On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere. It is here that we seek–and still find–our meat from God.
So Aldo Leopold introduced his series of “shack sketches,” arranged by season in A Sand County Almanac. The shack was a rehabilitated chicken coop on a worthless backwoods farm in a poor area of a Midwestern state. The sketches are Leopold’s observations and meditations as he works with his family each weekend to repair the damage to the land that forced the farm’s foreclosure, close readings of the Book of Nature.
Leopold, though, is one of the most perceptive readers that particular Book has had. Leopold earned a Masters degree in Forestry from Yale in 1909, worked for the Forest Service and as a surveyor of wildlife and game, and in 1933 became Professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1935 he founded the Wilderness Society. And he brought all of this knowledge and experience to his family’s weekend hunting-shack projects.
Beginning in January, when “observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold,” the Almanac explores the actions, interactions, and motivations of the community of creatures he encounters on the land, both human and wild. Along the way, his tour of the natural year touches on present joys and solitudes, the the untold tales of veteran trees, the secret glories of our fellow-creatures, knowledge and ignorance, the hiddenness of history, the nature of territory, the art of rivers, the wisdom of hunting dogs, and the wildness of wind, teaching us all the while to look again, with a deep and desperate love, at this wild garden that we have so long learned to ignore. He ends at last in November & December with meditations on the human values, biases, and choices which confront us all.
Aldo Leopold’s prose moves from poetry to scientific data to prophetic insight with breathtaking ease and the sharp brevity of parable. In a sketch for July entitled “Prairie Birthday,” he writes:
. . . indeed my whole neighborhood lies in a backwash of the River Progress. My road is the original wagon track of the pioneers, innocent of grades or gravel. . . . As between going fishing and going forward,1 [my neighbors] are prone to prefer fishing. Thus on week ends my floristic standard of living is that of the backwoods, while on week days I subsist as best I can on the flora of the university farms, the university campus, and the adjoining suburbs. For a decade I have kept, for pastime, a record of the wild plant species in first bloom on these two diverse areas…
There then follows a table giving the number of species coming to first bloom in each month from April through September for each location, with a line at the bottom for “Total visual diet” in each location. Leopold concludes:
It is apparent that the backward farmer’s eye is nearly twice as well fed as the eye of the university student or businessman. Of course, neither sees his flora as yet….
Leopold’s passionate, personal engagement with his weekend woodlot allows him to see it deeply, and in his disciplined, care-full recording of his observations opens that vision to us as well.
But why should it matter that we should see the woods?
The sketch for February, titled “Good Oak,” uses the felling of an oak tree to narrate eight decades of environmental history in North America. It begins with a sentiment often quoted, and less often pondered:
There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.
We should note that these dangers are not only perennial, but unevenly experienced. The natural world provides food, clothing, water, and fuel for every person on earth; controls our experience of fire, flood, frost, and fresh air; and opens doors to beauty, study, spirituality, and play–but individual human beings live in varying degrees of separation from the ecosystem services upon which we universally depend. Our location, culture, and personal inclination all influence the amount and kind of awareness we have of these vital relationships.2 Seeing the woods, then, is a discipline and a habit, taking effort and practice, and serves the the classical virtues of Prudence and Justice, of living wisely in the world without self-deception, and in community with others.
Achieving Human Scale #
Our family encountered Leopold’s Almanac when I dragged it home from the Library on a whim (a new illustrated version had just been issued), and added it into our list of bedtime read-alouds. But we were hooked from the beginning. Our boys, then five and nine years old, immediately recognized his motives for following tracks in the snow: he mirrored their native curiosity. They smiled when the desires of the meadow mouse (that “sober citizen”) and the rough-legged hawk (a “feathered bomb”) were described in like terms: freedom from want and fear. We put the opening lines of “Good Oak” to them as a riddle: “What do you think he means by that? Where do our food and warmth come from? Why is it dangerous to forget that? Why is it spiritual?” To over-schooled ears, this may seem like turning the story into a quiz, but we really don’t experience it like that. For our kids, the questions are how we adults acknowledge that they are participating in the read-alouds; we get on with the story soon enough, and we trust them to ask the next questions when the time is right. Often enough, the right questions are just the basics: “Is that before or after Laura lived in the Little House?”
For Leopold, sketching the characters of the landscape is a participation in the life of the land. To an audience for whom the natural world has become a threatening stranger, Leopold does what is necessary to reestablish empathy: he comes up with a story. But the story of an oak is different, for how can a tree in a forest be a character? Of course it would be easy to invent an anthropomorphic tree that talks and thinks and feels like us, but Leopold wants to show us the tree as it really is–not a human being at all, but something completely different. For the natural order to which the trees belong is not human. It is larger than us: its essence lies not in persons but in populations; it is not shaped by intentional acts, but by principle & contingency; and it unfolds not in days but in ages. How can we, mere mortals that we are, possibly comprehend this?
Leopold begins by looking right here, right now, at the stump in front of him: eighty rings of wood grown “on the bank of the old emigrant road” locate the oak’s beginnings with our ancestors of a generation earlier, “in 1865, at the end of the Civil War.” But he immediately jumps back from that long ago and far away frame to the here and now: he has seen rabbits eat the tender bark of present-day oak seedlings in his woods, which sprout again ten springs in a row before getting a chance to rise above the rodents.
