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A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River - Aldo Leopold

So we started this today as a family read-aloud. The goal is a chapter (corresponding to a month) a day for the next 12 days.

January thoughts. I liked the narcissistic representation of the animals. Each is incapable of noticing the others; I found the economic description of the meadow mouse's tunnels under the snow and the grass buried in ground especially entertaining.

February is all about the felling of an oak tree. I have a burr oak in my backyard that is 200+ years old; as Leopold travels back in time (although I must say that too many of his years were simply full of fires or drought...couldn't he find something unique about each year?) through the sawing of the tree, I was thinking about how different in scale time is for a tree than a human.

March tells the story of the geese. I enjoyed Leopold's comment about his learned friend who had never noticed the migration of the geese. I am not quite that bad, but it is a good reminder to pay attention to the passing season. We also had a lovely discussion between the four of us about the benefits of being a muskrat. Is it that they eat geese or that they would be able to move about among the geese without disturbing their pattern of behavior?

April has a great description of the love dance of the woodcock (as a nightly entertainment) and also a short essay on the veteran bur oaks (of which mine is one).

The nesting plovers in May give a new definition to field ownership. Although, I'm not sure I've ever seen a plover; maybe the forest conservationists were not just in time as Leopold asserts.

June is the story of the non-prudent fisherman. The kids were interested in the fact that Leopold fishes by hand (not with a rod and reel). I thought about how different their attitudes are when at the lake; if they catch fish (some years they do) then all is well, but the years that they do not catch fish are boring and treacherous for all.

July was wonderful on two fronts. First, we have a compass plant in our front yard (planted by my father in law who is a lover of all things prairie) and second, my dog(s) also does not believe in the tenure rights of birds.

August was about the river painting a picture, although I wasn't convinced it was the river. Yes, the water level is determined by the river and it is a good focal point but most of the color is in the flowers and the grass, neither of which are fed by the river.

September deals with the songs of the elusive birds. I am getting to a point in this book where I am not quite sure about the distinction between chapters. They all sort of seem to be about listening to the birds.

October is great for those of us early morning risers: "unlike those who sleep late, they are given to understatement of their own achievements." I'm not sure I quite agree (and not convinced that he makes an argument for such), but it is a cute quip.

November is described by the pine and the birch and the trees on Leopold's farm. Maybe it is just because I am currently reading Ayn Rand as well, but the description of the tools (axe and shovel and all else as a derivation thereof) meant more to me than the description of the trees. I'm glad that we are down to only one more month.

December features my favorite quote: "moderation is best in all things"; this is something I frequently spout. My kids loved the story of the tagged chickadee who managed to live for 5 years.

So, I finished the rest on my own (the family assignment was just for Sand County Almanac) because I felt like I should read the full thing for reviewing. Part II of this book is similar to SCA, it is more descriptive natural observations and stories focused mostly on place. Leopold describes more of WI, IL, CO, AZ, NM as well as some of Mexico. His description is beautiful, but personally it is not really my cup of tea.

Part III was more interesting; he gives substantive explication to his theories on conservation. I found his arguments compelling and prescient (given the extent of natural areas during the time he wrote as compared to modern times). Having just finished reading Atlas Shrugged, I found Leopold's viewpoint to be even more compelling; he argues that we need to see land as biota, rather than just soil and emphasizes that "a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided." I enjoyed his comparison between Odysseus's murder of the slave girls and our continual destruction of natural places: until and unless we recognize the value in all living creatures we will not give adequate respect or attention to conservation. He argues that the composition of plant life (even plants that are not "economically relevant") determines the structure of the soil, which in turn does affect our own food chain (either through the growth of useful plants like corn or food for animals that then become plants). He demonstrates how loss of predators can leave to over development of prey which then changes the plant composition. 

I am glad to have read this. Living in Madison, I have come across Leopold's name and rough outline of his ideas. It is remarkable just how forward thinking he was, given that he was writing in the 1920s-1940s on issues that were yet to be so apparent.