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A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold


(An ecologist contemplates and celebrates the land, and recommends an expansion of our moral world.)

Aldo Leopold in Mexico, 1938.  Courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Archives at the University of Wisconsin.

In today’s courses on ecology, forestry, conservation, environmental philosophy or land use, three personalities are routinely introduced as the fathers of modern concern for nature, the three who first and most strongly urged us to enlarge our conception of what in this world is a proper object of moral consideration: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold.  Contemporary American (and to some extent world) culture has been impacted by A Sand County Almanac, as by Thoreau’s Walden, to such an extent that we cannot yet begin to assess it. Nevertheless, I would argue that we as a culture have still not attended to the two main lessons A Sand County Almanac would teach us.

First is the encouragement to seek an understanding of nature.  This urging is inspirationally conveyed by the whole book, but is in greatest concentration in the monthly and geographic essays.  Most people still haven’t a clue about the plants and animals they walk and drive past every day.  (I will be bold like Leopold and suggest these things although I cannot provide statistics.)  The average city-dweller does not know the names or the life histories of more than two or three of the “weeds” that poke through the cracks in his walkway, much less the little arthropods that dwell on those.  Suburbanites see more of the land community around them, but are nearly as ignorant.  Rural folk have a better track record in some ways, but much rural activity is often concerned with converting land to human use rather than working with it or cultivating its natural bounty.  And most rural people do not have more than a passing acquaintance with the animals and plants with which they share their home life and often their work.  We are unlikely to see a change in our ethical sympathies if we do not first open our eyes to what is around us; for, as Leopold says, we only love what we know, and we only grieve for what we love.  Having said this, I realize that all of this is old news, partly thanks to Leopold.  I also realize that to a wealthy citizen of today’s world a diversity of lifestyles is available, some of which do not require any interaction with the natural environment for fulfillment, education, or entertainment.  Still, I cannot help reiterating.  For one thing, like literature, nature is something that one tends to become evangelical about once one experiences it.  Also, very simply, attention to nature and love of it is the very heart of Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.

The second main lesson Leopold would teach us in this book, is that the right way to live in this land community is for humans to develop an individual ecological conscience.  Today, after so many decades, there is good news for the relevance of A Sand County Almanac, and bad news for the land: the insufficiencies in our moral faculties that Leopold saw in 1948 and earlier are still present today.  One can read the more practical parts of “The Land Ethic” as if they were written in the twenty-first century.  I suspect that many of us have made some progress in developing an individual ecological conscience, but unfortunately many have also narrowed the conception of an ecological conscience to a political rather than a moral goal.  We need to read Leopold again today and note that he clearly meant for us to encourage individuals to understand and love the land, and also for us not to rely on the government to solve all of our environmental problems.  Environmentalism today is in many circles understood to refer to a political rather than an ethical mandate, which is unfortunate from a Leopoldian perspective.  One result of this is that, if one is on the side of political environmentalism, this can be seen as an effective substitute for individual cultivation of oneself– one’s own values, attitudes, and actions.  And, on the other hand, those who are adverse to this political position can use their position as an excuse for not developing their conscience; they feel justified in being morally blinkered because they have linked the environmental call with a larger political agenda to which they are opposed.  Leopold, in contrast, would call all of us, politically liberal or conservative, to open our eyes and realize, as Thoreau said, that “our whole lives are startlingly moral”.  In the last two centuries humans have suddenly realized that nature is not a thing that is infinitely resilient and viable.  We can damage it, maim it, and lose it.  The moral revolution this realization should bring about needs to happen, Leopold tells us, in the mind and heart of the individual.  In turn, the political organizations we work under will change to reflect our values, and we certainly should work towards this.  But no political affiliation gives an individual reprieve from this obligation. 

The fact that we are stunted in our cultural understanding of the land is illustrated in the exclusively economic and anthropocentric language and distinctions that still persist in our legislation.  We are still unlikely to pass a law that explicitly recognizes the value of living things apart from their use to humans, even though such legislation obviously proceeds from an understanding of such value.  We protect endangered species with legislation, but officially pretend that it is for our own benefit rather than the benefit of those species, probably because we are still embarrassed as a culture about having an ecological conscience.  Worse, we still do not use ecology or evolutionary biology when making decisions about natural entities, as Leopold repeatedly begged of us.  (Incidentally, we should note that evolutionary biology is still not accepted by many citizens.  This situation is quintessential proof of what I mentioned above, that most people are still woefully unacquainted with the natural world.  Nobody who understands much about nature rejects evolution.)  An illustration of our failure to make decisions with biological rationality is the radical differences in the laws that apply to a single species, the rat Rattus norvegicus, depending on whether the animal is (1) wild, (2) a pet, or (3) a scientific subject. In all three situations the rat obviously has similar physiology, needs, capacities, and limits. If we were thinking biologically, the ethics of our treatment of rats would reflect an understanding of that organism, in some sort of balance with our own needs and wants. Instead, those needs and wants of ours are not only primary but all-encompassing, such that we collectively view rats only through our own eyes: our regulations reveal the pretense that a wild rat, a pet rat, and a lab rat are completely different creatures merely because we use them differently. 

