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4.8 out of 5 stars
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2005
This is a charmingly written account of the seasons, flora and fauna of North America by a man who was clearly a literary artist and keen observer of nature. Although this was written many decades ago, the same concerns apply about how human behaviour undermines the continued existence of our fellow creatures, and little seems to have changed since then regarding people's ignorant and selfish attitudes. Leopold had an impressive and intricate knowledge of species and ecosystems, despite his lack of modern equipment that we have today, and he acknowledged the fragile and complex bonds between soil, plants, animals and people with the greatest of care. He conceded that animals have feelings and needs not unlike our own, yet he failed to take this realisation further: that they should therefore have a right to life and be treated ethically. I personally do not believe that humans have a moral right to hunt animals for recreation, but Leopold was a supporter of blood sports as long as the technology was kept to the minimum. This book is a good basis from which to start on one's journey towards an appreciation of environmental and ethical issues, but it by no means covers the entire spectrum of philosophical argument. Much information was meticulously gathered and it is obvious to the reader how much Leopold loved the land and cared to see it protected. There is a section where he laments the extinction of a flower he found particularly pretty, and that represented for him the history of the land, that I find very moving. For the sheer beauty and sensitivity of his writing, I would highly recommend this classic work on nature in North America.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 4 December 2010
"A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold was first published in 1949. I have the Oxford University Press paperback edition (the one with the honkers at the cover). As far as I understand, this edition contains all of the original work. Other editions leave out parts of sections II and III. The OUP edition is beautifully illustrated by Charles W. Schwartz.

Although less known than Carson's "Silent Spring", Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" is considered a classic by the conservationist and environmentalist movements. Leopold was a leading conservationist himself and a co-founder of the Wilderness Society, an organization devoted to the expansion and protection of wilderness areas. Deep ecologists consider "A Sound County Almanac" a precursor to their own philosophy, because of Leopold's attempt to formulate a "land ethic" which takes into consideration the entire "biotic community", not just humans. Said Leopold: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Most of the almanac consists of short descriptions and reflections on wildlife, most of them based on observations around Leopold's backwoods farm in Wisconsin. He seems to have deliberately obtained a small and run down piece of property. Occasionally, the area was so flooded that Leopold couldn't make it to his job (he was professor at the university of Wisconsin-Madison).

Often, Leopold's sketches simply deal with the beauties of trees, flowering plants and animals (such as honkers). The author also writes about his hunting trips - in contrast to animal rights activists, Leopold was no vegan. However, he seems to have given up killing large mammal predators, preferring instead to hunt birds strictly for food. Still, this part of the book will definitely be objectionable to animal liberationists, as when Leopold glowingly retells a childhood memory of his first (and succesful) duck hunt.

At other times, Leopold's descriptions of nature and wildlife have a more political or philosophical tinge. A recurrent theme is the interdependence of living organisms, as when Leopold muses that his refusal to deal with various forms of tree sickness around his farm has made the environment more diverse. A nostalgic encounter with a Silphium plant becomes an opportunity to bemoan the disappearence of the original prairie landscape. The author admits to like aspens, tamaracks and cottonwood, three species of trees heartily hated by his neighbours, not to mention foresters. The message is clear: the trees are good in themselves, they are aesthetically pleasing and make the environment more diverse and interesting. That they are economically unviable or a nuisance to humans should be irrelevant. Leopold's panegyric to the extinct passanger pigeon is my favourite piece. The fact that humans can mourn the loss of the pigeon, while the pigeon cannot mourn the loss of humans, is to Leopold what really makes us higher than the brutes.

In the third section of the book, called "The Upshot", Leopold presents his philosophical views. He wants to extend ethics to all of creation: animals, plants and the land itself. He attacks the massive tourism in wildnerness areas, and in general opposes human encroachments on wild nature. He doesn't idealize farmers as somehow being closer to the land. Quite the contrary: there are plenty of sharp attacks on farmers in this book, farmers who farm for profit only, and take conservationist measures only if given handouts from the public treasury. It seems that Leopold is calling for more government regulation. National parks should be made much larger by buying out farms or compensating the farmers for livestock lost to predation. Obviously, this can only be done by state or federal authorities.

