. This concern with the moral aspects of recreation is addressed specifically in “Wildlife in American Culture,” which argues that the moral lesson once involved in hunting has been lost through the overmechanization of the chase.

“Wilderness” and “The Land Ethic,” also in part 3, are Leopold’s most influential essays, both dealing with land-use policies. “Wilderness” is an eloquent declaration of the cultural necessity of saving the last remaining tracts of wilderness. “The Land Ethic” is Leopold’s rejection of economic environmentalism and, in many ways, a summary of his views on the environment. His analogy is that human rights have been extended as history has progressed but that rights have rarely been granted to the land. He argues for the development of a new ethical system that will recognize the inalienable rights of the land along with the human ones of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Significance

Leopold’s environmental philosophy and ethics in A Sand County Almanac had profound impacts on the environmental movement and has led to governmental legislation on wilderness and public land use. It is also one of the few works written on the environment that is a masterpiece of nonfiction prose. Early reviewers of the book recognized the importance of the text; in some cases, the praise was hyperbolic.

Sterling North, for example, claimed that Leopold “was both a better writer and a better naturalist than [Henry David] Thoreau.” The San Francisco Chronicle stated that “we can place this book on the shelf that holds the writings of Thoreau and John Muir.” Peter Warshall Warshall, Peter , writing for The Whole Earth Ecolog, a spinoff publication of The Whole Earth Catalog, compared A Sand County Almanac favorably to Thoreau for its literary merit alone. Warshall adds that the text is “the most important book on ethics ever written on American soil—honest, clear, superbly crafted.” Such high praise might be expected for a writer from a highly literary background, but Leopold was a governmental and institutional insider, beginning his career with the U.S. Forest Service and ending it as the chair of game management at the University of Wisconsin. Neither the Forest Service nor the land-grant colleges enjoy a particularly favorable reputation among the activists of the environmental movement, so for Leopold’s work to receive such praise is a double accomplishment.

The ethical vision of Leopold’s book is contained in two distinct lines of argument, both based on his overall philosophy of land use, adapted and described by Wendell Berry Berry, Wendell as “kindly use.” The first of these approaches deals with the importance of wilderness as an element of society. Leopold, along with Robert Marshall Marshall, Robert , helped found the Wilderness Society Wilderness Society in 1935. Wilderness serves no apparent economic function other than recreation, a use to which Leopold was adamantly opposed. Leopold and Marshall, however, argued for the psychological and moral importance of wilderness and for the possible scientific use of wilderness areas. Leopold established a paradigm that excluded economic analysis as much as possible from environmental concerns. He argued that the main fallacy in the wilderness-use controversy was the “Abrahamic” philosophy of land use, which he defined as a seeming compulsion and duty to exploit and use every piece of land available on the planet. By rejecting this philosophy, Leopold benefited countless activities and influenced much land-use legislation.

Having postulated a new land-use philosophy, Leopold helped change land-use practices and environmental practices as a whole. Many pieces of soil-conservation legislation were influenced by his work with the Forest Service and by his extensive writings on the detrimental effects of erosion. Legislation promoted by the Wilderness Society resulted in a shift in Forest Service policy, Environmental policy, U.S.;federal land which had allowed wilderness designation only for large, completely untouched areas. Leopold had long argued that there were few if any untouched areas left and that the environment is instead involved in a continual process of self-renewal. This argument led to the designation of several wilderness areas in the Eastern United States that had been previously logged or used in other ways. Thus the concept of “wilderness” was returned to segments of the population that could not travel to remote areas in the West.

The second line of argument Leopold develops deals with the individual moral responsibility of every citizen to the environment. This argument is developed at greater length by Berry in The Unsettling of America Unsettling of America, The (Berry) (1977). According to Leopold, while wilderness may not serve a direct economic function, it does serve an ethical function. The individual citizen learns moral behavior and individual responsibility from hunting and fishing and by using the simplest tools in pursuit of game. Individual ethical behavior, according to Leopold, leads to ethical behavior in other areas of life, and the values learned on the land are carried back to the city and beyond. Sand County Almanac, A (Leopold) Environmentalism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977. A combined environmental and cultural analysis by the noted novelist and poet. Berry argues for the primary importance of ethical land use in agriculture as an environmental issue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Callicott, J. Baird, ed. Companion to “A Sand County Almanac”: Interpretive and Critical Essays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. An anthology that examines and offers interpretations of Leopold’s classic work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971. An influential book in the modern environmental movement that broadened interest in environmental issues beyond the focus introduced by Rachel Carson. Contains an extensive analysis of agricultural pollution in the chapter “Illinois Earth,” and ends with a persuasive analysis of the economic impact of environmental pollution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Poverty of Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. An extension and elaboration of The Closing Circle, this book presents a more focused analysis of the inefficient use of energy in the United States. Commoner’s chapter on the importance of organic agricultural practices provides a starting point for one of Berry’s most important arguments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foltz, Bruce V., and Robert Frodeman. Rethinking Nature: Essays in Environmental Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. Part of the Studies in Continental Thought series, this anthology in the philosophy of nature includes the chapter “A Sand County Almanac: Through Anthropogenic to Ecogenic Thinking” by Kenneth Maly.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardin, Garrett. Filters Against Folly. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. An overview of Hardin’s controversial theories on the environment. Hardin is best known for his argument that self-interest leads only to environmental disaster. He is also known for his antiethical arguments against food aid to developing nations, believing instead in a triage approach to aid.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Wes. New Roots for Agriculture. San Francisco: Friends of the Earth, 1980. Jackson, the founder of the Kansas-based Land Institute, argues for a radical departure from current and traditional farming practices. He proposes a form of “permaculture” based on perennial instead of annual crops. He finds fault with practices of organic farming, citing erosion problems common on even the most well-maintained and efficient farms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Wes, Wendell Berry, and Bruce Colman, eds. Meeting the Expectations of the Land: Essays in Sustainable Agriculture and Stewardship. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984. An excellent collection of essays representative of a broad spectrum of views in the alternative agriculture movement. Subjects addressed include permaculture, tree crops, and traditional and experimental organic farming techniques.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knight, Richard L., and Suzanne Riedel, eds. Aldo Leopold and the Ecological Conscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A 190-page collection that explores Leopold’s land and conservation ethics, among other topics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. An updated edition of Leopold’s classic, with an introduction by Kenneth Brower and photographs by Michael Sewell.

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