A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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



Marshland Elegy

This sketch marks the beginning of Part 2 of the book. In Part 1, Leopold made observations organized by month. These observations were in the same general geographic location. Now he transitions to a new kind of organization: by location. He begins in familiar territory: Wisconsin, the setting of Part 1.

Leopold first takes a look at the marshland of Wisconsin. Each spring the marsh is home to cranes. To Leopold, the quality of the cranes goes beyond beauty to something higher, which has a value "as yet uncaptured by language." The crane ancestors date to the Eocene, a geologic time period from 55 to 33.9 million years ago, making the call of the crane "the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution." Their return to the marsh each year is a reminder of the sweep of evolutionary time.

After the glacier retreated from Wisconsin it left a lake, which, over time, became the marsh. The cranes have consistently returned to this location as explorers, settlers, hunters, and then farmers occupied it. But farmers became ambitious, so they drained the marsh and made new fields. Fires became more common and the cranes less numerous. Eventually the land, prone to fire and poor in soil, was reflooded, making it more attractive to cranes again. The author wonders if perhaps the cranes will return to their former numbers; perhaps the cranes will eventually disappear forever.

The Sand Counties

The "sand counties" of Wisconsin are an excellent place for economists, soil experts, social planners, and others to test out their ideas. Each relates to the sand counties in a different way. Sand farmers have their own unique view—one that is in the realm of experience, not just idea. They may not have profitable farms, but they have the beauty of the dew on the lupine and the pasque-flower that grows on the gravel ridges. They have the "little sandwort that throws a white-lace cap over the poorest hilltops just before the lupines splash them with blue," the tiny blue Linaria, and the tinier Draba. These flowers only grow in poor, sandy soil. There are also some birds found only in the sand counties: woodcocks, sandhill cranes, and clay-colored sparrow.


As Leopold uses it, X, an atom in limestone in the Paleozoic era, was released when the root of a bur oak caused the rock to weather. X became a nutrient for an acorn, which became food for a deer, which became food for a human. This pattern continued after the human died and decomposed. X became part of a leaf, which was buried by a deer mouse's nest and decomposed, freeing X once more. For a few more life cycles X repeated a similar pattern, interrupted by a prairie fire. It took thousands of years but eventually X ended up in the sea, as Leopold completes the circle.

Y (an atom) was also released from rock by tree roots and became part of a farmer's wheat crop. After a few life cycles Y traveled down the watershed as a result of soil erosion exacerbated by wheat farming practices. The rivers became clogged with sediment, so engineers built pools into which Y traveled: "his trip from rock to river completed in one short century." Y spends a few life cycles as part of the water ecosystem, then becomes part of an oily sludge in a sewer.

On a Monument to the Pigeon

The monument to the Passenger Pigeon, in Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin, commemorates the "funeral of a species." As Leopold sees it, the actions taken by our grandparents to better their own lives led to the demise of the pigeons. But the question remains: "The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?" Darwin taught us "men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution." It is this knowledge of evolution that causes us to better understand, and to mourn, the passing of a species. The monument will watch, flightless and unchanging, as living things go through their seasonal cycles.

The pigeons did not survive because they were unable to adapt to even the slightest lessening of resources. Yet while they lived, they lived in their present moment—in the now. The monument, in contrast, shows that people have learned to love what was, a human characteristic.


Canoeing on the Flambeau River, the Leopolds encounter two young men enjoying the freedom of nature. Yet to Leopold, the Flambeau seems only partly wild. It is lined with cottages, cabins, and boat landings. The logging industry has greatly reduced the number of hardwood trees. Using the natural flora and fauna that remain, the Wisconsin State Conservation Department is trying to restore some of the river area to its natural state, but the dairy industry is determined to use the river to generate power. For various reasons, it seems likely the dairy farmers will win over the conservationists.


With the exception of "The Sand Counties," the sketches in "Wisconsin" mourn losses. The passenger pigeon is the most extreme example, as the species became extinct in 1914. "Marshland Elegy" mourns the loss of the marsh's former glory and the reduction of the crane population because of human greed. Although it comes before "On a Monument to the Pigeon" in this section, it is clear that as Leopold observes the cranes he worries the fate of the passenger pigeon may also become the fate of the cranes. "Flambeau" mourns the loss of wildness and native species along the river as a result of human development. "Odyssey" mourns the loss of natural cycles because of human efforts to grow more wheat and then to solve the problems caused by growing more wheat. It also mourns the loss of soil nutrients, which, because of human engineering and agriculture, wash away to the sea far more quickly than they should.

Evolution is another thread that ties these sketches loosely together. In "Marshland Elegy" Leopold compares evolution to an orchestra, and says the cranes that come to the marsh each year are "the ticking of the geologic clock." In "The Sand Counties" he heaps praise upon those hardy plants and animals that have evolved to grow in the poor soil conditions of the sand counties. "Odyssey" contrasts the natural cycles that facilitated the evolution of complex organisms (journey of X) with the human-influenced systems that have developed into poor replacements for these natural cycles (journey of Y). "On a Monument to the Pigeon" examines what happens when previous evolutionary necessities become evolutionary liabilities. The passenger pigeons' large flocks, which ensured the survival of the species by protecting against predators, also made them unable to adapt to environments with fewer resources.

These two threads—evolution and loss—are two ways of thinking about how humans influence and are influenced by nature. Humans are a product of evolution and of the very natural processes described in "Odyssey." Yet of all of evolution's products, humans seem bent on destroying the very thing that gave them life. At every turn they interrupt and short-circuit natural processes, hastening the loss of wildlife and good soil.

Leopold lays a good deal of this blame on farming practices based on a desire for more profits. In "Marshland Elegy" he is especially accusatory, saying farmers became ambitious and found that the "dividends" of a "balanced economy" (that is, one in which farms were not just around the marsh, but in the marsh) were not profitable enough, so they drained the marsh and made new fields.

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