A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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

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Summary

If I Were the Wind

In November the hurrying wind blows through the corn stalks, making a kind of music. The wind makes waves in the waters of the marsh and blows the grass on the sandbar of the river. The wildlife living along the river are all out of sight, hiding from its chill.

A flock of geese then flies overhead. Their honking fades in the distance: "sounding taps for summer." Suddenly the wind dies down as if disappearing with the geese. Leopold says if he were the wind, he'd go with the geese too.

Axe-in-Hand

In this philosophical piece, Leopold notes that with the invention of a shovel humans gained the ability to plant trees. With the invention of the axe they gained the ability to chop them down. Humans are tool users but also may misuse them, and their personal biases may play a part. November is a month for using the axe, and responsible landowners consider which trees must be felled "for the good of the land." Leopold considers the basis for choosing which to fell and which to leave. Axe wielders all have biases and favorites regarding trees, and Leopold is no different. He loves pines. He likes aspens, tamaracks, and cottonwoods, which others dislike. He dislikes elms, though others like them. He likes many species that others consider "brush" simply because he has studied them as individual species and knows them well. Much of the bias for and against certain trees depends on how they affect a person's activities (such as farming or hunting), tradition, and past experience.

A Mighty Fortress

Much wisdom can be gained from the woods. One lesson concerns trees and their diseases. Trees can have diseases, and this may seem like a problem. But it is a problem with a type of silver lining. Downed trees, with roots and wood weakened by disease, provide shelter for wildlife. Bees and raccoons make their homes in hollow or toppled trees. Grouse hide among the branches of the fallen oaks and eat dead oak leaves and oak galls. Chickadees and rabbits also gain a food source from diseased tree bark. Grubs that live in diseased heartwood are food for woodpeckers, and barred owls and wood ducks (among others) nest in hollow trees.

Analysis

"If I Were the Wind" begins with a classic example of Leopold's use of personification. The wind is "in a hurry." The corn stalks are "half-playful." A tree "tries to argue." The effect of this flurry of personification is a chaotic one, and the wildlife is absent—all in hiding from the hurrying wind. That is, all the wildlife is absent except the geese, which make their entrance in the midst of this windy scene and then exit, taking the wind with them.

The entrance of the geese emphasizes the seasonal cycles Leopold observes throughout "A Sand County Almanac." Just as the arrival of the geese in March was the sign that spring had arrived, their departure signals that summer is well and truly over, and winter is on its way.

"Axe-in-Hand" is by extension a reminder of Aldo Leopold's expertise in land management and forestry. He is acutely aware that conservation is not just a matter of protecting natural areas but of actively caring for areas in which natural processes have been curtailed by human activities. For example, human efforts to reduce wildfires—since humans do not take kindly to fires that put homes and communities at risk—mean forests are not periodically thinned out, as was once the norm. They become clogged with trees, which results in too much competition among the tree population. Landowners, therefore, have to step in and cull their forests, taking on a role not originally given to humankind. As Leopold notes, "Whoever owns land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying plants."

Yet Leopold is quite aware that when humans take on this role, they bring far more biases to it than, for example, fire. He wrestles with his own preference for pines. Is he more inclined to value the pine he planted over the birch that grew on its own, or the scarce pine over the abundant birch? Does he prefer the pine because it will last longer than the birch, or because it stays green all winter? Does he prefer the pine because of the other plants that can exist under it? Or does he simply love the sound of the wind in the pines? He concludes: "I love all trees, but I am in love with pines." He goes on to say human "biases are indeed a sensitive index to our affections, our tastes, our loyalties, our generosities, and our manner of wasting weekends." The idea that humans, in taking over the role of nature in thinning forests, perform this function based on how they waste their weekends may not be the most comforting thought to some. "A Mighty Fortress," however, provides reassurance. For every kind of problem the trees might face, there is a silver lining: nature persists despite troubles caused by activity and other factors.

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