A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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

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Summary

Great Possessions

Although the County Clerk records Leopold's farm as 120 acres, he finds this fact is irrelevant on a dawn walk with the family dog. On such a walk the artificial boundaries—both physical and mental— disappear and are replaced with the various boundaries set by the "residents" of the land. At dawn these residents loudly claim their territory. The field sparrow, the robin, the oriole, the indigo bunting, and the wren all proclaim the extent of their domains and are joined by all manner of other birds in a chaotic performance of song.

Leopold's dog is unmoved by this audible proclamation of territory, being more attuned to the scents of the world and the territory claimed in that manner. The dog leads Leopold along trails a dog's nose, but not a human one, can scent, finding ducks, herons, rabbits, deer, and other wildlife. As the birds cease their dawn calling, the human world awakes, and the sounds of livestock and tractors take the place of the sound of birds.

Prairie Birthday

Each week from April to September about 10 new wild plants come into bloom. These "birthdays" often go unnoticed, but every observant person will notice some of them. Leopold waits each year for a small flower to bloom in the corner of a local graveyard. The graveyard's odd shape makes one corner of it inaccessible by mowers, so a small remnant of original Wisconsin prairie lives on in there, including one plant, Silphium, which shows yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. He imagines it is "perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county."

One year the fence around the graveyard is removed and the flower mowed down. Leopold notes, "This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world." He mourns the price of human progress and standard of living. He mourns the fact that a farm is considered good when its native prairie flora population is poor. He suggests that we must consider the question of whether we "cannot have both progress and plants." He admits that "clean-farming, woodlot grazing, and good roads" are important to modern life but suggests the prairie is conserved in unexpected ways; for example; "the railroad with its fenced right-of-way" along which undisturbed fertile land exists.

The episode ends as Leopold tries to dig up a Silphium in order to preserve it on his farm. Its root went downward so far he thought it must be down to the bedrock. He admires "by what elaborate underground stratagems it contrives to weather the prairie [droughts]."

Analysis

"Great Possessions" contrasts the human boundaries with nature's boundaries: the farmer's or landowner's territory as set down on a map in a legal document kept on file at the clerk's office versus the territories of various wild animals. Human boundaries are lines on a map. Animals claim their territory using sound or smell cues. This demonstrates that humans are both like and unlike the wildlife. Both humans and animals stake out territory, and there are rules or accepted methods for doing so, which are agreed upon by the animal or human populations. Yet humans draw lines while animals communicate territorial information through calls or odors. Leopold has a healthy respect for the methods animals use to draw their boundaries, thinking they are as legitimate as human ones. He pokes a little fun at the human tendency to impose their perspective on nature by treating human and animal methods as more or less equal. This is a reminder that we humans are not so unlike our animal neighbors.

"Prairie Birthday" takes a more somber and complex look at a similar idea. The boundary formed by the fence divides up the natural area in a way that has nothing to do with the area's ecosystem. Yet the fence actually works to preserve a remnant of that ecosystem. Nature shows herself to be quite persistent here. The final image of the sketch is of a long root reaching to the bedrock—another image of the resilience and persistence of nature. Leopold's tone, or attitude toward the subject, is unabashed admiration.

The setting of "Prairie Birthday"—a graveyard—is a contrast with its title. This suggests a truth about life generally: birthdays happen in the midst of death. Leopold discusses both ends of the life cycle—birth and death; birthdays and funerals. Even as he mourns the death of the prairie, he rejoices at the unexpected ways prairie plants have managed to hang on to life.

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