Lessons from 'A Sand County Almanac'

Summer is a good time to catch up on reading. One of the books I have read this summer is a book I have intended to read for years but just got around to it -- Aldo Leopold’s "A Sand County Almanac."

A native of Burlington, Iowa, Leopold graduated from the Yale Forest School in 1909 and went to work for the newly-established U.S. Forest Service, where he served in various capacities for more than two decades. In 1933, he accepted a new chair in game management at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Two years later, while continuing to teach, he purchased a worn-out farm in the sand country outside of Baraboo, Wis., where he and his family initiated their own ecological restoration project, planting pine trees and restoring prairie grass.

In 1948, Leopold died of a heart attack while helping fight a grass fire on a neighbor’s farm. "A Sand County Almanac" was in draft form at the time. His death came one week after he had been notified that his manuscript had been accepted for publication. The book was published a year later.

Part I of "A Sand County Almanac" reflects his love of the land as he recounts family experiences at “the shack,” their weekend refuge from “too much modernity.” He notes, “On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere.”

His almanac includes observations from each month, some samples of which follow:

February. “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace. To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue. To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside.”

May. “When dandelions have set the mark of May on Wisconsin pastures, it is time to listen for the final proof of spring. Sit down on a tussock, cock your ears at the sky, dial out the bedlam of meadowlarks and redwings, and soon you may hear it: the flight-song of the upland plover, just now back from the Argentine.”

July. “We sally forth, the dog and I, at random ... What we find is beyond predicting: a rabbit, suddenly yearning to be elsewhere; a woodcock, fluttering his disclaimer; a cock pheasant, indignant over wetting his feathers in the grass [laden with dew.]”

November. “Every farm woodland, in addition to yielding lumber, fuel, and posts, should provide its owner a liberal education. This crop of wisdom never fails, but it is not always harvested.”