A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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A Sand County Almanac | Part 1, April : A Sand County Almanac | Summary

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Summary

Come High Water

Because of melting snow and the farm's proximity to the river, April often brings flooding to Leopold's farm. This causes both humans and animals to be stranded on high areas surrounded by fields rapidly being transformed into lakes. The geese struggle to find a place to land and feed, while the carp enjoy their larger world. Random pieces of lumber float down the river from areas upriver. Over the years these have been collected in a lumber pile that is "an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests."

Draba

The tiny white blossoms of the Draba flower can go unnoticed by those who are not looking for them. It is a humble and overlooked flower that thrives in sand that is too poor for other flowers. Draba is not a romantic flower, but it does its "small job quickly and well."

Bur Oak

Because of its thick bark the bur oak is the only Wisconsin tree that can survive a prairie fire: "Bur oaks were the shock troops sent by the invading forest to storm the prairie; fire is what they had to fight." Botanists can use pollen embedded in the wood of trees to track the expansion and contraction of the Wisconsin forest over the course of this long battle between forest and prairie. Because of "allies"—rabbits, mice, squirrels, June beetles—that helped both the prairie and the forest, "the net outcome of the battle was a draw." That is, until human settlers intervened in the battle. Settlers plowed fields so that prairie fires were less common. This gave oaks an advantage as more of their seedlings could survive. This allowed much of the land that was prairie to be transformed into thick oak forest.

Sky Dance

In April and May the "sky dance" occurs at dusk and dawn over the woods of the Leopold farm. "Showtime" changes over the weeks as the times of sunrise and sunset change. At the appointed time the male woodcock bird appears and begins to perform a song and dance designed to appeal to his "lady." He spirals into the sky and swoops down for an hour or more, his "dance" accompanied by his unique call. Despite Leopold's careful observation of this sky dance he has many unanswered questions about it, such as where the female is during this dance and the exact mechanism of the music.

Analysis

These four short sketches of early spring allow Leopold to demonstrate his gift for paying close attention to the small details of nature and relating them to both larger natural cycles and broader ideas about the world. His descriptions of spring-melt flooding, the short life cycle of the Draba flower, and the dance of the male woodcock give readers various perspectives through which to view this busy time of year in nature.

Spring is a time of fast, dramatic changes, illustrated by the flooding that changes the landscape quickly from mostly dry land (pleasing to hungry geese) into a watery carp paradise. It is also a time of equally fast but nearly unnoticed changes, such as the fast-paced, short-yet-effective life of the Draba flower. It is also a time when wildlife put on their most impressive displays for mating season, such as the male woodcock's "sky dance." These dramatic changes are governed by a slower, steadier cycle: the seasonal cycle resulting from Earth's steady movement around the sun. The fact that Earth's constant motion brings about such dramatic events is another reminder that everything is connected. What happens in the present moment in one place is connected not just to what happened before; it is connected to what is happening elsewhere.

This interconnectedness is also illustrated in the observations Leopold makes about the human effects on nature. As he describes the effects of flooding, he notes that random pieces of lumber float down the river from areas upriver. Over the years, he says, these have been collected in a lumber pile that is "an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests." Again the human tendency is to mark time chronologically so that the cycles of flooding are seen cumulatively as events that pile up, one on top of another.

The effect of human activity on the Wisconsin ecosystem, touched upon in "Good Oak" as Leopold listed the various human activities that went on around the oak tree, is more fully realized in "Bur Oak." In this sketch it becomes clear that human activities are responsible for long-term changes to the ecosystem, helping it to transform one way or the other over time from prairie to forest.

Another important idea Leopold touches on in his April sketches is that nature is blessedly full of mysteries. Leopold knows far more about the sky dance of the male woodcock than an average person, but he still has many questions. To some of these he may never get an answer. Yet he notes this with something more like pleasure than disappointment: "It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them." Part of the appeal of nature, he suggests, is that one never runs out of what people see as mysteries. If that day ever came, it would be a sad one.

Very evident in these four sketches is one of Leopold's most used writing techniques: personification, or attributing human traits and feelings to nonhumans in order to create imagery. The Draba flower is characterized as a worker who does his small job efficiently and well. The woodcock is a young man courting a lady with his impressive dancing skills. The interactions between prairie and oak forest is cast as a long war in which there are "allies" who aid one side or the other in yearly "battles." In this war the assistance of the human settlers finally tipped the balance in favor of the oak forest.

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