A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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



Good Oak

According to Leopold, among the benefits of owning a farm is a greater understanding of where food and heat come from. Using the example of a felled oak used as fuel for the fire, he examines the origin of the energy in the wood and the process that led to its being used to provide warmth.

This particular oak had reached a diameter of 30 inches, made up of 80 rings. This dates the first ring to the end of the Civil War. The heat generated by burning the wood is, then, "eighty years of June sun." And this heat is greatly appreciated by Leopold's dog.

The oak had been struck and killed by lightning in a summer storm. Leopold felled it, imagining that the "saw was biting its way, stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime, written in concentric annual rings of good oak." He thinks of the oak over the years as he saws, imagining backward in time through the Great Depression, years of changes to conservation laws, and other significant dates in Wisconsin's conservation and forestry history. He also describes the function of the saw, wedge, and axe—tools for cutting up wood—not only as they relate just to cutting the tree but also how they interact with and reveal the years represented by the rings.


"January Thaw" focused on the seasonal cycle and how this cycle is tied into other natural cycles—the cycling of matter and energy through an ecosystem in predator-prey relationships. "Good Oak" adds another layer to this cyclical understanding of time. This new layer is chronological time: past, present, future. The trunk of an old oak provides an illustration of how chronological time and cyclical time interact. The tree's wood is the result of natural, cyclical processes of growth and dormancy fueled by the sun and the tree's ability to photosynthesize the sun's light into stored fuel. The tree also goes through cycles of seasonal change, and these repeated cycles result in the oak's rings: one ring for each year.

Yet the buildup of these rings shows time's constant march forward, from the past right up to the present. Leopold imagines cutting through the tree trunk with a saw as a sort of time travel, first moving backward in time to the center of the trunk, then moving forward in time to the present moment: "It took only a dozen pulls of the saw to transect the few years of our ownership."

This chronological perspective of time is a particularly human one. Leopold makes this point by including a long list of events that occurred when the successive rings of the tree were forming: war, fires, legislation, buying and selling of property, and the like. He underscores this point as he draws a parallel between using tools to cut a tree up for firewood and the human scholarly study of history. History is a way of looking at time as a long narrative, moving forward from the distant past. Leopold suggests that to study history properly people must not only use the saw, which shows the years in succession, but also a wedge, which shows "a collective view of all the years at once," and an axe, which allows a view of the past from "an angle diagonal to the years" and only for the recent past. It gives a new way of understanding our history in the largest, not narrowed sense.

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