Saturday, April 27, 2024

On Rereading A Sand County Almanac

This post describes a few of my reactions upon rereading A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.  In typical fashion, I come at the subject of this post obliquely.  My opening links only marginally to the topic though it does pay tribute to one of my favorite TV series.

This past Monday was Earth Day.  That evening, I was rewatching an episode of Vera, the long-running British ITV series based on the mysteries written by Ann Cleeves and featuring Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope (played by Brenda Blethyn) of the Northumberland and City Police.  She’s a smart, veteran detective whose prickly nature and impatience with anyone keeping her from solving a crime (this includes fools, liars, pedants, the verbose, and nearly all those in power) serve her well in the pursuit of murderers, though perhaps not so well in her relationships with colleagues.  Dr. Malcolm Donahue (played by Paul Kaye), pathologist and forensics expert, who has worked on Vera’s cases for several years, shares most of her personality traits and, as a result, frequently spars with her at murder scenes or in the lab.  It’s a fraught and funny relationship.

On this viewing, one scene in particular struck a chord (well, for me, though probably no one else) given that it was Earth Day.  Vera has learned Malcolm is leaving his position, but, as he begins to explain where he’s going, it’s clear she’s not interested (though I was).  He says,

Well, I’ve been invited to join a wonderful institute in Copenhagen who are doing the most remarkable work in the field of palynology, which is the study of grains and pollens . . . .

There it is, the tie to Earth Day and to this post’s topic:  the word palynology.  How?  Because, in late February, 2024, I learned of the death at age 97 of Estella Bergere Leopold, the last surviving child of the revered conservationist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold.  She and the other four of the Leopold children became highly regarded scientists.  Estella was a paleobotanist who did ground breaking work with fossil pollen in the field of palynology.  She studied fossil pollen in order to document how ancient environments evolved and responded to climate change.  She was a committed environmentalist, just as her father was.  (Clay Risen, Estella Bergere Leopold Dies at 97; Found Climate Clues in Ancient Pollen, The New York Times, March 5, 2024; Cathy Whitlock, Estella Bergere Leopold (1927-2024), Passionate Environmentalist Who Traced Changing Ecosystems, Nature, March 26, 2024.)

I would note that fossil lovers owe her a large debt of gratitude for working for the establishment in 1969 of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument which protects the Florissant fossil beds, a site very well known for its fossils of Eocene insects and flora.  In reading about her life, I came upon what she wrote after receiving the Paleontological Society Medal in 2013.  She described some of the effort to protect the Florissant from impending destruction at the hands of developers, and then she quoted testimony she gave in 1969 before a Senate committee:

Today when the new society is tossing out remnants of past cultural patterns, it may seem unpopular to bother with saving a priceless scientific library like the Florissant paper shales with all their fine print.  But I ask you, how can man keep a perspective on his direction and life’s path, if he loses tracks of the routes that life has followed before him?  (Response by Estella B. Leopold, Journal of Paleontology, Volume 88, Number 3, 2014, p. 621.)

Her passing prompted me to revisit Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, a slender volume published in 1949, a year after his death at age 61.  The book brings together three groups of quite different kinds of essays, all undergirded by a set of beliefs about the environment and conservation.  It begins with the almanac portion which is, at first blush, rather parochial, consisting of twelve contemplative essays organized by the months of the year and describing aspects of the natural world in and around the shack at the sand farm in Wisconsin to which the Leopolds retreated on weekends.  The essays in the second part, titled Sketches Here and There, move the reader to several different locations, mostly in the west, recounting Aldo Leopold’s experiences there and insights he gained about our relationship to the environment.  The four pieces in the final part, which is titled The Upshot, passionately lay out some of the core arguments and positions that he believed were central to a healthy relationship with the planet’s land and its flora and fauna.

Below is a photograph of most members of the Leopold family at the shack in Wisconsin.  It’s an undated image.  Aldo Leopold is seated at the far left (from the viewer's perspective), book or journal in hand, while daughter Estella is seated on the ground front and center.  One Leopold child may be missing (taking the photograph?) because I think that's Aldo’s wife Estella seated on his immediate left.  The photograph is available at Wikimedia Commons, and is reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A Sand County Almanac is a seminal work that helped give rise to the environmental movement.  Three quarters of a century after it was published, the book continues to move readers with its impassioned pleas for the conservation of the nation’s wilderness areas and for its admonition that we humans must recognize how integrated all living things are within the floral and faunal communities.  The book has stood the test of time.  Rereading it brought me as much pleasure with its graceful and powerful prose, and as much dismay at how we have mistreated our planet, as it did the first time I turned its pages.