Changing gears a little, two criticisms have sometimes been leveled at Leopold’s land ethic, even by academics, criticisms that I believe are misplaced.  I do not think the book is perfect (see below), but I do think that two perceived problems with Leopold’s views are misunderstandings of him.  The first criticism is that Leopold’s land ethic is so holistic, so broad, that it ignores individual organisms.  The argument is that Leopold’s land ethic looks at the whole biota as the unit of moral consideration, and so individual organisms, species, and habitats might be seen as only valuable insofar as they contribute to the workings of the land as a whole.  But one can only get this impression from a very partial reading of Leopold.  Most of the book is composed of anecdotes or meditations on individual organisms, species, or habitats.  Towards the end of “The Land Ethic”, he offers several questions that exemplify the land ethic:

What is the cost in predators of producing a game crop?  Should we have further recourse to exotics?  How can management restore the shrinking species, like prairie grouse, already hopeless as shootable game?  How can management restore the threatened rarities, like trumpeter swan and whooping crane?  Can management principles be extended to wildflowers?

This passage alone should illustrate that Leopold’s land ethic is comprehensive.  It is not an open or empty circle, valuing only the whole.  Rather, his holism is a filled circle:  the whole, and all the particular things inside of it.

The second criticism sometimes aimed at the land ethic is that it is too biocentric.  It ignores the needs and concerns of humans.  It ignores the fact that we are not just another member of the land community, but we are us, and to seek our own needs and wants is morally permissable.  An underappreciated fact is that Leopold fully accepts this.  He is far too practical and worldly-wise not to present an ethic that provides a prominent place for the desires and values, including economic values, of humans.  His final summary statement to us in the book is that we should “examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient” (my emphasis).  Immediately after the most famous line in the book, regarding the definition of right and wrong according to a land ethic (see the last Tidbit of Significance below), is the following statement, the beginning of a new paragraph: “It of course goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether of what can or cannot be done for land.  It always has and it always will.”  This statement does not undo the previous 225 pages of his book.  It simply shows that a land ethic should not replace self-interest or human community interest, but should be integrated with it.  I find it remarkable that even some professional philosophers could have missed this important emphasis in A Sand County Almanac, especially since Leopold believed that integrating the land ethic with our other values is the only chance it has for catching on.

As a sort of appendix to my reflection, I offer a few more specific comments, including some criticisms:

  • His poetic ability varies.  His tale of fly fishing in “June” is captivating and picturesque, but his attempt in “November” at “If I Were the Wind” is comparatively poor.
  • He loves social and political metaphors for natural processes (one example among many is at the end of “December: Pines Above the Snow”).
  • Many of his beautiful descriptions of nature are lent a sorrowful tone by the comment (usually aside) that the area has been settled or destroyed.
  • His statement (in “Manitoba”) that education is learning to see one thing but becoming blind to another, is true of Leopold himself in some cases.  His criticism of science (in “Song of Gavilan”) suggests to me that he has learned natural values, and denigrates some other things in comparison in order to emphasize the former (in a way reminiscent of Wordsworth).  Our challenge is to recognize all value, without having to use contrast enhancement to make a point.
  • He has absolute confidence in his intuitive grasp of the motivations and attitudes of animals– it is difficult to determine, since much of his account is factual, how much of this is poetic possibility, and how much is intended as fact.  Certainly his perspective encourages us to disregard this distinction for a while; and it can certainly be healthy to do so, as it opens the mind to value.
  • I think he too often equates outdoor experience with hunting, underrepresenting other practices that he in fact does enjoy and implicitly recognizes, like camping, hiking, and aesthetic appreciation of nature (as distinct from research).  Also on the hunting theme, I noticed a comment in “October: Smoky Gold” that reveals that Aldo Leopold doesn’t pick up his shells when he hunts.  Not that this is a cardinal sin, but it does reveal a slight shortcoming in ecological conscience.  In the years since he used to hunt, hunters have become more common, and their shells are more of an eyesore today.  This is not a criticism of Leopold, but rather an indication of something that I think we always have to keep in mind when looking at historical figures in the context of environmental ethics:  the values at stake determine our moral actions.  It is not until we recognize that something is a diminishing resource (or, until we make it a diminishing resource) that we take action to prevent our further degradation of it.  Today, a path free of human debris is a diminishing resource.
  • A very small point:  He claims in “December: Pines Above the Snow” that “Few people know that pines bear flowers”.  Well, that’s because they don’t.  Pines are gymnosperms, and bear naked seeds.  The flowering plants are in a separate taxonomic group, the angiosperms.  He goes on to talk of pollen, which is indeed produced by pines but not by stamens on flowers, but by male cones.  A minor slip for one who continually demonstrates a remarkable understanding of nature.