Indeed, it is all too clear that every surviving oak is the product either of rabbit negligence or rabbit scarcity. Some day some patient botanist will draw a frequency curve of oak birth-years, and show that the curve humps every ten years, each hump originating from a low in the ten-year rabbit cycle.
Leopold’s focus has zoomed out again from the human scale, having now brought in a second species, and included whole populations in his view, with their dynamic interactions. The next paragraph takes us yet further back in time, and anchors us again in human history:
It is likely, then, that a low in rabbits occurred in the middle ‘sixties…but that the acorn that produced [my oak] fell during the preceding decade, when the covered wagons were still passing over my road into the Great Northwest.
Thus he continues, looking closely, zooming out, jumping back, touching base again with the near at hand. (Including the bolt of lightning that struck the oak: “since it had not hit us,” he writes, “we all went back to sleep.”) In introducing the story of “this particular oak,” Leopold achieves, by my count, more than a dozen shifts of perspective in the space of two pages of text. Each shift makes connections–historic, scientific, economic, and personal–across years, communities, and purposes. In the end the scales of human and natural life dissolve in brilliant narrative; time and history are compressed to be held in our hands.
And when we can truly see this particular oak, in all it’s particular contexts, Leopold follows the cut of the saw through those eighty rings of oak, 1945-1865, in a breathtaking litany of “the integrated transect of a century,” to tell our human story, no longer separated from the trees.
Into the [Digital] Woods #
Since Leopold wrote “Good Oak,” nearly another lifetime has passed. His children have grown up to be their own sorts of artists, activists, and heroes. My own children live in a world of new possibilities, and are connected to their world in ways Leopold’s “patient botanist” never imagined. Some months before we picked up the Almanac, we played around with a computer program called StarLogo, a “programmable modeling environment for exploring the workings of decentralized systems….such as bird flocks, traffic jams, ant colonies, and market economies.” In one of the projects, simulated rabbits move around the screen eating green pixels of simulated grass. The grass grows back at a certain rate, and when a rabbit has eaten enough, it reproduces. If it can’t find enough grass to eat, it dies.
It’s a simple game with simple rules, but our boys were fascinated. Every change to the system was immediately visible to them on screen, both in animated pixels and in real-time population graphs. They spent an hour adjusting rates of grass growth and rabbit reproduction and giggling as the populations veered, soared, and crashed. Turn up the grass growth, and here come the rabbits, munching it all. But just when it seems the rabbits have taken over, the grass has become scarce. Then look out–down come the rabbits! And soon the grass returns….
Who knew that playing around with equation parameters could be so much fun? In the process, they got an intuitive, almost visceral, sense for how these populations ebb and flow together. (We can teach them the Lotka-Volterra equations later.) Leopold imagined his “patient botanist” collecting his data and drawing his graphs, painstakingly, by hand. After an hour of play in our living room, our children could see the lesson of the oak trees’ frequency curves: that animals and plants are not separate, but linked, moving together through seasons and cycles. And when they heard that Leopold had seen this, too, in his woods, it was like sharing a secret; it filled them with delight.
The Weight of History #
A computer game is never as good as the real thing, and soon we had a chance to visit Leopold’s farm for ourselves. I saw an email call for volunteers to help strip the bark off logs–not just any logs, but the famous Leopold pines planted by Aldo himself along with his family. (“I love all trees,” he wrote in November’s essay, Axe-in-Hand, “but I am in love with pines.”) Some of them were being harvested as part of the Leopold forest management, and would be used in building the new Aldo Leopold Legacy Center. So we went, worked hard at peeling the pines, ate pizza with our fellow volunteers, and went for a tour of the Shack.
Here we were, poking around Aldo & Estella’s shack, testing their kids’ bunk-beds, walking the sandy ground we’d read about in books, and touching history. Until then, I think our boys didn’t really believe it was a real place. Following our tour guide, we walked along the bank where the river paints in March, then headed into the woods, where we stopped at the far end of the path. Our son Joseph, tired, plopped down on a rock as the guide pulled out a worn copy of the Sand County Almanac.
“We like to end our tours with this,” he said, and began to read from “Good Oak”:
The particular oak now aglow on my andirons grew on the bank of the old emigrant road where it climbs the sandhill….when the covered wagons were still passing over my road into the Pacific Northwest. It may have been the wash and wear of the emigrant traffic that bared this roadbank, and thus enabled this particular acorn to spread its first leaves to the sun.
I tapped Joseph as he listened, and nodded out into the trees behind him. Not five feet from us, the ground sloped steeply down to a narrow paved road. He turned back to me with puzzlement, then dawning recognition. I nodded, and pointed down at the rock, which had a plaque mounted on it. Here, right here, is where it happened–the Leopold family and their farm, the acorn, the rabbits, the Civil War, the covered wagons (with all the Ingalls family times), the Great Depression, the dust bowl drouths, floods, storms, fires, extinctions, and acts of government; and the lightning, and the heat from the fire.
These essays have echoed down to new generations, and have influenced environmental movements as far away as China,3 but there and then, in those woods, the weight of history came to rest where we sat. Joseph’s whole face grew wide with wonder as history fell on him. All of it. Right here.
- Forward has been the Wisconsin State motto since 1851. ↩
- Once, during her two-year stint in Madison as a post-doc’s wife, the plumber who had disassembled my mother’s kitchen informed her that hunting season was coming up. City girl that she was, she thought he was just making conversation; but he disappeared for two weeks…. ↩
- “China Reads Leopold,” by Shen Hou, in The Leopold Outlook, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2007 (PDF) ↩