"A Sand County Almanac" criticizes the utilitarian and economic ethos of modern civilization, where animals and plants are saved only to the extent they are believed to be useful to humans. The author believes that only about 5% of the species of "higher" animals and plants found in Wisconsin have economic value for humans. Yet, all species have the right to exist, since the stability of the environment or "biotic community" as a whole depends on it. (Presumably, this principle also applies to environments that aren't economically useful to humans.) I get the impression that Leopold was somewhat pessimistic about the prospects of saving nature from the encroachments of modern civilization. The situation has hardly improved since his death in 1948.

Despite its descriptions of animals and plants, "A Sand County Almanac" isn't a natural history. Nor is it a stringent philosophical work. The chapter on the land ethic isn't argued at great length. "A Sand County Almanac" is rather a series of short meditations on nature, wildlife and the human predicament. If you like it or not probably depends on your mood or personal attitude.

People who feel nothing when walking in a park or visiting a duckpond won't like the "real" nature sketches in this book. Those who admire the steelworks of Hank Rearden or railways of Dagny Taggart will reel! As already noted, animal rights activists will (ironically) be horrified by the author shooting grouse, partridges and ducks. Even more ironically, the almanac might strike avid hunters and outdoorsmen as too boring. Most of the time, Leopold doesn't stray far from his small farmstead and the beloved tamaracks. He is no Bernd Heinrich, hot on the trail of wolves in Yellowstone and fascinated by their blood-curling hunts. Nor is he ready to throw geese to caged, hungry ravens just to see some action!

"A Sand County Almanac" is a book for those who like solitude, peace and quiet, and don't necessarily identify wilderness with Alaska or the Rockies. A bit of nostalgia about what has been lost will also help you grasp the deep ecology of Aldo Leopold.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 31 March 1999
As one who has lived my life in the out-of-doors and has a great appreciation for it, Leopold writes what I've always felt but never could express. Leopold's love for nature is shared in a way that all can appreciate.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 February 2013
I think it say something about a book that, despite the fact that it was written over 60 years ago, it still feels like it has something important to say about the world today.

This is a book about the value of wildness - sometimes wilderness - but always wildness. The wildness that can be found not only in the remote corners of the world but also at the bottom of field hedges and small streams, the wildness that can be found within the dawn chorus of waking songbirds and the wildness that can be found when people study and come to understand the world around them.

It is a plea for people - possibly governments - to recognize the value that comes with wild places and why we should value and protect them. It also contains sections that explore ideas of how these wild places should be used - and how those uses shape our ongoing appreciation of them.

Do we swamp them with services to allow people to experience then, while at the same time diluting the very values that made people go there in the first place? Or do we protect them in way that seals them off from most people, which their role to be a reminder of the possibility of things? And how can we do either if we do not understand the way these wild places work and the interactions and flows within them?

This would seem like a good set of question to pose in any situation where "eco-tourism" ventures are being planned.

The other interesting thing about this book is that these questions were posed - in lucid simple prose - over 60 years ago and yet we still don't have an answer to them.

Highly recommended for all those interested in the natural world and our view and use of it.

On a secondary issue I would note that this version of the book is printed on tissue thin paper and none of the text was square on the page - I would have thought a book like this should sought in a better quality edition.
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...though his degrees exhaust an alphabet,..." is one of Leopold's sentiments concerning the deadening power of a formal education. He was one of those men who was never bored; always engaged with his natural surroundings, filled with a sense of wonder. He was fortunate to develop an appreciation of it at an early age. As he said: "This much at least is sure: my earliest impressions of wildlife and its pursuit retain a vivid sharpness of form, color, and atmosphere that half a century of professional wildlife experience has failed to obliterate or to improve upon." Aldo Leopold was one of the great American environmentalists, in the class with Thoreau, Muir and Abby. This book was his classic "cri de coeur," and it reads as fresh today as when it was first published, well over a half century ago.

In the `60's I was an avid reader of a weekly column on seasonal changes in nature by Joseph Wood Krutch in the New York Times. The first half of A Sand County Almanac is written in the same style; in Leopold's case it is the monthly changes in nature. At the same time he chides all of us for failing to observe what is apparent all around, if we will only take the time to observe. For example, he says that: "... I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof." Later he observes that over 100,000 cars pass a given spot each year, and although all have `taken' (his quotes) history, and perhaps a quarter have `taken' botany, yet almost none have noticed the demise of Silphium along the road side.

