A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold is easily one of the most influential environmental texts. You will surely read about it in your intro environmental science course. I somehow made it to professorhood before I had actually turned the page.
Is it worth the read?
My initial impression was that the tone was surprisingly elitist, which is a strange accusation for me to make because I hate that as a descriptor for virtually anything. But with constant reference to the rest of the population being less observant, less aware, and not quite getting the subtleties to which Leopold was attuned, I sometimes wondered how the message was not dismissed outright.
And yet, there is a certain charm. In a sense, my impression is that it is not only a book that we should all read, but it one that we should replicate. The first part of the book, the Almanac part, looks at Leopold’s local environment, his immediate surroundings and his backyard, with a poetic observational bent. It’s gorgeous. Each month of the year is captured in a short and poignant expose that is almost haiku in its simplicity. Each chapter conveys an intimacy with the environment that we should all strive to achieve.
One of the main things we confront in our efforts to treat the environment better is that many people don’t truly care about the space they occupy on the planet. It’s a by-product of our living arrangements. We have a hard time relating to our own environments when we are displaced commuters who have not developed an intimacy with our place on Earth.
Leopold’s Almanac is a prescription for building that relationship. It’s something we should all do, – settle in, observe the changing seasons, and understand their poetry before setting it to prose. It’s a prescription for the cynical modern age, to root in, get in touch with the place outside our back doors and learn to love it.
The last part of the book – the wilderness ethic – that’s the part that gets it into the textbooks. Reading it now it seems unremarkable. Its message is that we should treat the natural world with a certain respect and standard of ethics. That this does not seem incredibly striking or revolutionary to us is testimony to its great impact. It’s Leopold’s legacy. It’s had a lasting impact on the way we manage the landscape, if not in practice, at least in principle.
So, yes, reading it is worth the time. And if it helps you to discover a sense of place, or just to notice some of the subtleties you have never been aware of, then it will be time well spent.