Literature Study GuidesA Sand County AlmanacPart 2 Chihuahua And Sonora Summary

A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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A Sand County Almanac | Part 2, Chihuahua and Sonora : Sketches Here and There | Summary




In this sketch, Leopold states that what makes a place beautiful is the presence of all its parts working together. If, for example, grouse disappear from a northern landscape, something indescribable is lost. The Guacamaja, or thick-billed parrot, is as important to the Sierra Madre as the grouse is to northern Wisconsin. These birds are loud, and when a human visitor to their territory approaches they react with a "riotous reception." They are colorful: "velvet green uniforms with scarlet and yellow epaulets and black helmets." They travel in groups of even numbers. Their calls are "full of the salty enthusiasm of high comedy."

The Green Lagoons

Returning to a wilderness is a risky venture, Leopold notes here, because it is not unlikely someone will have come along and spoiled it, leaving one's memory of the place tarnished. This is why he never returned to the Delta of the Colorado since a trip there with his brother in 1922. At that time it had been untouched by human activity for a long time. The river, divided into many separate paths, made hundreds of green lagoons, where mesquite and willow trees grew in abundance and where egrets, cormorants, and other birds gathered to feed. Bobcats, raccoons, and coyotes could be observed hunting for their prey.

Leopold and his brother looked for the signs of a jaguar, and though they never saw him the wariness of other animals bespoke his presence. They burned mesquite wood for their cooking fires, and after several unsuccessful hunting days they were able to cook goose over one. While fresh water was hard to find among the saltwater lagoons, the game was all well fed because of an abundance of grasses, wild fruits, and other food sources. The system of lagoons held some dangers, such as flooding and getting lost, but it was beautiful and wild. Leopold mourns the likely loss of such wildness.

Song of the Gavilan

The Rio Gavilan has a pleasant song it plays on "rock, root, and rapid." There is also other music in the hills near it. To hear it you must "must know the speech of hills and rivers." Once, humans who lived near the river lived in harmony with nature, but present human activities such as overfishing and overhunting mar the song. For example, "Food is the continuum in the Song of the Gavilan." Humans eat deer and quail, the deer eats the oak, the cougar eats the deer, and "the cougar ... dies under an oak and goes back into acorns for his erstwhile prey."

Leopold explains in his view that professors at universities study the "instruments" on which the music of whatever is their interest is played, but often they "dismember" their particular instrument without ever hearing its music. They are convinced "that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets." While science has its value—the virtue of objectivity—it sees facts, not music.


In "Guacamaja" Leopold shares his aesthetic sense of what affects the beauty of a natural area. He likens the parts of an ecosystem to a mathematical equation to suggest what makes a place beautiful is all parts working together to make one meaningful whole. If you remove any one piece, the entire thing makes no sense. He uses the beautiful and unique Guacamaja (thick-billed parrot) to elaborate on one particular piece of an ecosystem. His detailed and lively description invites readers to consider what would be lost if the thick-billed parrot were to disappear.

From this descriptive beginning, he moves on to explore memories of the green lagoons of the Delta of the Colorado—a place where the "mathematical equation" of beauty seems to be intact. Every aspect of the green lagoons is lush and abundant. There are hundreds of lagoons, filled with trees, birds of every sort, and predators large and small. The geese and other game are well nourished on the available plant life. It is the wetland equivalent of Eden. Yet like Eden its perfection is ruined by humans: "Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness." It is interesting that Leopold states he never went back to the lagoons after this initial trip, so the ruin he imagines (though likely) is not confirmed by later observation.

In "Song of the Gavilan" Leopold uses a new metaphor to describe the unity and interdependence of all the parts of an ecosystem: a musical piece. The Rio Gavilan plays a song, and the hills have music as well. He suggests humans have the capacity to live in harmony with this music but also the capacity to ruin the music. How do they ruin it? They distort an important part of the music—in this case food—by hunting and fishing to the point at which the system is out of balance.

Extending this metaphor of the music of nature, Leopold criticizes the academic study of nature—ecology, biology, botany, and the like—by comparing activity to studying the construction of musical instruments without listening to the music played on them. Such study may result in a person knowing everything about an instrument and how it is put together without appreciating its ability to make music. Leopold himself is certainly an expert in ecology and knows more than the average person about the "instruments" on which nature's music is played. Yet his writing attests to the beauty of the music as well. Thus his criticism that science and poetry are needlessly separated is borne of his own actions and experience, since he harmoniously blends the two together well.

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