This monument of modern environmental thought is composed of three parts, each of which is divided into independent essays.



He begins with a statement describing the opposition of two camps, defined by how they prioritize nature vs. progress.  Then he presents three concepts central to the book:  (1) Land is a community.  (2) Land is to be loved and respected.  (3) Land yields a cultural harvest.


Part I:  A Sand County Almanac

“January”  (January Thaw)

He follows a skunk trail, noting signs of other creatures (vole, hawk, rabbit, owl) and their doings along the way, noting that each sees the world in terms of utility to itself.

“February”  (Good Oak)

Meditations on a great oak killed by lightning.  While sawing it down, he considers the years represented by its rings, referring to events that impacted nature: helpful and harmful human interventions, droughts, cold winters, extinctions.  The list is sobering and troubling overall.  He draws connections between the study of history and the way the saw, wedge, and axe work on wood.

“March”  (The Geese Return)

Thoughts on geese in migration, communicating, foraging on corn.

“April”  (Come High Water, Draba, Bur Oak, Sky Dance)

Diverse meditations: on a flooding river; a tiny plant called Draba; bur oaks as the vanguard of the forest into the prairie, and now monuments to the prairies since we have prevented the fires that kept the land in grass; and the flight song and display of the woodcock, along with many unanswered questions about its ecology and behavior

“May”  (Back from the Argentine)

On the migratory return of the upland plover (sandpiper) in the agricultural countryside.

“June”  (The Alder Fork– A Fishing Idyl)

An engaging tale, full of description and enthusiasm, of a fly-fishing episode involving the catch of three trout.

“July”  (Great Possessions, Prairie Birthday)

A chronicle of the dawn awakening of animals, in the context of property– so many of them proclaim and defend territories.  We are one of them.  The territories of all the species are superimposed on each other as “worlds”.  In the next section he tells of the “flower birthdays”, or first blooms of native flowers, of which we are nearly all ignorant.  Siphium, a prairie flower, faces extirpation by the mower, but no one knows enough about history or botany to care.  We grieve for what we know, so since we don’t know the flora we unknowingly and unnecessarily allow “progress” to destroy it.

“August”  (The Green Pasture)

A river, like a temperamental painter, occasionally gets in the mood to turn a section of its bank into a beautiful, textured work of art.

“September”  (The Choral Copse)

On the beautifully unpredictable morning song of the quail, just when most birds have slowed or even ceased singing for the season.

“October”  (Smoky Gold, Too Early, Red Lanterns)

A grouse hunt with wonderful distractions and good examples of nature loremastery.  Then a musing on the benefits and character traits associated with getting up early.  Finally, a description of following streams and red-leaved blackberries to hunt partridge.

“November”  (If I Were the Wind, Axe-in-Hand, A Mighty Fortress)

On the strong autumn wind.  Then a commentary on the power an axe provides one, and how one’s use of it reveals a philosophy and biases.  He tells us of his own biases, especially the reasons why he likes particular tree species.  Finally, he divulges a collection of lessons gathered from his wood lot, on a common theme: the many wildlife-related benefits of tree diseases.

“December”  (Home Range, Pines Above the Snow, 65290)

He follows clues of animal movements to deduce their home ranges and habits.  Then he explores the lifestyle and interactions of the pine.  He concludes with an account of the life of one banded chickadee, with observations on the preferences and survival strategies of chickadees in general.


Part II:  Sketches Here and There

“Wisconsin”  (Marshland Elegy, The Sand Counties, Odyssey, On a Monument to the Pigeon, Flambeau)

  • A portrayal of the beauty and significance of the crane and its marsh, and of the ignorance and tragedy of their destruction in the name of progress and prosperity.
  • The sand counties are poor by human reckoning, but certain plants and animals of great worth prefer living there, for various reasons.
  • A wonderful journey of an atom through centuries of biotic and geologic exchange: a demonstration of element cycling.
  • An encomium on the extinct passenger pigeon, and a consideration of its lifestyle; and, stepping back, the aspects of humanity that set us as one of the beasts, and the aspects that set us above them.  [Excellently balanced view.]
  • A look at a once wilderness-surrounded river: the wonders of being on such a river, and the subtle consequences of the development of it.

“Illinois and Iowa”  (Illinois Bus Ride, Red Legs Kicking)

  • A depressing glimpse of how oblivious people are of nature, and the effects when agricultural and other economic values are the only ones recognized in the Illinois land.
  • Brief description of vivid memories of successful boyhood bird hunts.

“Arizona and New Mexico”  (On Top, Thinking Like a Mountain, Escudilla)

  • A description of the culture and nature of Arizona’s “White Mountain” plateau, decades ago as he remembers it.
  • Exhortation to take the broadest and longest view of the value of nature and its elements, such as the wolf– not valued by deer or man, but beneficial for both in the long run.  This is thinking like a mountain.  [An excellent piece.]
  • The mystique and far-reaching presence of a mountain, and the giant grizzly that gave it much of its identity. The grizzly was killed in the name of progress, and the mountain became less for it.  [Recalls The Bear in Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses].

“Chihuahua and Sonora”  (Guacamaja, The Green Lagoons, Song of the Gavilan)

  • The concept of an inexpressible essence, or “numenon” of a place, and an example: the thick-billed parrot of the Sierra Madre.
  • A colorful and spirited account of a camping experience among the lazy waters, mesquites, and gamebirds of the Colorado Delta.
  • A portrayal of a river and its fruitful bank, providing insights into the values associated with the hunt, followed by a criticism of the scientific attitude that, if nature is an orchestra, studies the instruments and ignores their harmony.

“Oregon and Utah”  (Cheat Takes Over)

  • Cheatgrass as an illustration of the widespread, unfortunate, largely ignored effects of invasive species.

“Manitoba”  (Clandeboye)

  • The historical sense and fauna of the marsh, an ecosystem we tend to overlook and convert.


Part III:  The Upshot

 “Conservation Esthetic”

Outdoor recreation is popular and diverse.  Our enthusiasm for it is basically esthetic and not economic.  The challenge is to delineate the different and sometimes contradictory values we seek, and figure out how to foster them:

  1. Trophies, whether direct removal of something from nature, or indirect which does not subtract from nature.  In the direct case, mass use tends to require artificialization (as in fish and game management), which decreases the value of the trophy and can deplete non-focal entities of interest to others.
  2. Solitude, which becomes more diluted and scarce with both its popularity and the actions of governments and organizations to promote it.
  3. “Fresh air and change of scene”, which, unlike the last component, is not negatively affected by mass use.
  4. Perception of nature, which is non-consumptive and non-diluting.  It is enhanced by knowledge, and actions to promote it constitute the only creative developoments in recreational engineering.
  5. Husbandry, a value not yet appreciated very widely in America but one that is rewarding and in some places practiced with great enthusiasm.

None of these components are to be denigrated in their place; nevertheless one hopes that people will develop from the coarser, possessive ones to the more refined ones that do not deplete the resources they value.  People should not stay trophy-recreationists, but develop appetites for isolation, perception, and husbandry.  [Excellent ideas on the values and pitfalls of outdoor recreation, and a prioritization of values that reflects a nature-respecting and stewardly ethic.]


“Wildlife in American Culture”

There are cultural values in customs and experiences that connect us to wild things: i.e., national heritage, ecological awareness, and sportsmanly ethical restraint are the three forms.  Often, and increasingly, these values are compromised when hunters and fishermen are are taken in by increased mechanization and gadgetry, and by commercialism.  Game-cropping is one practice that, although a compromise, may mitigate some of the value destruction.  Amateur wildlife research should be hailed as a new recreation that has no disvalue and retains cultural values.


“Wilderness”  (The Remnants, Wilderness for Recreation, Wilderness for Science Wilderness for Wildlife, Defenders of Wilderness)

Wilderness is where we came from, and is still important to us but is disappearing.  He makes a list of some of the vanished ecosystems of North America, and some whose remnants should be preserved.  Wilderness has recreation value– not mechanized enjoyment, but a preservation of older, now unnecessary means of travel and kinds of experiences that contrast with ordinary life.  Wilderness also provides an opportunity to learn how “healthy land” works.  Our conservation efforts almost always seem to be aimed at symptoms rather than causes of “sick land”; what we really need is a norm for healthy land, which is what wilderness can provide.  Wilderness is also important, and today not extensive enough, for the preservation of wildlife, especially for ranging big mammals like carnivores.  The best hope for wilderness is a “militant minority of wilderness-minded men”.


“The Land Ethic”  (The Ethical Sequence, The Community Concept, The Ecological Conscience, Substitutes for a Land Ethic, The Land Ethic, Land Health and the A-B Cleavage, The Outlook)

Ethics has grown more comprehensive, in terms of the entities that deserve moral consideration, over the course of Western history. [This is Darwin’s expanding circle idea].  An understanding of ecology and evolution leads an honest person to realize that humans are part of the natural community.  A genuine response to this knowledge includes an extension of our moral sympathies to other entities besides humans.  The land is essentially the community in which we live, and the community is the theater for ethical action.  We need to cultivate an ecological conscience, a way of looking at the land that is something other than utilitarian or resource-seeking.  So far, even though conservationists often do have an ecological sonscience, conservation in the sociopolitical sphere has dealt with the land solely as a resource, which is the reason why conservation does not accomplish very much.  We have tried to substitute a land ethic with an economical or commodity-minded, top-down policy, where the government is expected to do all the conservation and the only good reasons are economic ones.  The only way for conservation of the land to succeed, however, is if individual landowners have a new ethical perspective that includes the land.  Landowner decisions are made within their ethical frameworks.  Education can help broaden this framework, but so far our ecological education has tended to be poor.  We teach the troublesome concept of the “balance of nature”, instead of the truer idea of an integrated and complex tangle of interactions, assembled into a trophic (who eats whom) hierarchy of the Land Pyramid.  We should teach that the land is an ecological unit, an energy circuit.  In sum, although we must consider economic expediency in all of our actions, we also must consider (for it is right to do so) our moral obligations with respect to the stability, integrity, and beauty of the natural community of which we are a part.


Here are two lists.  The first includes 11 biological observations and hypotheses I found while reading this book.  Leopold was an ecologist, and had a great deal of experience in nature both professionally and personally.  Not surprising given his love of observing nature, he proposed several ideas in A Sand County Almanac.  For the most part, I have excluded cases where I know his hypotheses have been tested and either refuted or supported.  In most of the following cases, therefore, I don’t know whether he is right or not.  The remainder I include just because they are interesting even though they are generally recognized by observers of nature (such as the dislike of birds for tailwinds).  Ecologists and evolutionary biologists may find a few interesting research subjects here.


Biological observations and hypotheses:

  • Rabbits and oaks cycle because of herbivory (“February: Good Oak”)
  • Competition promotes community perpetuity (“February: Good Oak”)
  • Geese prefer corn on former prairies (“March: The Geese Return”)
  • Occasionally a lone goose can be seen in spring, honking more than usual, because it is looking for kin (“March: The Geese Return”)
  • The function of the woodcock’s bare ground is for visibility of its strut display (“April: Sky Dance”; see also “Wisconsin: The Sand Counties”)
  • Neighboring plant species can affect the health of pines (“December: Pines Above the Snow”)
  • Parents can have several various effects on recruitment of young pines (“December: Pines Above the Snow”)
  • Birds dislike tailwinds and take measures to avoid them. (“December: 65290”)
  • Loud noises summon chickadees because of food available in fallen trees (“December: 65290”)
  • Possible explanations for the origin of the thick-billed parrot’s nest holes  (“Chihuahua and Sonora: Guacamaja”)
  • Overgrazing is responsible for the spread of cheatgrass in the West  (“Oregon and Utah: Cheat Takes Over”).


The second list includes 13 of Leopold’s opinions or perspectives on various issues.  Leopold was a thinker as well as an outdoorsman and scientist.  Not all scientists are thinkers in the sense that they step back from their work and form opinions on broader (poetic, social, political, philosophical, religious) implications of their work.  Some of his perspectives are presented in the course of the Summaries above or Reflections below, but others are presented in a very small space and do not necessarily constitute the main thrust of the essay in which they appear.  These I have listed below.

  • Continuity of energy, from sun to wood to heat (“February: Good Oak”)
  • Animals acting for reasons unknown to them (“March: The Geese Return”)
  • A respect and moderation ethic for hunting (“April: Sky Dance”)
  • We should let the verges and medians of our highways grow wild.  (“July: Prairie Birthday”)
  • When we hear the call of a bird, we hear “the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution”.  An understanding of evolution enriches our environmental ethic; perhaps it is even necessary for a good environmental ethic.  (“Wisconsin: Marshland Elegy”; and “Wilderness”).  [Without it, we are valuing only the merest skin of life, treating it as if it had no history but is just the present.]
  • Deer overpopulation because of wolf extirpation in the southwest should be an object lesson for our meddling with the ecological order. (“Arizona and New Mexico: Thinking Like a Mountain”)
  • Looking into a dying wolf’s eyes teaches him lessons.  (“Arizona and New Mexico: Thinking Like a Mountain”).  [Again reminds me of Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, in his discussions of The Bear.]
  • Rules for hunting:  (1) Preserve the animal’s habitat.  (2) Understand the animal’s habits.  (3) Value the animal.  (4) See the animal as part of an ecosystem.  (5) Make the eating a ceremony, a tribute. (6) See yourself as a participant in nature’s cycles. (“Chihuahua and Sonora: Song of the Gavilan”).
  • Nature as an orchestra, and a criticism of biologists as scrutinizing instruments but neglecting their harmony.  Science often neglects natural values.  (“Chihuahua and Sonora: Song of the Gavilan”).  [If he is saying that science is insufficient, I agree.  I also agree that many scientists are like this, as are other people.  But I think he is wrong if he thinks that science inherently promotes the “progress” mentality, or that science should or can countenance natural values.]
  • Hunters’ ethical action [like much environmentally ethical action] is usually very private.  There is no one around to applaud or disapprove.  “It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact.”  (“Wildlife in American Culture”).
  • Unethical hunting, such as poaching or leaving animals to rot when shot, can be seen as a training ground for depravity elsewhere in life.  (“Wildlife in American Culture”).
  • Our ignorance of what natural entities and interactions are important makes the role of human-as-conqueror self-defeating.  (“The Land Ethic: The Community Concept”).
  • Farmers have selected practices which are profitable to them, ignoring policies that would benefit everyone but require a decrease in short-term benefit.  (“The Land Ethic: The Ecological Conscience”).  [This is the “Tragedy of the Commons”, two decades before Garrett Hardin famously wrote about it.]


Tidbits of Significance 

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.  These essays are the delights and dilemmas of those who cannot.



For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.



We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.



The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized.  To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.

-”January: January Thaw”


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.

-”February: Good Oak”


We were all awakened, one night in July, by the thunderous crash; we realized that the bolt must have hit near by, but, since it had not hit us, we all went back to sleep.  Man brings all things to the test of himself, and this is notably true of lightning.

-”February: Good Oak”


Our saw now cuts the 1860’s, when thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered?  They settled it, but they did not see, nor do we yet see, that the same question applies to the man-land community.

-”February: Good Oak”


I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geeese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof.  Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?  The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.

-”March: The Geese Return”


What a dull world if we knew all about geese!

-”March: The Geese Return”


They live on the land, but not by the land.

-”April: Sky Dance”


I sit in happy meditation on my rock, pondering, while my line dries again, upon the ways of trout and men.  How like fish we are: ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time!  And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook.

-”June: The Alder Fork–A Fishing Idyl


Books or no books, it is a fact, patent both to my dog and myself, that at daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over.

-”July: Great Possessions”


Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about his vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.

-”July: Prairie Birthday”


Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days.

-”July: Prairie Birthday”


We grieve only for what we know.

-”July: Prairie Birthday”


…things hoped for have a higher value than things assured.

-”September: The Choral Copse”


Like many another treaty of restraint, the pre-dawn pact lasts only as long as darkness humbles the arrogant.  It would seem as if the sun were responsible for the daily retreat of reticence from the world.  At any rate, by the time the mists are white over the lowlands, every rooster is bragging ad lib, and every corn shock is pretending to be twice as tall as any corn that ever grew.

-”October: Too Early”


The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, but He is no longer the only one to do so.

-”November: Axe-in-Hand”


A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.

-”November: Axe-in-Hand”


Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how.  To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel.  By virtue of this curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree– and there will be one.

-”December: Pines above the Snow”


Each species of pine has its own constitution, which prescribes a term of office for needles appropriate to its way of life.  Thus the white pine retains its needles for a year and a half; the red and jackpines for two years and a half.  Incoming needles take office in June, and outgoing needles write farewell addresses in October.  All write the same thing, in the same tawny yellow ink, which by November turns brown.  Then the needles fall, and are filed in the duff to enrich the wisdom of the stand.  It is this accumulated wisdom that hushes the footsteps of whoever walks under pines.

-”December: Pines above the Snow”


That whimsical fellow called Evolution, having enlarged the dinosaur until he tripped over his own toes, tried shrinking the chickadee until he was just too big to be snapped up by flycatchers as an insect, and just too little to be pursued by hawks and owls as meat.  Then he regarded his handiwork and laughed.  Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.

-”December: 65290”


The cranes stand, as it were, upon the sodden pages of their own history.

-”Wisconsin: Marshland Elegy”


Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.  It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.

-”Wisconsin: Marshland Elegy”  [I find this to be an amazing insight into aesthetics.]


What is a species more or less among engineers?

-”Wisconsin: Marshland Elegy”


The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate.  But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.

-”Wisconsin: Marshland Elegy”


Do economists know about lupines?

-”Wisconsin: Marshland Elegy”


That the prairie is rich is known to the humblest deermouse; why the prairie is rich is a question seldom asked in all the still lapse of ages.

-”Wisconsin: Odyssey”  [On the rarity of ecological or evolutionary curiosity].


The old prairie lived by the diversity of its plants and animals, all of which were useful because the sum total of their co-operations and competitions achieved continuity.  But the wheat farmer was a builder of categories; to him only wheat and oxen were useful.

-”Wisconsin: Odyssey”


It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species.  We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution.  This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.

Above all we should, in the century since Darwin, have come to know that man, while now captain of the adventuring ship, is hardly the sole object of its quest, and that his prior assumptions to this effect arose from the simple necessity of whistling in the dark.

These things, I say, should have come to us.  I fear they have not come to many.

-”Wisconsin: On a Monument to the Pigeon”


For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun.  The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks.  The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess.  The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all.  But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us.  In this fact, rather than in Mr. DuPont’s nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush’s bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.

-”Wisconsin: On a Monument to the Pigeon”


The wilderness gave them their first taste of those rewards and penalties for wise and foolish acts which every woodsman faces daily, but against which civilization has built a thousand buffers.

-”Wisconsin: Flambeau”


When I call to mind my earliest impressions, I wonder whether the process ordinarily referred to as growing up is not actually a process of growing down; whether experience, so much touted among adults as the thing children lack, is not actually a progressive dilution of the essentials by the trivialities of living.

-”Illinois and Iowa: Red Legs Kicking”


It must be poor life that achieves freedom from fear.

-”Arizona and New Mexico: On Top”


It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

-”Arizona and New Mexico: Thinking Like a Mountain”


We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness.  The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time.  A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but 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.  Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

-”Arizona and New Mexico: Thinking Like a Mountain”


It is the part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness, for the more golden the lily, the more certain that someone has gilded it.  To return not only spoils a trip, but tarnishes a memory.  It is only in the mind that shining adventure remains forever bright.

-”Chihuahua and Sonora: The Green Lagoons”


Freedom from fear has arrived, but a glory has departed from the green lagoons.

-”Chihauhua and Sonora: The Green Lagoons”


Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness.  Some say we had to.  Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.  Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?

-”Chihuahua and Sonora: The Green Lagoons”


There is, as yet, no sense of pride in the husbandry of wild plants and animals, no sense of shame in the proprietorship of a sick landscape.  We tilt windmills in behalf of conservation in convention halls and editorial offices, but on the back forty we disclaim even owning a lance.

-”Oregon and Utah: Cheat Takes Over”


Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.

-”Manitoba: Clandeboye”


…whereas I write a poem by dint of mighty cerebration, the yellow-leg walks a better one just by lifting his foot.

-”Manitoba: Clandeboye”


To him who seeks in the woods and mountains only those things obtainable from travel or golf, the present situation is tolerable.  But to him who seeks something more, recreation has become a self-destructive process of seeking but never quite finding, a major frustration of mechanized society.

-”Conservation Esthetic”


Like all real treasures of the mind, perception can be split into infinitely small fractions without losing its quality.  The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientist adventuring in the South Seas.  Perception, in short, cannot be purchased with either learned degrees or dollars; it grows at home as well as abroad, and he who has a little may use it to as good advantage as he who has much.

-”Conservation Esthetic”


The trophy-recreationist has peculiarities that contribute in subtle ways to his own undoing.  To enjoy he must possess, invade, appropriate.  Hence the wilderness that he cannot personally see has no value to him.  Hence the universal assumption tht an unused hinterland is rendering no service to society.  To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.

-”Conservation Esthetic”


Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.

-”Conservation Esthetic”


I have the impression that the American sportsman is puzzled; he doesn’t understand what is happening to him.  Bigger and better gadgets are good for industry, so why not for outdoor recreation?  It has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially primitive, atavistic; that their value is a contrast-value; that excessive mechanization destroys contrasts by moving the factory to the woods or to the marsh.

-”Wildlife in American Culture”


The last decade, for example, has disclosed a totally new form of sport, which does not destroy wildlife, which uses gadgets without being used by them, which outflanks the problem of posted land, and which greatly increases the human carrying capacity of a unit area.  This sport knows no bag limit, no closed season.  It needs teachers, but not wardens.  It calls for a new woodcraft of the highest cultural value.  The sport I refer to is wildlife research.

-”Wildlife in American Culture”


Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization.



The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflects a corresponding diversity in the wilds that give them birth.



I suppose some will wish to debate whether it is important to keep these primitive arts alive.  I shall not debate it.  Either you know it in your bones, or you are very, very old.



Recreation is valuable in proportion to the intensity of its experiences, and to the degree to which it differs from and contrasts with workaday life.  By these criteria, mechanized outings are at best  milk-and-water affair.



In general, the trend of the evidence indicates that in land, just as in the human body, the symptoms may lie in one organ and the cause in another.  The practices we now call conservation are, to a large extent, local alleviations of biotic pain.  They are necessary, but they must not be confused with cures.  The art of land doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the science of land health is yet to be born.



Only those able to see the pageant of evolution can be expected to value its theater, the wilderness, or its outstanding achievement, the grizzly.



Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility.  The shallow-minded modern who has lost his rootage in the land assumes that he has already discovered what is important; it is such who prate of empires, political or economic, that will last a thousand years.  It is only the scholar who appreciates that all history consists of successive excursions from a single starting-point, to which man returns again and again to organize yet another search for a durable scale of values.  It is only the scholar who understands why the raw wilderness gives definition and meaning to the human enterprise.



An ethic, ecologically, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.  An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct.  These are two definitions of one thing.

-“The Land Ethic: The Ethical Sequence”


Ethics are possibly a kind of community instinct-in-the-making.

-“The Land Ethic: The Ethical Sequence”


The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

-“The Land Ethic: The Community Concept”


Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and land.  The characteristics of the land determined the facts quite as potently as the characteristics of the men who lived on it.

-“The Land Ethic: The Community Concept”


Despite nearly a century of propaganda, conservation still proceeds at a snail’s pace; progress still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory.  On the back forty we still slip two steps backward for each forward stride.

-“The Land Ethic: The Ecological Conscience”


At what point will governmental conservation, like the mastodon, become handicapped by its own dimensions?  The answer, if there is any, seems to be in a land ethic, or some other force which assigns more obligation to the private landowner.

-“The Land Ethic: The Ecological Conscience”


Science has given us many doubts, but it has given us at least one certainty: the trend of evolution is to elaborate and diversify the biota.

-“The Land Ethic: The Land Pyramid”


Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.

-“The Land Ethic: The Land Pyramid”


The ‘key-log’ which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this:  quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.  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.

-“The Land Ethic: The Outlook”



…you are outdoors and in a contemplative or appreciative mood;  


…you would like to read a poetic and scientific manifesto on respect for nature.



(for the nature lover:)

  • Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle  (1839).
  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden  (1854).
  • John Muir, The Mountains of California  (1894).
  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim of Tinker Creek  (1974).

(for the thoughtful sportsman:)

  • Isaak Walton, The Compleat Angler  (1653-1655).
  • Ivan Tugenev, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album  (1847-1851).
  • Vilhjalmur Stefansson, My Life with the Eskimo (1912).
  • William Faulkner, The Bear (in Go Down, Moses)  (1942).

Find It!

The following versions have the complete text, additional material, as well as the nicely complementary pencil drawings of Charles Schwartz.  Be warned that some other versions, such as the currently most widely available edition, Ballentine, are censored despicably to remove references to evolution.  Leopold says in this book that evolution ought, in sensitive hearts, to yield a feeling of greater community with nature, a first step towards a land ethic.  To remove these statements is directly contrary to Leopold’s insight and intentions.  Ballentine might just as well abandon publication of the book altogether.

Hardcover: The Library of America edition (which has other essays as well).

Paperback: The Oxford University Press edition.


  1. A good companion reading to the Sand County Almanac might be Sacred Sands, by J. Ronald Engel 1983, Wesleyan U Press. The book is about the Indiana dunes at the southern end of Lake Michigan, physically as close to the city of Chicago as Jones beach is to NYC, but out of its political control. The Dunes have been called the birthplace of American ecology – here Henry Cowles (from U. of Chicago) developed the idea of natural succession, as a pure sand beach was colonized by pioneer plants that changed it and ultimately left a climax forest. The story of the Dunes is a love story of people who came here and experienced a congress with nature, an interaction not with some environmental concept but a real location. It is these people who fought the economic muscle of US Steel and corrupt Indiana politics to save at least a part of the Dunes. But what was the love based on? Not just all the things you mention: knowing the names of the trees and the grasses and insects, but also actively engaging in mystery and discovery. The story of ecological succession is the story of an interaction between sacred nature and the inquiring human mind.

  2. To Uldis Roze: Thank you for your comment. I agree that Ron Engel is a great place to continue exploration of literature in the spirit of the Land Ethic. His *Ethics of Environment and Development* was one of the first books I was shown that brought many of these issues to the fore, as I took an undergraduate tutorial in environmental ethics. Two points in your comment– one about interacting with a place not a concept, and one about the insufficiency of just knowing names– strike me together as a lesson I need to remember: that the love of nature is not primarily an intellectual matter. Several people, from my wife to the Australian philosopher Kim Sterelny, have reminded me of this over the years, in different ways, and yet I still find myself overintellectualizing ethics. Many who have no interest in abstract theorizing nor the compulsion to name all the organisms they see will nevertheless perceive and value nature. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly”, says Saint-Exupéry. Leopold would agree. Mystery and discovery indeed…

  3. I enjoy what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work and exposure!
    Keep up the good works guys I’ve included you guys to my blogroll.

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