In the second half of the book he frames environmental issues, and provides healthy philosophical perspective. Another profession that he rebukes are economists, who, famously, per Oscar Wilde, all too often "know the cost of everything, and the value of nothing." In terms of the Sand Counties of his Wisconsin he says: "Thus economists must find free range somewhere for their pet aspersions, such as submarginality, regression, and institutional rigidity. Within the ample reaches of the Sand Counties these economic terms of reproach find beneficial exercise, free pasturage, and immunity from the gadflies of critical rebuttal."

The final chapters, on the value of wilderness for the soul, and the nurturing of a conservation esthetic remain essential statements on how humankind should relate to their natural surroundings. He makes a key point about "outdoor recreation," and its mixed impact on nature. Fortunately his life was more than one of contemplation. He engaged the political process in a meaningful way, and one of his valuable legacies is the creation of the largest essentially pristine area in the lower 48 states, an area that partially bears his name, coupled with the adjacent Gila Wilderness, here in South Central New Mexico. He was the catalyst for a Congressional Act in 1924 that designated this area as a natural preserve, the first in the country. It remains a constant source of enjoyment for my family, approaching now, a century later.

This book is a most valuable polemic, a "Common Sense" of the natural world, an essential read in any school, or better yet, after, to overcome some of the deadening influences.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on February 14, 2009)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 19 March 2013
Aldo Leopold's "ramblings" on the life forms (plants - animals - people) in his living space speak of his deep understanding of the connectedness from past to present to future of all living beings. A broken link in nature has ramifications elsewhere.
He does not judge, but simply observes and learns and wonders.
This is going to be a book I'll pick up again and again.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 22 November 2005
A sand county almanac is a book wonderfuly written book about observing nature and taking respect for all life on the planet. Leopold talks much about developing a land ethic as a guide to allow humans to enjoy this world and exploit its resources in a sustainable way. Very quotable and moving in places, although it is many years old now, all issues of wilderness preservation, species extinctions and environmental degradation are still relevant to the world today. Leopold alluded to many things that were only later published in scientific literature such as the tragedy of the commons and sustainable use of resources. Much of the book is nostalgic with Leopold decrying the commercialisation of modern hunting and wilderness in general in America (a fact that I can only assume has gotten worse since the 1940’s) and believing that hunting can be a way to get people back to nature to see what life was like for our ancestors, though I myself have no wish to go hunting I do believe Leopold is correct, as long as it is done with the minimal of equipment and responsibly, as Leopold himself said. Everyone who enjoys nature and landscapes from bird watchers to ramblers has to read this book. Everyone else who reads this book should think deeply about the issues it raises. For looking at this book tells us about environmental policy and perceptions in the 1940’s and so gives us a guide as to how far we have come in the decades since in how we treat and view the world. And in that respect I would say that we have not come far.
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on 2 November 2013
Leopold is so perceptive that reading him makes me feel completely oblivious. In his utterly non-compartmentalized awareness, all the wildflowers, bugs or birds have names and roles in the unfolding history of a continent. The marshlands are fields of high drama, more fascinating than TV. In reading the signs on every side, Leopold thinks like a Sherlock Holmes of outdoor crime scenes. His vocabulary in describing the joys of hunting, fishing, bird watching, or horse riding is so rich in specific terms that I feel like your typical Canadian listening to the narration of a cricket match. His poetic prose is so beautiful that to my dumbed-down ear it seems to come from another civilization. It's marvelous how all this appreciation for other creatures leads naturally to Leopold's great Land Ethic, which is the next momentous step in humanity's ethical evolution, toward respect for every fellow-creature in our community of life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 March 1998
Aldo Leopold writes with such passion and intensity that it is impossible to put down. He points out the beauty of nature that most people overlook. His true love of nature is clearly evident. This book really made me consider my ideals and ethics concerning the land and conservation.
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Anyone who loves the writings of Roger Deakin will love Sand County Almanac. Aldo Leopold is to British eyes a curious combination of backwoodsman, academic naturalist and gifted observer. His life and writings span the period from a mentality of unquestioned game hunting to the growth of a scientific enviromental movement. Fascinating as the mentality of hunter turned scientist & conservationist undoubtedly is, it is as a patient chronicler of the life of his chosen corner of the U.S. that Leopold excels. He has a wonderful eye, reflection born of years of patient observation and a sensitivity of language of the true writer who is born not made. Forget silly comparisons to Thoreau, this is a beautiful short book which deserves to be far better known on this side of the Atlantic.
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