A Sand County Almanac | Study Guide

Aldo Leopold

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A Sand County Almanac | Summary

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Summary

Part 1: A Sand County Almanac

This part consists of a series of written sketches of Aldo Leopold's Wisconsin farm, organized by month. As such it gives an overview of a year's worth of seasonal changes on the farm. Throughout, Leopold weaves his thoughts associated with what he observes.

During a January thaw Leopold observes how the diminishing snow cover affects the animals overwintering on the farm. Prey animals are suddenly exposed to more danger, but all have more feeding opportunities when the snow melts. In February Leopold uses his experience sawing through a felled oak to give an overview of oak life cycles. He also weaves in some of the history of conservation in the area over time. The return of the migratory geese is in March, and Leopold uses them to describe how his farm's ecosystem is connected to larger cycles and systems.

April brings sudden flooding. Leopold takes time to describe some fast changes to the landscape that take place in this dramatic time of year. Flowers bloom and die, and flooding presents challenges for the geese but opportunities for the carp. The male woodcock attempts to obtain a mate by his elaborate sky dance. In May the song of the upland plover—another migratory bird—signals the "final proof" of spring. The plover, Leopold notes, has adapted well to the transformation of prairie to farmland.

June offers opportunities for fishing, an activity Leopold especially enjoys. He ruminates on ways people are like fish as well as the beauty of natural places that are still relatively unchanged by humans. July brings dawn walks with the family dog and observations of the many ways animals (and humans) set and proclaim their territorial boundaries. Leopold also notices a Silphium flower blooming along a fence in a graveyard. This prompts musings on the collateral damage of human progress, as native plants lose their habitat to farming and other development. Changes that occur in August along the river cause Leopold to think of the river as a painter who uses water, sand, soil, and plants as colors for a beautiful yet constantly changing canvas.

September's highlight is the unique song of the quail. The quail's "contralto voices" add texture to the season and seem to enhance the autumn colors beginning to show among the trees. October observations continue to focus on the fall colors, especially the golden shade of the tamaracks and the bright red leaves of the blackberry vines. A windy November seems to accompany the geese migrating south for the Wisconsin winter. This time of year also requires landowners to decide which trees need to be culled for the health of the woods. Leopold considers the reasons for his choices as well as how some "problems," such as tree diseases, can have a silver lining, such as providing food or shelter for wildlife. December gives Leopold a chance to observe how the ranges of certain animals change when cold weather comes. He also describes how the evergreen trees maintain their color by overlapping the tenure of their needles: they begin to grow new needles before the old ones fall.

Part 2: Sketches Here and There

The second collection of sketches is organized by location, as Leopold describes natural areas in a variety of places. He begins in Wisconsin, where he describes the cranes that visit a marsh and canoes on the Flambeau River, and he mourns the passing of the passenger pigeon. Then he takes a bus ride through Illinois and observes a farmer cutting down a large cottonwood tree as well as an oddly planned soil conservation project. He moves on to Arizona and New Mexico. There he describes the seasonal changes and ecosystems of the White Mountains and exhorts humanity to "think like a mountain." In Chihuahua and Sonora, he praises the colorful plumage and personality of the Sierra Madre's thick-billed parrot. He also reminisces about the beauty of the green lagoons of the Colorado Delta and describes nature's interconnectedness as a complex and beautiful piece of music.

In Oregon and Utah he describes the effects of the invasive and ecologically inferior "cheat grass" that has replaced the native grasses of the grassland. And in Manitoba he extols the wonders of the lonely, boggy Clandeboye marsh; there he worries that normative human education makes people blind to the quality of marshes and other wild places.

Part 3: The Upshot

"The Upshot" contains four essays that take a more academic tone to outline some of Leopold's most important conservation ideas. "Conservation Esthetic" takes a look at outdoor recreation; it argues for improving human perception of nature so people will cause less harm to it. "Wildlife in American Culture" focuses on the value of interacting with wildlife, stressing the importance of using gadgets and machinery only moderately when hunting so as to preserve that value. "Wilderness" explains how the diversity of kinds of wilderness has shaped the diversity of human cultures; it argues for taking a smarter approach to conservation so that it is more effective in protecting wilderness. His well-known concluding piece "The Land Ethic" argues for the development of an ethical way of thinking about human interactions with nature in general so that people see conservation as a moral imperative rather than a profitable enterprise.

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