Literature Study GuidesA Sand County AlmanacPart 2 Arizona And New Mexico Summary

A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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A Sand County Almanac | Part 2, Arizona and New Mexico : Sketches Here and There | Summary



On Top

As the journeying continues, Leopold goes back to first living in Arizona and traveling on the White Mountain—referred to as "on top"—which could only be accomplished by riding a horse. In other places nearby other modes of travel were possible, and each had its own social "caste" that used it. But only the "horsemen" caste could exist "on top." (Later, the invention of cars and planes changed this reality.)

In winter "on top" the snow prevented everyone, even horsemen, from traveling. After the spring melt it was available again, and a friendly competition would ensue to see who could be first to the top. The top of the mountain is a large meadow, bordered with pines and with many coves, points, and peninsulas. There is at once a sense of newness and a sense of history, as evidence of previous human visits is also to be found.

Thinking Like a Mountain

A "deep chesty bawl" of "wild defiant sorrow" echoes from the mountain and is heard. All wildlife pays attention to this wolf howl, but only the mountain knows what it means. Leopold's opinion on this matter is shaped by having seen a wolf die after being shot. Previously, he'd imagined fewer wolves would mean better hunting, and so killing wolves was a positive act. As he saw the green fire die in the wolf's eyes, however, he realized this might not be true.

Yet state after state got rid of their wolves, to the gratitude of hunters and cattle farmers. And as the wolves disappeared, the deer flourished, which eventually wreaked havoc on ecosystems as the deer ate every plant in sight: "I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn."

If one thinks like a mountain, in Leopold's term, rather than like a farmer or hunter, one can see that wolves fulfill an important role in keeping both deer and cow populations to sustainable numbers. But humans have not yet learned to think like mountains, so we "have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea." Some measure of peace, Leopold concludes, is a good thing, but too much peace will only mean future dangers.


Leopold recalls that when he lived in Arizona, no matter which way he looked, he would see the mountain Escudilla. On top of the mountain it was impossible not to be aware of the presence of "Old Bigfoot." Although no one ever saw him, this old grizzly bear was the ruler of the mountain.

Progress came to cow country in various ways: the transcontinental automobilist, women's suffrage advocates, and telephone engineers hanging wire. A government trapper came, too, and agreed to hunt Old Bigfoot. He was successful. Escudilla was made safe for cows, but something was lost in the drive to ensure safety. The bureaucrats and politicians "acclaimed the superior virtues of the frontiersman, but they strove with might and main to make an end of the frontier."


The three sketches contained in "Arizona and New Mexico" center on the White Mountains, of which Escudilla is one of the highest peaks. These mountains are located in Arizona, near the New Mexico border.

"On Top" begins by describing a hierarchical system at which horsemen are at the top. This system is shaped much like a mountain, with horsemen at the top level and those who used other modes of travel forming the base. Competition among the horsemen existed, so that one single horseman each year was at the very peak. Yet Leopold mentions the fact that this hierarchy was simply overturned by the invention of cars and planes.

"Escudilla" describes a similar situation. In this sketch it is Old Bigfoot who is at the pinnacle of the hierarchical system. He, like the horseman who made it first "on top," is the undisputed ruler of the mountain. Yet like the horseman, eventually someone else came—in the name of progress—and knocked him from his place. Just as cars and planes overturned the hierarchy of horsemen on top, a government trapper overturned the hierarchy of Escudilla.

In both of these sketches the changes wrought by humans—often in themselves good changes, important changes—have unforeseen negative effects. There is nothing wrong with wanting safety and convenience, Leopold seems to say, but we should consider what might be lost when all this progress has occurred. One thing that might be lost, he suggests, are the character traits gained when a human faces danger or challenge. If the frontiersman has "superior virtues," might not those virtues be lost to us if we "make an end of the frontier"? It isn't just the wild, natural areas Leopold mourns the loss of. He mourns the loss of the effect these natural areas have on humans.

This idea is also prevalent in "Thinking Like a Mountain." Humans changed the ecosystems in which wolves lived by hunting the wolves to the extreme. They did this to solve a perceived problem and make it safer and more convenient for hunters and ranchers. Unfortunately, this had unexpected detrimental effects on the ecosystems. It is just the sort of thinking that led to the infamous Dust Bowl. The remedy to this short-term human thinking is to learn to "think like a mountain," to see the long view, as Leopold believes humans should.

These sketches also revisit the way that human chronological time intersects with nature's cyclical time. For example, "On Top" includes a detailed and graceful account of seasonal changes on the mountain. It also describes how the initials of previous travelers are carved into the trees at every campsite and how the names of the different locations—"the Boneyard," "the Campbell Blue," "Frijole Cienega," "Paradise Ranch"—each has a story behind it. Seasonal changes are juxtaposed with the very human sense of history as an ongoing and forward-moving story.

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