A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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



The Geese Return

The return of geese in March means spring has truly and fully come. Other animals—cardinals and chipmunks—do not migrate, so they can be mistaken about the coming of spring. But geese migrate, so there is no room for error in timing. The return of hundreds of geese to the marsh on Leopold's property is a sure sign that the season is changing. The geese show their presence and eat last year's corn from fields that have been hidden under snow all winter.

Leopold notes some of the geese are "singles—lone geese that do much flying about and much talking." After careful observation he concludes these are "bereaved survivors of the winter's shooting, searching in vain for their kin." Leopold describes the noise of the birds in the marsh as a robust and boisterous conversation that, by May when the geese have migrated on, becomes much quieter. Through the migration of the geese, Leopold notes, the leftover corn from Illinois is transformed under the Arctic June sun into goslings.


Focusing on the return of migrating geese, Leopold continues to describe the effects of seasonal cycles on the animals he observes on his farm. In "January Thaw" he painted a picture of how animals that stay in an area during winter react to the first hint of warmer weather. But the stakes for those animals are relatively low. If it becomes cold again—which it inevitably will, even if average temperatures climb—they can run back to their dens or nests and find shelter and warmth. For the geese and other migratory birds the stakes are much higher. So they do not return until they are 100 percent sure spring is on the way. And so geese are a more reliable indicator of seasonal change.

An examination of the migratory geese yields a look at another of nature's cycles. As the geese reap the benefits of plant growth in place but lay eggs and hatch their young elsewhere, they interact with many different ecosystems along the way. Unlike animals that take from and give back to the same ecosystem, the geese take from one ecosystem and give back to another. The geese are part of a cycle that spans a continent rather than a neighborhood: "And in this annual barter of food for light, and winter warmth for summer solitude, the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March." This broad view of nature's cycles allows readers to consider not only how the parts of an ecosystem interact (predator-prey; food chains) but also how ecosystems are all part of larger systems that also interact.

Leopold's writing constantly circles back to how systems of various kinds interact. Not only does he have a good eye for how the parts of a particular system interact, but he looks at the big picture and invites others to do the same. Often he finds wisdom in natural cycles humans have yet to learn. In this sketch, for example, he sees evidence the geese know more about the importance of unity than humans do. "It is an irony of history that the great powers should have discovered the unity of nations at Cairo in 1943," he says, referring to efforts of the Allied powers to work together in World War II. The geese, he notes, have known about the importance of unity for a much longer time: "The geese of the world have had that notion for a longer time, and each March they stake their lives on its essential truth."

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