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Land Ethics in A Sand County Almanac Essay


Aldo Leopold Land Ethic

Aldo Leopold is one of the most well know environmental writers and activist of the twentieth century. Although he has produced many works on conservation and the environment, his most famous is A Sand County Almanac. A Sand County Almanac gives the reader a vision of the world through Leopolds eyes. A world of beauty, complexity, and interconnections, where humans are but one piece of the puzzle. Not only does Leopold accentuate the beauty in the natural world, he highlights the terrible consequences of an industrial society along with his opinions on how things should change to save the natural world.

Leopold takes you on a journey in A Sand County Almanac. In the first section of the book he gives a very magical description of his Wisconsin farm with all its plant and animal life. Every flower, every insect or bird is suddenly beautiful, not only on the outside, but through its history and contributions to all the other organisms of the land. From diseased trees to a spring flood, everything has a purpose and an intrinsic beauty.

Each species of pine has its own constitution, which prescribes a term of office for needles appropriate to its way of life. Thus the white pine retains its needles for a year and a half; the red and jackpines for two years and a half. Incoming needles take office in June, and outgoing needles write farewell addresses in October. All write the same thing, in the same tawny yellow ink, which by November turns brown. Then the needles fall, and are filed in the duff to enrich the wisdom of the stand. It is this accumulated wisdom that hushes the footsteps of whoever walks under pines (p. 87).

This is one of many examples of Leopolds ability to give nature human characteristics in a way that allows you to really connect with and care for nature. He wants you to be emotionally engaged, to see each piece of life as a character in his melodrama. This way when one of his characters are struggling you can feel its pain and the injustice in its silent suffering. Leopold plays on the readers emotions to get his own views across. Clearly Leopold appreciates nature, not for the economic value, but its value as a community, an interconnected system that provides all life services. The best way to get people to act is for them to have some type of emotional investment. Now that Leopold has pulled you into his magical world and emotionally engaged he switches gears. In Part II Sketches Here and There Leopold starts telling tales from throughout his life, a lot of them show some type of devastation the land has had to face. He has the ability to let you feel the devastation the land feels, and in turn see the wrong in the way we are treating our world. In Wisconsin Leopold says,

Man and beast, plant and soil lived on and with each other in mutual toleration, to the mutual benefit of all The new overlords did not understand this. They did not include soil, plants, or birds in their ideas of mutuality. The dividends of such a balanced economy were too modest. They envisaged farms not only around, but in the marsh The marsh was gridironed with drainage canals, speckled with new fields and farmsteads.

But crops were poor and beset by frosts, to which the expensive ditches added an aftermath of debt. Farmers moved out. Peat beds dried, shrank, caught fire Great pockmarks were burned into field and meadow, the scars reaching down to the sands of the old lake The cranes were hard put, their numbers shrinking with the remnants of unburned meadow. For them, the song of the power shovel came near being an elegy. The high priests of progress knew nothing of cranes, and cared less. What is a species more or less among engineers? What good is an undrained marsh anyhow? (p. 99-100).

This is a progression from the beginning where he was working to create a connection between the reader and the land. Now Leopold is showing the beauty along with the destruction humans can cause when we think ourselves God of the land we own. In the passage above he does not point out what the farmers did wrong, but is clear he believes we need to take the environment around us into consideration when we make decisions on how to use our land. Leopold see nature as something bigger and greater than people, and that it is not within our right to destroy the land without a second glance.

It is not until the last section of A Sand County Almanac that Leopold lays out his land ethic, but he is dropping clues throughout the whole book. I think it was his intention to slowly drop hints as to how he thinks people should treat the land, among passages making emotional connections to the environment. A perfect example is Prairie Birthday.

Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard It is time for a prairie birthday, and in one corner of this graveyard lives a surviving celebrant of that once important event unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county when I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predict the future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch. (p. 45-46).

Leopold is many pages from stating his land ethic, but there is no doubt on his views. This shows his passion for the land, that he notices a single Silphium disappear. He treasures each individual not the species as a whole, but each piece that makes up the whole. Leopold quickly follows this up with

The shrinkage in the flora is due to a combination of clean-farming, woodlot grazing, and good roads. Each of these necessary changes of course requires a larger reduction in the acreage available for wild plants, but none of them requires, or benefits by, the erasure of species from whole farms, townships, or counties. There are idle spots on every farm, and every highway is bordered by an idle strip as long as it is; keep cow, plow, and mower out of these idle spots and the full native flora, plus dozens of interesting stowaways from foreign parts, could be part of the normal environment of every citizen. (p. 47-48).

The combination of first a very touching emotional passage about a lone flower followed up with a way to help this destruction shows a lot about Leopold. You can see how deeply he cares for every living thing, and that he thinks we are stepping way out of our bounds in our quest for good roads, farms etc. Leopold values nature and believes humans are only one piece, that people need to rethink how we use the land, to become co-operative and work with the land, not conquer it. Leopold is constantly planting these ideas in the readers head, so by the time you reach his land ethic it is not much of a surprise. It is obvious Leopold believes we should have a partnership with the land, work with it to so that nature can prosper alongside humans.

A Sand County Almanac is a great piece of environmental writing because it doesnt matter what you know of nature or ecology your age, gender, or profession at the end of the book youve built an emotional connection to nature. Through this emotional connection Leopold is able to throw his own beliefs on land ethics without the reader even realizing it. He believes we should have a stewardship with the land, and look at the damages we will cause the land before we act. Leopold never looks at the land in terms of its resources, but rather in the richness and complexity living within the land, as he thinks all humans should.

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