Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sand County Almanac Experience

In rereading A Sand County Almanac recently, I found myself using the built-in dictionary in the Kindle to look up many of the names of birds, plants, and other natural features in the book, because often Leopold talks at length about his experiences in ways that are evocative enough to someone like me, who can't tell one kind of trout from another, let alone birds or trees, but which must be even more so to those who would know a sandhill crane by silhouette or call. This put me in mind of a product that, if someone made it, I would gobble up.

I imagine a copy of Sand County Almanac in which every reference to a place, a bird, a plant, a fish, etc. is linked to more materials about it, so someone like me (or even more so, a city kid who lives where they haven't even seen a tamarack) could have some tiny glimpse of the experience that Leopold describes. Make it so you can drill down to even more detail. If you see the word "tamarack" and don't know what that is, right there, you have not only a picture of a tamarack and some basic definition info, you also have connections to other things mentioned in the book. Places they grow, what else lives there, and which of those things live in the tamarack, or eat from it, or depend on it. Selected art that features the tamarack. Images, or even video, of tamaracks in the Sand Counties, including historical images where available from the time Leopold lived in. All of this connecting to all the other annotation information in the book.

When Leopold talks about a place, if paintings, pictures, or video of that place can be obtained, or if the place still exists, include those, along with links to everything else referred to in describing the place: its history, what it looks like there now, what lives there and what used to live there, etc. When he talks about the call of a loon or the dance of the woodcock, give me audio and video of those birds.

Tie all of it together with more information about the state of conservation efforts related to each thing, so if the reader finds a story about the sandhill crane interesting, in finding more information about the crane (which he might never get to see in real life), he is not only given a greater emotional connection to the crane (by getting to see and hear it), he also learns where cranes still live (maybe motivating him to go see them?) and where they no longer live, and what's currently being done about preserving more of those places.

I can imagine some people might object that no amount of MPG video is ever going to be the same as standing in the marsh and seeing a crane, and Leopold would have certainly agreed with that sentiment, and did so at length in the book. At the same time, Leopold argued very clearly that taking photographs is a great way to extend the experience of the natural world, and the feeling of connectedness with it that tends to lead to a conservation ethic, without overburdening the natural world. (Build roads through the wilderness to bring in more hunters and campers, and soon, you have no solitude, no game, and no wilderness. But a given amount of land can give the experience to hundreds of camera-hunters without being worn out by the process.)

I think Leopold would heartily encourage something that gave a city kid a chance to have a "not nearly as good" experience of the crane marshes (with the caveat that he hoped it helped lure them to go experience "the real thing" later) because something's better than nothing. An absolutist "all or nothing" approach is never going to sell the idea of the conservation ethic; Leopold's book itself is a living testament to the idea that you have to engage the imagination, the enthusiasm, and the emotional connection, before you can engage the ethical sense.

While he decried the overuse of gadgets, even the ones he used, he was realistic enough to know that the problem was when their overuse drew people away from the experience. The man who wanders through the forest with a laser scope to get a few quick shots at great range at ducks is using the scope to avoid getting as close as another hunter who was relying more on his skill. But so far as I know he had no similar reservation concerning film clips whose charm helped bring people into the woods that would not otherwise have gone there. And this idea would be just that in a much grander scale.

It would be a huge amount of work to prepare something like that, though, and to do it right. I doubt enough people would pay enough for it to make it a viable enterprise, particularly given that the market would mostly consist of fans of the original book (you would want to have read the book on its own once before you explored my version) and while there are a lot of us there aren't enough who'd pay enough for this "experience" version.

Maybe. I have a bad head for what is and isn't saleable. So someone prove me wrong and make it, okay? I'll buy one, I promise.

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