A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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



Smoky Gold

In Adams County, when the tamaracks are smoky gold, Leopold describes ruffed-grouse hunting. With his dog's nose leading the way grouseward, among the fall colors, Leopold tramps through the woods. When the dog pauses, there is a moment of uncertainty as to what he has found: rabbit, woodcock, or grouse?

Hunting in undiscovered places is the most enjoyable way to hunt for him. So hunting grouse in Adams County, where most people do not realize grouse live, is very satisfying. As other hunters make their way up north for better-known hunting grounds, Leopold hunts among the tamaracks in an Adams County swamp. He comes upon an abandoned farm and wonders nostalgically/romantically "how long ago the luckless farmer found out that sand plains were meant to grow solitude, not corn." He wonders too about the people that once lived on the farm—their hopes and dreams.

There are other distractions from hunting grouse: buck trails to follow, a woodcock to watch, a circling hawk, a buck, a chickadee, lunch, and the golden glow of the tamaracks.

Too Early

Rising too early is a trait shared among stars, owls, freight trains, and some hunters. These early risers tend to be modest and understated. In the marsh rising too early allows a person to observe the marsh by listening: it is too dark to see. One can hear the sounds of wildlife and imagine anything without the visual reality to constrain one's imaginings.

As the sun rises, the more seemingly arrogant animals begin to wake: roosters, squirrels, jays, crows, and pheasant. Then the farm comes awake with its "honks, horns, shouts, and whistles." Later everyone goes to bed again, to "relearn the lessons of the night."

Red Lanterns

To successfully hunt partridge, the hunter can follow "red lanterns"—the leaves of blackberry vines that have turned red and seem to glow in the fall sunshine. Many hunters do not know this and fail to shoot a bird, which seems to please him as then these unsuccessful hunters go home and leave the birds, stream, dog, and Leopold in peace.

Leopold's dog leads him along the creek from briar patch to briar patch in search of partridges. Leopold likens the dog to a scientist interpreting data and a professor hoping his dull pupil (Leopold) will learn to smell. The dog finds other creatures besides partridges: raccoons, rabbits, skunks, wood ducks, jacksnipe, or deer.

All too soon the hunting season comes to an end, and the blackberries extinguish their so-called lanterns.


"Smoky Gold" and "Red Lanterns" share a number of common ideas and images. Both are wound through with images of autumn colors that can be seen in a Wisconsin October—the golden hue of the tamaracks, the bright red of the leaves of thorny blackberry vines. Both include images of the autumn sun, which picks up the colors and makes them seem to glow: "Brambles are aglow, lighting your footsteps grouseward" ("Smoky Gold") and "The lanterns are blackberry leaves, red in October sun" ("Red Lanterns"). In both Leopold is out hunting with his dog and following trails as part of this hunt. In both he is distracted by other "trails" to follow—including trails of ideas and wondering. For example, he sees a place where a buck deer has rubbed off his velvet and follows a trail of wondering about when this occurred; he finds an abandoned farm and follows a trail of mental wondering about those who once lived there. As he says in "Smoky Gold," "there are many distractions."

With so many parallels between "Smoky Gold" and "Red Lanterns," "Too Early" might seem out of place—even an interruption. But its focus on the sense of hearing, rather than sight, provides a lovely contrast with the vivid colors and visual imagery of the other two sketches. And its mention of the farm's noises and activities follows thematically from the musings on the abandoned farm in "Smoky Gold."

Leopold's preference for plants and animals he feels are underappreciated yet unique also comes through clearly in these sketches. In autumn leafy trees such as maples and elms get a great deal of attention because they turn such spectacular colors. Evergreen trees are beloved because they provide a splash of green on a barren winter landscape. But tamaracks are neither one nor the other. Tamaracks are similar in look to evergreens such as pines and spruces. They have needles and grow in a somewhat triangular shape. Yet they turn from green to gold in fall, and though they hold their needles longer than most deciduous trees, the needles do eventually fall. Likewise his appreciation for the often-overlooked early risers is the focus of "Too Early." And his love for the underappreciated blackberry vine in "Red Lanterns," which most dismiss as a bramble on account of its thorny, tangled vines, is the secret to his hunting success as well as being a most beautiful color for him to appreciate.

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