This article is part of the Aldo Leopold Collection.
A Sand County Almanac was published a year after Aldo Leopold’s untimely death in 1948, yet 60 years later this slim book of “nature writing” essays continues to influence conversations about the proper relationships of people to each other and people to land.
Like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, A Sand County Almanac has transcended the field of nature writing to become a classic in the world literature. More than two million copies have been printed and it has been translated into 10 languages. It has become a standard reading assignment in ecology, conservation and environmental studies courses at colleges and universities everywhere.
Through science, history, humor, and prose, Leopold uses A Sand County Almanac to communicate the fundamental connections between people and the natural world, with the hope that the readers will begin to investigate their ecological connections to other people and the land which sustains us.
The Evolution of A Sand County Almanac
Long respected in his own fields of forestry and wildlife management, Aldo Leopold was a prolific writer for scientific journals and conservation magazines. He had honed his writing skills from a young age, first through hundreds of letters home from boarding school and college, and then through continued professional correspondence, essays, and articles.
In 1930s, Leopold became increasingly focused on reaching the general public with his conservation message. Following his appointment to the faculty at the University of Wisconsin in 1933, Leopold's duties included not only coordinating research and guiding graduate students but teaching an introductory course in game management. This became a popular course that was taken by many students who were not on track to become professionals in wildlife ecology or management. Leopold also enjoyed his dual appointment to the university's outreach and education program known as university extension. Through publications such as the Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer, he published many articles detailing methods for preserving and restoring wildlife habitat on working farms. Many of these articles appealed directly to the farmer's love of land while suggesting ways that Wisconsin’s full complement of native plants and animals—from game birds to the yellow lady slipper—might be guaranteed their rightful place in farm landscape and culture.
In 1935, he made a critical decision, purchasing 80 acres of worn out and abandoned farmland located on the Wisconsin River's sandy floodplain in Sauk County. Just an hour's drive north of the family's home in Madison, the prospective hunting camp was near enough that the family could visit on weekends and breaks from school. Blizzards, floods, and even the senior prom would not bar their visits. The abandoned farm came to be known as "the shack," for the refurbished chicken coop that served as base camp. Working beside his wife and their five children, Leopold guided ongoing experiments in restoring health to this ailing land--suffering failures and celebrating small victories and hard-earned insights.
During this same era, Leopold's poetic voice, narrative talent, and ecological understanding all began reaching new levels. In 1936, a two-week-long pack trip through remote Sierra Madre Occidental in northern Mexico proved to be a watershed event in Leopold's life; he later recounted that this was the first time he had encountered truly healthy land, with all of its native biota intact. Land health would become an increasingly important theme for Leopold as he sought to describe conservation in positive rather than negative terms (he defined "the ecological conscience" in similar spirit a decade later). Returning from this trip, he declared in the 1937 essay "The Thick-Billed Parrot of Chihuahua," (1937), "The physics of beauty is one department of natural science still in the dark ages." Later that year, he published the haunting essay "Marshland Elegy." Leopold had developed an intense interest in the fate of the sandhill crane, which was on the brink of extinction in Wisconsin. In the essay, he never mentions his estimate that fewer than 30 nesting pairs of sandhill crane persist in Wisconsin's most remote marshes. Rather, he portrays the dramatic history of the crane--a species whose history on earth extends back millions of years to the "remote Eocene" and was now threatened by intense landscape changes caused by wetland drainage and failed farming ventures. "When we hear his call," Leopold wrote, "we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, and of that incredible sweep of millenia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men."
In 1941, plans for a collection of essays solidified. Leopold continued to publish his ecological research as well as articles promoting conservation goals and measures. By 1947, he had a collection of some 40 essays for a manuscript he called “Great Possessions.” Many of these were essays that had been previously published, yet many key essays, such as "Thinking Like a Mountain" and "The Land Ethic," were written expressly to flesh out the collection and express Leopold's philosophical arguments for conservation and cultural evolution. The collection began with a section he titled "A Sauk County Almanac," a month-by-month exploration of natural history and land stewardship informed and inspired by his experiences at the shack. His prospective publisher rejected the manuscript in November 1948, with the criticism that it was "...far from being satisfactorily organized..."1 Leopold thought otherwise, and historian Dennis Ribbens describes the rejected manuscript as "Leopold's best effort to combine narrative and exposition, natural fact and conservation value, joy and concern, the particular and the universal, the scientist and the poet and the philosopher."1 Though Leopold continued to add essays, he did not fundamentally revise the organization or themes before sending out a revised manuscript during March 1948. Oxford University Press contacted Leopold on April 14, agreeing to publish the collection. Just a week later, Leopold suffered a heart attack and died while fighting an escaped grass fire on land neighboring the shack.
Lead by Aldo's son Luna Leopold, a group of family and colleagues collaborated on the final editing of the book. They reluctantly agreed to one significant change: renaming the book from Leopold’s working title “Great Possessions” to A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.
“These essays are one man’s striving to live by and with, rather than on, the American land. I do not imply that this philosophy of land was always clear to me. It is rather the end result of a life-journey, in the course of which I have felt sorrow, anger, puzzlement, or confusion over the inability of conservation to halt the juggernaut of land abuse. These essays describe particular episodes en route.”
– Aldo Leopold, from the foreword to his 1947 manuscript for A Sand County Almanac
Published in Companion to A Sand County Almanac, edited by J. Baird Callicott, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
“Outdoor prose writing at its best… A trenchant book, full of beauty and vigor and bite… All through it is [Leopold’s] deep love for a healthy land.”
– THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“First published in 1949, Leopold’s tour de force combines some of the finest nature writing since Thoreau with an outspoken and high ethical regard for America’s relationship to the land. As the foreunner of such important books as Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, and Robert Finch’s The Primal Place, this classic work remains as relevant today as it was forty years ago.”
“There is a rudeness and vigor to Leopold’s writing that goes direct to the heart of the subject – to the heart of the reader…one of the seminal works of the environmental movement.”
– THE BOSTON GLOBE
“One of the most beautiful, heart-warming, and important nature books to appear in years.”
– THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE
“We may count ourselves lucky to have this final testament of a man who was not only an expert in forestry, ecology, and game management, but an exceptionally sensitive and subtle appreciator and communicator.”
“We can place this book on the shelf that holds the writings of Thoreau and John Muir.”
– THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
- Callicott, J. Baird, ed., 1987. Companion to A Sand County Almanac. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. ISBN: 0299112349.
For a detailed discussion of the evolution of A Sand County Almanac, see "The Making of A Sand County Almanac" by Dennis Ribbens in Companion to A Sand County Almanac and "Moving Mountains: Aldo Leopold and A Sand County Almanac" in The Ecological Conscience.