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Leopold's A Sand County Almanac: Summary & Analysis

Leopold's A Sand County Almanac: Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:03 Context & Organization
  • 1:29 A Sand County Almanac
  • 2:35 Sketches Here and There
  • 4:03 The Upshot & The Land Ethic
  • 5:53 Significance
  • 7:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

This lesson gives an overview of Aldo Leopold's ''A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There,'' a book focused on ecology and environmentalism. Published in 1949, this book is still a relevant resource in our study of environmentalism.

Context and Organization

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, written in 1949, describes Aldo Leopold's experiences learning about the ecosystems of his home in Wisconsin and other places around North America. It is widely considered one of the most important books on ecology and environmentalism ever written.

The first part of the book, 'A Sand County Almanac,' is divided into twelve sections, one for each month of the year. Each section gives detailed personal observations about the plants and animals of the run-down farm Leopold was attempting to return to its natural state.

The second part, 'Sketches Here and There,' broadens the book's perspective. Here, Leopold writes about his experiences working as a conservationist in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

The final part of the book, 'The Upshot,' is a series of short essays in which Leopold describes his basic environmentalist philosophy. Only in the third part does Leopold give readers a broad, general statement on the principles of conservationism, the responsible use of nature, and explicit guidelines on how to live ethically with nature.

Overall, the book's organization mirrors Leopold's ideas about caring for nature. For Leopold, the ecological perspective has to start with a deep understanding of the intricacies of nature, of the way in which all members of an ecosystem are fundamentally connected. Only after we understand this can we make broader policy decisions.

A Sand County Almanac

Since the first section of Leopold's book is organized around the months of the year, readers get a sense of life on his Wisconsin farm during every season. This structure also imparts a sense of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, which is mirrored in the progression of the seasons. However, the essays in this section don't necessarily narrate a particular year in Leopold's life. Rather, they're more like distillations of everything he saw and experienced over many years.

Leopold uses an informal, descriptive style throughout his writing, often writing from the perspective of plants and animals. For instance, in the 'January' section, you will find him writing about mice, hawks, skunks and other animals going about their business, trying to find food and shelter. By seeing things through their eyes, we learn that what might look to us like the dead of winter is actually a very active time. This anthropomorphization, or humanization of nature in this way, is one of the features of A Sand County Almanac that make it so compelling to read, but also one of the things that some have criticized it for, as we will see.

Sketches Here and There

The second section of A Sand County Almanac, 'Sketches Here and There,' gathers thoughts that emerged at sites in Wisconsin ('here') as well as places like Arizona, Chihuahua, Oregon, and Manitoba ('there'). One of the most notable sections of 'Sketches Here and There' is 'Thinking Like a Mountain.'

It begins with a poetic description of a wolf's howl, but concludes that 'Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf,' on page 129. Leopold reflects on a time in his youth when he killed a wolf, thinking that fewer wolves meant more deer, which would be a good thing for hunters. Only later, after he developed a more sophisticated understanding of ecology did he realize that to remove the predator (the wolf) would disturb the balance of the ecosystem, causing a rise in the deer population, a depletion of their food sources, and a host of other problems. This realization was humbling for Leopold, and the mountain is a symbol of that humility.

The vast, geological time of the mountain dwarfs the lifespan of any living thing, including humans, making us realize that we are only one minuscule part of a huge and ancient world. This is one version of a main point that runs throughout A Sand County Almanac: that the human is only one participant among others in a complex world community of life, and not the master of it. As Leopold puts it, we are not the 'conqueror of the land-community,' but simply a 'plain member and citizen of it,' page 204. Feeling humbled?

The Upshot and the Land Ethic

The essays in the third section, 'The Upshot,' develop what Leopold calls the land ethic, culminating in the final section of the work by the same title. Leopold argues that humans are a biotic citizen with the biotic community of nature. Here, 'biota' and the related adjective 'biotic' simply refer to the living organisms within a particular environment. Because humans are members of this community, they have to treat all of its other members in ethical terms.

Think about communities that you belong to, and you'll realize that you treat members in ethical terms as well: if you live in a country that says stealing is wrong, then you are expected not to steal, and can expect others not to steal from you. And if anyone is caught breaking the rules, then there are consequences.

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