A Sand County Almanac and sketches here and there by Aldo Leopold

“It must be a poor life that achieves freedom from fear.”

It’s been a difficult reading week, even before the events of Monday. I’ve picked books up and read a while and then put them back again, feeling restless and unsettled. And then, finally, I settled on this and when I read the line above it rippled with so many layers of meaning I had to put the book aside and think about it. What Leopold means is that we should not seek to extinguish sources of fear from our life, because a fearless life is a dead life. Imagine not having people we fear to lose, capabilities we fear to be wrested from. Imagine if life was so safe that we could never take a risk, never risk failure or joy. Leopold wasn’t thinking about terrorists, about the fear that spreads from one, incomprehensible act, but his words are true anyway. They have given me comfort in this difficult week, a week in which I have been trying to unpick connections – connections to the Manchester bombing of 1996 which destroyed my workplace, the bomb was parked outside the customer service department of my office; connections to taking my, then, 11 year old daughter to see Ariana Grande at the MEN Arena 2 years ago; connection to the dead: Georgina Callendar was studying at the same college as my son (and that word, was, is so small and yet so difficult to write here), Saffi Rose who lived just down the road – and find context and solace amongst them. I was not there, nothing has happened to me or my family and for that I am grateful. And yet I cannot help but empathise with those affected by those terrible events. And I have shed a tear or two, and the victims – including their families and loved ones – deserve my tears. I have been into Manchester and the city is strange, quiet and reflective and yet there is an undercurrent of love, kindness and consideration. It is reported in the news as ‘quiet defiance’ and yet that, too, is a simplification. I don’t read defiance in what I’ve seen and experienced. I feel a city, a set of people who relate to the city, that is wounded, that is taking the time needed to heal and to reflect of what healing means. Because whether or not it is spoken, the bomber was a Mancunian too and we have to ask ourselves why he did not feel so connected that he could not bring himself to commit such a terrible act. There are no excuses, no justifications for what has happened, but there are things we can do differently to minimise the chances in the future. It’s too early, I think, to draw any conclusions, things are still too raw and people need time to grieve and to reflect and it’s imperative that we respect that, but another line of Leopold’s gives, perhaps, a route-map for a better future: “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Image result for A Sand County Almanac and sketches here and there by Aldo LeopoldThe community of land is the focus of Aldo Leopold’s book. Leopold is a famed conservationist, one of the first in the US, and his book is the template, a jumping off point, for many in the conservationist movement. The book itself is split into three sections: the first ‘a sand county almanac’ chronicles a year spent at Leopold’s farm, living in community with the local wildlife. Here Leopold focuses on the cycle of life around him, reflecting on the history of farms in the area and why his farm is considered a ‘poor’ one, and the impact of farming as an economic activity on biodiversity. This segment is a beautiful reflection of life on a small holding, encompassing such lovely passages as this:

“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.

In the marsh, long, windy waves surge across the grassy sloughs, beat against the far willows. A tree tries to argue, bare limbs waving, but there is no detaining the wind.

On the sandbar there is only wind, and the river sliding seaward. Every wisp of grass is drawing circles on the sand. I wander over the bar to a driftwood log, where I sit and listen to the universal roar, and to the tinkle of wavelets on the shore. The river is lifeless: not a duck, heron, marsh-hawk, or gull that has sought refuge from the wind.”

Leopold is, perhaps, the first writer to posit the idea that technological ‘progress’ does not necessarily bring progress, that perhaps it can take us away from the things that give life meaning and joy. He is not a blind detractor of technology – no luddite here – but rather he asks the question ‘is it worth the cost’, does the technology, the industrialisation of ecology, add benefit to the ‘community’ of the land or does it seek to allow humans merely to exploit it for commercial or economic gain. He questions entirely the way that people see land as something to be owned, to which they have a ‘right’ but not, necessarily, a ‘responsibility’. Thus he questions the extermination of predators for the gains of the hunting economy, and the extermination of mammalian ‘pests’ only to be replaced with insect ones, all of which require more chemicals, more shot, more poisons to exterminate. He questions the wisdom of governments when implementing policy which confers rights and leaves the question of responsibility open, and he questions the wisdom of ‘adulthood’ which is so focused on one aspect of life, of the ‘values’ of life, often at the expense of a richer experience:

 “When I call to mind my earliest impressions, I wonder whether the process ordinarily referred to as growing up is not actually a process of growing down; whether experience, so much touted among adults as the things children lack, is not actually a progressive dilution of the essentials by the trivialities of living.”

