A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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



January Thaw

Each year in late January comes a thaw. The hibernating skunk rouses and walks through the snow, leaving a track behind him. Aldo Leopold, author and speaker, follows the track, wondering about the skunk's purpose and destination. There is time for such musings in January.

Following the skunk track Leopold notices more signs of animal activity as a result of the thaw. A mouse runs across the skunk track. The thaw has exposed its network of tunnels beneath the snow. A hawk dives from the sky for prey, "well aware that snow melts in order that hawks may again catch mice." Rabbits run more freely, giving owls opportunities to feed.

The skunk track ends at a pile of driftwood, so Leopold goes home again.


"A Sand County Almanac" is organized by the months of the year and contains Aldo Leopold's observations of events in each season of the Wisconsin year. Thus he begins at the start of the calendar year: January. The most noticeable aspect of this beginning is that January brings not only the calendar year but also spring thaw. For anyone who thinks spring begins in March, or April, or May, the fact that late January often brings a thaw may come as surprise. But the truth is by late January, the coldest part of the year has, on average, passed.

This contrast between what is commonly thought and what is clear if one carefully observes is a hallmark of Leopold's writing. He frequently finds that observing closely the pattern of nature brings about conclusions that differ from the conventional wisdom—even the conventional wisdom of those who have credentials in biology, ecology, and conservation. In "January Thaw" he finds that, upon close consideration, the kernel of spring is already present in the first, coldest month of the year.

Leopold uses the transition from deep winter to slightly warmer temperatures to explore the effects of seasonal change on the various wild animals on the farm. He contrasts the perspectives of prey animals (the mouse and the rabbit) with that of predators (the hawk and the owl). To prey the snow cover provided an additional hiding place: "To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear." To predators, the opposite is true: "to [the hawk] a thaw means freedom from want and fear." To prey, the thaw means spring is on the way and more abundant food is becoming available, but coming out of a winter den to find this food carries its own risk: "To this rabbit the thaw brought freedom from want, but also a reckless abandonment of fear. The owl has reminded him that thoughts of spring are no substitute for caution."

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