A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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



Home Range

It is difficult to know how widely the wildlife in an area range, but careful observation of their actions may shed light on this mystery. For example, a rabbit, disturbed by the dog, runs straight for a woodpile where he can hide safely. This shows his familiarity with the area between den and woodpile. Placing bands on chickadees shows that their range is about half a mile across in the winter and covers areas protected from wind, but in summer the range is much larger and wind is not a factor. Deer tracks show that they cover about a mile in their daily breakfast ranging. An examination of grouse droppings in winter yields their food source, which is easily located. Few grouse tracks are found. This shows the grouse fly from location to location in a range of about half a mile across. The range of animals in different seasons and the types of food and shelter within these habitats are "the fundamentals of animal economics, or ecology."

Pines above the Snow

Planting pines obviously requires a shovel. A dull shovel makes the work hard and tedious, but a sharpened one is a joy. Once planted, the pines grow, sprouting their new buds in May and completing their new growth by June. By "paying heed" to the pines' "gossip," Leopold learns many things. By the height of the deer grazing on the white pines, he can tell how hungry they are. Deer eat higher up on the pine when they are very hungry, so Leopold can infer that his neighbor has cleared his fields of corn. When the "candle" of new growth on the pine is broken, he can infer that a bird alighted there and broke it off. Brown and wilted candles indicate a pine weevil infestation. Pine bark rubbed off in October indicates the bucks are beginning to "feel their oats."

Different kinds of pines have "opinions" about where they grow. White pines grow best away from the parent trees; "there is an affinity between white pines and dewberries, between red pines and flowering spurge, between jackpines and sweet fern." Despite these and other differences pines have something in common: they appear to be evergreen. This effect is achieved because old and new needles overlap their "terms of office" with new ones growing in as old ones drop off.


In this final entry in the "Almanac" birds are caught and banded; there is a thrill in recapturing a bird one has banded. Recapturing allows the bird to be tracked over time. Leopold's family for five years kept a running bet on whether chickadee 65290 would survive the winter. This chickadee became the longest surviving bird the Leopold family banded on their farm. Chickadees survive by avoiding two things: wind and getting wet. They also seem attracted to loud noises, like the fall of an axe or a tree, which may unearth some grubs or ant eggs to eat.


In "Home Range" Leopold examines the influences on the range of different animals, considering how seasonal differences affect how far and where each animal roams. He concludes this examination by saying "ecology" is just a term for "animal economics." This frames the behaviors animals make as choices similar to economic, or financial, decisions made by humans. Animal behaviors are, then, a series of tradeoffs and transactions. In winter food and shelter are costlier, so the animals change their behaviors. They give up some of their territory because windy areas are too expensive to visit for them, in economic terms.

"Home Range" shows once again Leopold's ability to observe closely and make deductions based on what he observes. He observes as a detective does, not as a poet, although there is often poetry in his writing. He has questions; he finds clues; he draws a conclusion. This continues to be a driving force behind the structure of "Pines above the Snow," in which Leopold observes various clues and gives explanations for them. In this sketch he personifies the pines, calling the clues he finds their "gossip." For example, from the clue that deer are eating higher on the pines, he concludes they are hungry. From this he concludes his neighbor's cornfields have been harvested so the deer do not have access to this abundant supply of food. To this pine personification Leopold adds another, suggesting that the growth patterns of certain trees represent their "opinions" about where to grow: they like certain plants—and so grow near them—and dislike others. He concludes this sketch by adding yet another personification: the needles of evergreen trees are like elected officials, who give the appearance of governmental continuity by overlapping terms.

"Pines above the Snow" plays on many of the ideas that were present in "Axe-in-Hand" from the previous month. However, whereas Leopold emphasized the godlike role of the forest steward, planting trees is an act of creation open to all: "To plant a pine ... one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel." Planting pine trees is an act of creation, and the planter may later look upon his work and call it good.

"65290" as a final entry in the Almanac of the year reprises some of the ideas in "Home Range"—the ranges of animals and the tendency of birds to avoid wind—but in a more personal way, focusing on one chickadee he and his family take a personal interest in over time.
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