The second part of the book ‘sketches here and there’ are a collection of essays focused on particular habitats or locations, and the third part, perhaps the most powerful part for me, is called ‘the upshot’ and this is a more philosophical approach to the idea of conservation, the ‘upshot’ of all Leopold’s observations and musings being a kind of manifesto for a better approach to conservation. It seems that Leopold’s words have been heeded to a degree (certainly by some, if you believe how land-keeping is portrayed on Countryfile) whereby land-owners are beginning to focus more on the community of their land, retaining space for birds and wildlife, for wildflowers and native species all of which have helped to create the environment from which an economic benefit can be yielded. Yet on the other end of the scale we still see intensive farming which strips the land of every richness and, perhaps, affects the quality of the crops. It has made me think again about the value of organic farming, of producing fewer but better quality crops that sustain the viability of the land for the exploitation which is inevitable and allow the community of wildlife to flourish. Perhaps we all need less, but better quality foodstuffs. The question remains a complex one.

A Sand Country Almanac didn’t quite pack the punch of a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or a Living Mountain, but it is a lovely and important book and I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I read it this week because in a time of great incomprehensibility it has helped me shape my thoughts back to a sense of ‘community’ and the idea of cooperation as a force as necessary and as powerful as competition. Perhaps if enough of us can take that message to heart, to spread it by demonstrating it in our lived lives, we can all find a way to live as a co-operative community which meets the needs of all of its members, peaceably and respectfully and with the sanctity of life cradled at its core.


About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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6 Responses to A Sand County Almanac and sketches here and there by Aldo Leopold

  1. This has been a sobering week for all of us but so much harder for those of you for whom the dreadful events of last Monday are so close and have such resonance. Impossible for the rest of us to imagine what the families and friends of those lost and injured can be feeling. I’m glad that you were able to find a little solace in books, Belinda.

    • bookbii says:

      Indeed, it has been a difficult week Susan. But a reminder of how important it is to always let the people around us know they are loved and wanted. Thank you, always, for your considered comments 🙂

  2. SimplyMe says:

    You and your family have been in my heart and in my thoughts each day since the horrific events in Manchester. Reading your post is my equivalent to hearing your voice and I am so very grateful. Pain, sorrow, grief, laughter, joy, wonder — all of these tell us we are alive and here in this moment of our lives. Temporary numbness when the pain is overwhelming is also, in my opinion, a healthy response to overload. What seems critical in life’s equation is how we relate to our broken heart. In the midst of incredible pain and loss, you, your family and the peoples of Manchester are a gift to the world, a testimony to tenderness, caring, resilience and determination.
    When the ground seems unstable beneath us, what we do,often without conscious thought and intent, is to place a hand on the earth, to know viscerally that it is still there. I, too, have been thinking “green” this week (your reference to organic food and your choice of a book to read). This response seems right, fitting and not at all unrelated to uncertainty and fear.
    I’ve put a request in for Leopold’s book and will comment when I can.I’m in the midst of Decreation at the moment.
    With a warm embrace, Jan

    • bookbii says:

      Thank you Jan for your always considerate comments. It’s been a tough week, but as you say connecting with the ‘green’ world has been comforting and whilst we are dealing with one act of horrible violence, there have been hundreds of thousands of acts of love and kindness and, perhaps, it is better now to focus on those. Thank you, as always, for being the wonderful person you are.

  3. SimplyMe says:

    Oh but I loved A Sand Country Almanac and to whom do I owe this lovely read? — Aldo Leopold, Bi’s Books blog, and Oxford Press – trust the Brits to publish a key work that the American publishers at that time would not! My appreciation for this work can be reduced to one word – intimacy. By the March entry,”The Geese Return”, I claimed kinship with Leopold and owed him a debt of gratitude. The kinship arises from sharing the same intimate sense of connection to one’s surroundings; the debt of gratitude is becoming aware courtesy Leopold that not every one does this as a norm.
    I also loved the line drawings which heightened both my pleasure and that sense of intimacy. Thanks so much, Bi, for reviewing this.

    • bookbii says:

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it Jan, it is a lovely read. I agree, what makes it special is Leopold’s connection and attention to his surroundings, his desire to disconnect from the daily toils and simply be in his natural surroundings. I found his hunting habits a little disturbing in the beginning, yet by the end I had to accept that this is part of being part of the natural world and, perhaps, he was more grateful for the bounty he had caught as a result. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jan 🙂

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