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Review: Foundational Environmental Work Still Going Strong

Aldo Leopold
A Sand County Almanac

A classic book first published in 1949 and still going strong. A new edition in 2020 from Oxford University Press includes some wonderful sketches of the wildlife described. It is a work of outstanding literature and a foundational text in wildlife ecology and ethics. A story from a certain time but timeless in sharing insights into the life of plants and animals and the impact of humanity on the wildernesses of America.

Aldo Leopold was born in 1887 and became a forester with the US Forest Service and in 1933 he moved into academic life as a Professor in Wisconsin. He bought himself a rundown small farm with sandy soil that was best left for the wild animals. He spent hours watching nature in all weathers and seasons in and around the farm. The first half of the book describes life around the farm through each month of the year.

There are two spiritual dangers of not owning a farm; the danger that you think breakfast comes from the grocery store and that heat comes from the furnace. That thought introduces a wonderful piece of literature as he describes sawing down of an old oak tree struck by lightning. As the saw cuts through the growth rings, he describes highlights from different years and decades that the tree has witnessed. ‘We cut 1899, when the last passenger pigeon collided with a charge of shot near Babcock, two counties to the north; we cut 1898 when a dry fall, followed by a snowless winter, froze the soil seven foot deep and killed the apple trees.’

No doubt one of the continued appeal of the book is the wonderful way everyday moments are described. ‘The wind that makes music in November corn is in a hurry. The stalks hum, the loose husks whisk skyward in half-playful swirls, and the wind hurries on.’ It is a joy to read.

There is a serious message in the second half in the stories of nature from a broader canvas across America. Mechanisation, the culling of predators, hunting for sport and wider human interference in nature is beginning to impact on wildlife and their habitat. Leopold expresses concern for a ‘shrinkage in cultural values… and ethical restraints.’

The final part is possibly one of the earliest expressions of a ‘land ethic’. Leopold argues for the value of nature. Land is regarded as property. ‘The land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.’ He suggests that individuals are members of a community of interdependent parts and that the community has to be extended to include soils, waters, plants and animals. Humanity has to move from being conquerors of the land to being ‘plain members and citizens of it.’

This is a foundational text of environmental ethics. I suspect Leopold would be disappointed and upset that the destruction of the wilderness habitat has continued at a pace beyond his worst nightmare. Economic self-interest continues to dominate decision making in relation to nature. Economists are beginning to include the value of nature in their models – a value that cannot often be expressed in financial terms. The Dasgupta Review published at the beginning of February 2021 has made the clear economic case for valuing biodiversity. Sadly, it is over 70 years since Leopold drew our attention to the impact that our economic self-interest is having on the environment. Back in 1949 he wrote that the ‘evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as an emotional process.’ This book engages both the intellect and emotion.

Review by Canon Mike D Williams