To my mind, the core belief that fueled the entire volume is this:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.  (p. 225)
Central to this perspective is an understanding of the dangerous consequences of viewing the natural world in economic terms.

One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value.  Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. . . . Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.  (p. 210)

There was an aspect of the book that had a particular impact on me this time around, perhaps because I'm (so much) older now.  I neither hunt nor fish, so, upon my first reading, I was uncomfortable that Aldo Leopold did both with great pleasure.  But now I am struck by how the essays depict a maturing of his view of his appropriate place and role, and, by extension, those of humankind, in the natural world.  And that maturing had a particular impact on his approach to hunting.  Consider his poetic description in the April essay of the mating “sky dance” of male woodcocks from “the first warm evening in April” to the beginning of June.  Even as he described the aerial acrobatics of these birds as they soar high in the sky, spiraling up, only to fall down, he was trying to understand the bird, why would it do this, concluding it may be because the bird has such short legs that simple posturing in the vegetation on the ground would fail to capture the attention of the female of the species.  The key for me was how Leopold ends his description of the woodcock’s sky dance.

The woodcock is a living refutation of the theory that the utility of a game bird is to serve as a target, or to pose gracefully on a slice of toast.  No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough.  I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.  (p. 34, fifth printing, 1960)

In the essay in Sketches about Arizona’s White Mountain, there’s a much-quoted passage about how he and his companions, consumed by “trigger-itch,” shot and killed a mother wolf.  He wrote, “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”  (p. 130)  It was at that point, he realized that, through his action, something important was lost, an apex predator was taken from the mountain.  Keeping deer safe from this predator would do no one any good:  certainly not the wolf, but also not the deer whose overpopulation would make it “dead of its own too-much,” and not the mountain whose vegetation would be decimated.  He concluded the piece,

Too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.  Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum:  In wildness is the salvation of the world.  (p. 133)

Estella Leopold’s death affected what I attended to in this reading.  A couple of examples suffice.  Her simile (which I quoted above) comparing the Florissant to a “priceless scientific library . . . with all their fine print” is quite beautiful.  I was moved by how it resonated wonderfully with ways her father characterized the embedded history in the flora and fauna around the sand farm.  For instance, in the essay for February, he described the demise from a lightning strike of a “good oak” that was probably just a seedling in 1865.  To him, the tree was not only a witness to the history and passage of time at this place, but a recording of that history.  At each passage of his saw through annual growth rings in the trunk as he converted the tree to firewood, he commented on salient local events that had occurred at the time the rings were added.  Readers are taken back in time, learning the historical context for this place as they go.  It’s a call to be attentive to those features of the natural landscape that offer the opportunity to, as Estella Leopold wrote, “keep a perspective on [man’s] direction and life’s path.”

With what little I’ve learned about his daughter Estella, I now recognize the eerie prescience of Aldo Leopold's treatment in the book of the struggle between prairie and forest.  He discussed in the April essay the evolution of the bur oak, typical of southern Wisconsin, which, he asserted, “is the only tree that can stand up to a prairie fire and live.”  (p. 26)   In his characterization, these trees are the “shock troops” of the forest as it seeks to encroach on the prairie.  He wrote

Botanists can read the story of that war for twenty thousand years.  The record consists partly of pollen grains embedded in peats, partly of relic plants interned in the rear of the battle, and there forgotten.  The record shows that the forest front at times retreated almost to Lake Superior; at times it advanced far to the south.  At one period it advanced so far southward that spruce and other ‘rear guard’ species grew to and beyond the southern border of Wisconsin; spruce pollen appears at a certain level in all peat bogs of the region.  But the average battle line between prairie and forest as about where it is now, and the net outcome of the battle was a draw.  (p. 27)

Certainly Estella Leopold's work with palynology would have pleased her father.  I was bemused by how she concluded her response to receiving the Paleontological Society Medal:

And remember, Pollen Wins!!

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