Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sand County Almanac

Title: A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949)

Author: Aldo Leopold, 1887-1948, who formed an important part of the early conservation movement. A transitional figure, Leopold first worked in the US Forest Service during a time when activities such as killing wolves on sight were accepted and encouraged - a much more drastic, human-oriented management style.

"I shall now confess to you that none of those three trout had to be beheaded, or folded double, to fit their casket. What was big was not the trout, but the chance. What was full was not the creel, but my memory. Like the whitethroats, I had forgotten it would ever again be aught but morning on the Fork." (40)

By the end of his life, Leopold had come around to a more biocentric environmental ethic, as showcased in this book. He was involved in the founding of the Wilderness Society in 1935. Leopold taught at University of Wisconsin, Madison as a professor of game management from 1933 through the time of his death. He lived in Madison during the week and on the farm described in the book on the weekends. He died while fighting a brush fire on a neighbor's farm. Two of his sons, Luna Leopold and A. Starker Leopold, were also scientists notable for their conservation efforts.

Basic characterization: The book consists of a series of essays concerning biotic life on the Wisconsin farm owned by AL's family. They manifest a deep love of these "wild things", and question the "progress" which strips them from the land - not only on the basis of their inherent right to live, but also on the basis of the right of what he sees as the biophilic minority of humanity ("for us...the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech" [vii]). The essays manifest a strong critique of the ways of modern society, which Leopold likens to "a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy" (ix).

Leopold at work.

Things that surprised me, or that I liked, or would follow up on:

Leopold's emphasis on the transnational nature of biotic life ("the international commerce of geese") (23).

The characterization of the prairie settler as another kind of "animal" - Coleman makes the same move in his description of the conflicts between wolf and man (29).

AL's constant emphasis on the insufficience of biological /historical/botanical education, when it comes to creating an ecologically aware and ethical citizenry (46, 207). Meanwhile, ETHICS is his main bag: he believes that the "extension of ethics" to the land is "an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity" (203, also 214).

What makes a conservationist, he writes, "is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop" (68) - all about stewardship and domain.

His own sort of conflicted, maybe-elitist relationship with his desire to see nature: "All conservation of wildness is self defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish" (101).

His idea that subversion of evolutionary rules is what renders us human/better (spoken on the topic of his sadness about the passing of the passenger pigeon): "For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn our loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. DuPont's nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush's bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts" (110). My question: can you feel yourself to be superior, and still subvert your needs to those of the "beasts"? If you set yourself up over them, do you risk not caring? (See Matthew Scully, Dominion.)

Telling the story of a lightning storm that almost got him while he was in New Mexico in his youth, Leopold ends with: "It must be poor life that achieves freedom from fear" (126). A direct hit at FDR?

He writes much on the incapicity of "recreational areas" to develop habits of perception - yet he advocated their creation (esp. p 174-5). Solution: he wants us to experience wild life unmitigated by "machinery" - processed only by "modern mentality" (187). Snowmobiles in Y'stone, take that.

On the gap between concepts of scientific power and actual ability of scientists to "manage" the environment: "The ordinary citizen today assumes that science knows what makes the community clock tick; the scientist is equally sure that he does not. He knows that the biotic mechanism is so complex that its workings may never be fully understood" (205).

Vocab words:
"pasque" ("a spring-flowering herbaceous plant, Pulsatilla vulgaris [family Ranunculaceae], with finely divided leaves and purple bell-shaped flowers clothed externally with silky hairs, found locally on calcareous grassland in Europe. Also: any of various similar Eurasian and North American plants of the genus Pulsatilla [formerly, and sometimes still, included in Anemone]; esp. P. patens var. multifida of North America (also called prairie crocus, prairie smoke"); "precocial" ("of an animal, esp a bird: able to move about and feed independently soon after hatching or birth; having young which are able to do this"); "anserine" ("of, pertaining to, or of the nature of a goose"); "tyro" ("a beginner or learner in anything; one who is learning or who has mastered the rudiments only of any branch of knowledge; a novice").

The pasque flower.

Books I've read that mention it:
Coleman, Vicious (use of the "Thinking Like a Mountain" wolf anecdote).

No comments: