More from Sand County

12 06 2007

I’m nearly finished with Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, and I feel that everyone should read the book. I had some reservations about it at first, but I found that this mainly stemmed from the kind of reading material I had selected previously. Most non-fiction books prior to this one (with the exception of Trevor Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters and Sternberg’s The Life of a Fossils Hunter) focused on laying out bits of scientific fact that were to be memorized or otherwise digested and stored; appreciation for nature itself was lacking. Perhaps the authors loved their subjects or chosen topic, but it rarely showed, objectivity and empirical data being more important than anything else. Indeed, I had gotten so wrapped up in learning about nature and memorizing the scientific parlance that I nearly forgot about nature as poetry, but Leopold’s book brought me back to what drew me to the natural sciences in the first place. There’s a lot we can learn in a lab, but how much more amazing and fulfilling is walking out into the remaining patches of wilderness and observing what goes on there? Leopold is certainly a wise and enthusiastic writer, and even though I offer up a few more quotes below I wish I could include more, but if I did I would essentially be transcribing the book as a whole. I can not emphasize this enough; read his book.

There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals, and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra. These men are called professors. Each selects one instrument and spends his life taking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for the dismemberment is called a university.

A professor may pluck the strings of this own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. For all are restrained by an ironbound taboo which decrees that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets.

Professors serve science and science serves progress. It serves progress so well that many of the more intricate instruments are stepped upon and broken in the rush to spread progress to all backward lands. One by one the parts are thus stricken from the songs of songs. If the professor is able to classify each instrument before it is broken, he is well content.

Science contributes moral as well as material blessings to the world. The great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view. This means doubting everything except facts; it means hewing to the facts, let the chips fall where they may. One of the facts hewn to by science is that every river needs more people, and all people need more inventions, and hence more science; the good life depends on the indefinite extension of this chain of logic. That the good life on any river may likewise depend on the perception of its music, and the preservation of some music to perceive, is a form of doubt not yet entertained by science. (From “Song of the Gavilan”)

We need knowledge-public awareness-of the small cogs and wheels, but sometimes I think there is something we need even more. It is the thing that Forest and Stream, on its editorial masthead, once called ‘a refined taste in natural objects’. Have we made any headway in developing ‘a refined taste in natural objects’?

In the northern parts of the lake states we have a few wolves left. Each state offers a bounty on wolves. In addition, it may invoke the expert services of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in wolf-control. Yet both this agency and the several conservation commissions complain of an increasing number of localities where there are too many deer for the available feed. Foresters complain of periodic damage from too many rabbits. Why, then, continue the public policy of wolf-exterminations? We debate such questions in terms of economics and biology. The mammologists asser the wolf is the natural check on too many deer. The sportsmen reply they will take care of excess deer. Another decade of argument and there will be no wolves to argue about. One conservation inkpot cancels another. (From “The Round River”)

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. (From “The Round River”)

We shall never acheive harmony with land, any more than we shall acheive absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to acheive, but to strive. It is only in mechanical enterprises that we can expect that early or complete fruition of effort which we call ‘success’.

When we say ‘striving,’ we admit at the outset that the thing we need must grow from within. No striving for an idea was ever injected wholly from without.

The problem, then, is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land, among whome education and culture have become almost synonymous with landlessness. This is the problem of ‘conservation education.’ (From “Natural History”)

Note: Leopold defines land not as a patch of space, but all the natural history (past and present) that it speaks of, more people believing they know “their country” when they have no idea about “the land” at all.


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