For a landmark book, it doesn’t seem like all that. It doesn’t stand proud and massive on the shelf. It’s not garlanded with a particularly ambitious title. But since its first publication in 1949, the 200 pages of A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There have proven quietly revolutionary. Like Das Capital or Interpreting Dreams, it has emerged as a kind of secular bible: a book that will have shaped the way you think about the world and your place in it, even if you’ve never heard of Aldo Leopold, and you’ve no idea what a sand county is.
It starts with looking. A man buys a desolate stretch of land along the Wisconsin River. It’s dirt cheap – $8 per acre – because no one wants an abandoned farm, devastated by the Dust Bowl droughts. Each weekend he makes his way over, and sets to work. He fixes up a dilapidated chicken coop to sleep in, tends to a makeshift garden, cuts firewood, and plants trees. Occasionally he hunts, but mostly he observes; he’s already a skilled forester, but he’s about to become the pioneer of modern environmentalism.
The first part of A Sand County Almanac reveals the unexpected rumpus of living things that claim this sparse country for their home, as Leopold encounters them over the course of a year. There is the skunk who emerges from hibernation, heaving a fat belly through January snow; or March’s raucous skeins of inbound geese, who gabble over fields of prairie corn. In May, plover chicks hatch among the dandelions, and “graduate from flying school” by August. Best of all are the grubs that line the rotten heartwood of the pine trees, enticing the chickadees that bring cheer to each bleak November.
Something begins to emerge in the telling: more than affection, a sense of kinship. By “us”, we hear Leopold muse, he means “the birds, the stream, the dog, and myself”. (Of these, the “lazy” stream is his closest affiliate.) As he shifts his focus away from the farm, and looks back over his decades spent working around the country, the notion swells with urgency. Just as his Wisconsin pasqueflowers need “elbow room” to survive, a New Mexico mountain lives “in mortal fear” of the deer that prune its foliage, and relies on wolves to keep them in check.
Galvanised, Leopold marks out what he calls The Land Ethic in the book’s final part. It’s an idea which will guide the thought and work of generations to come, reaching into the heart of conservationism and sowing the seeds of the rewilding movement we know today.
Its principle is simple: to expand, intellectually and emotionally, the definition of ‘community’ to encompass all of nature, and transform the human from ‘conqueror’ to ‘citizen’ in the process. It insists on the inalienable right of the wild to exist independently of human intervention, and the tragedy of the scars we continually inflict upon it: our golf courses, highways, and overgrazed hillsides. A stony swathe of land in California isn’t useless just because it can’t be used for human purposes; nor is a grebe insignificant just because it can’t signify. And anyway, Leopold says, even if he writes a poem “by dint of mighty cerebration”, a Manitoba Pelican still “walks a better one just by lifting his foot”.
Leopold’s idea now seems intuitive, as more and more of us become “wilderness-minded citizens” (or, at least, contend with the possibility). But neither the magnitude of its legacy nor even its striking moral clarity are the reason for my own return to A Sand County Almanac. What holds me is its humility.
Leopold was not an uncomplicated man, and throughout, he insists on his own shortcomings and contradictions; it’s hard to be a hunter defending the life of the wild. And Leopold never saw its influence: he died before A Sand Almanac was published, trying to put out a fire on his neighbour’s land. The book he left behind is the parable of a man trying to do the best he could, a lesson that holds true for us all.