Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Sand County Almanac

Another book I read recently, and part of what got me thinking about woodcutting, is A Sand County Almanac, the seminal conservationist manifesto by Aldo Leopold.

I first read it, only partway through, during a class in college on the philosophy of science and technology; but having a heavy workload I was forced to cut it short. Somehow I never got back to it and made it all the way through it until now, which is odd as it's really not a hard read, it's quick and engaging.

The first third of the book is a series of pithy observations from Leopold from his life on a farm in the titular Sand County, and it's in this section that his style shines most clearly. He is evocative with beautiful prose bouncing comfortably between the most quotidian of details about the natural world, and the grandest of visions for how those details are part of a vision that spans millenia. He speaks eloquently of his relationship with the land and other living things, and his observations about them, and his stewardship of his part of the world.

The middle third is somewhat similar to the first, but more scattered, with a wider variety of unconnected images. In a way, it's like the first part, only more so. In the third part, he ventures into more prosaic writing, though there are still traces of his lyrical appreciation of the world around him, but this time embedded into more purposeful statements about policy and politics.

I must first speak of the negatives of the book, and here you'll see another matter that has been on my mind recently. Leopold lapses regularly into a sort of elitism that is entirely too comfortable for him. He was gifted with an upbringing in the wilderness, intimately connected with it. He farmed, he hunted, he fished, he cut wood, and he watched the land changing around him as the years passed, from a very young age, at his father's side. Thus, he can get away with sneering at the city-folk who had the misfortune of not being raised in this world, who are blind to the more subtle things going on in the world around them, and to be pitied for what they're missing.

To be sure he would like to see them learn. Yet every other page he is railing against their incursion into his precious wilderness. Sometimes he is upset that they come in with insufficient appreciation, wanting a quick weekend experience; but other times he objects to their mere presence, and their numbers. The wilderness just can't support their numbers without being changed, defeating the purpose. In the third part he makes some small concession to this problem, but too often he's just being smug about his right to be in the wilderness he was born to, and everyone else's lack of right to be there, and lack of understanding of what it's really like, which each reinforce and create the other.

Another element of this elitism is the simple fact that he can spend all his time on his farm. He has no day job other than writing the occasional scribbles and sketches for his book. He can get up at 3am and sit on his porch for three hours every day. He can spend days at a time standing in a creek waiting for a trout. He can dedicate a week to cutting trees in the back forty. He talks as if everyone has that kind of freedom, as if the responsibility to the land isn't just an important responsibility but the only one.

Setting this aside, though, his description of the land and his relationship to it is moving, beautiful, and inspiring. He is at his best when he talks about something tiny and everyday, then through its perspective, enfolds the entirety of the world. At the time (late 1940s) it must have been an amazingly fresh viewpoint; and even now, in an age of global awareness of environmental issues, it speaks persuasively not just of the issues and the urgency, but also of the humble beauty, which is inspiring in a different way than someone talking about the importance of our efforts.

I now have a copy of Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays which is on my reading list after the current series I'm working on.

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