Magazine article Humanities


Magazine article Humanities


Article excerpt

One hundred and twenty acres, according to the County Clerk, is the extent of my worldly domain. But the County Clerk is a sleepy fellow, who never looks at his record books before nine o'clock. What they would show at daybreak is the question here at issue. 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. It is not only boundaries that disappear, but also the thought of being bounded.


ON APRIL 14,1948, AN UNASSUMING WISCONSIN conservationist named Aldo Leopold learned that Oxford University Press had agreed to publish a small collection of his nature essays about his Wisconsin farm, a book that would eventually be called A Sand County Almanac. He didn't live to see the book in print. A week after it was accepted, the sixty-one-year-old author died of a heart attack while fighting a grass fire on his neighbor's farm.

Once published, the book took on a life of its own, putting Leopold's profound thinking about environmental ethics before the public. More than sixty years later, Leopold's masterwork has sold more than two million copies in twelve languages. A Sand County Almanac endures, one gathers, because it revisits Henry David Thoreau's old questions about modern progress, but from the perspective of a writer who lived to see, even more deeply, the peril and promise of the mechanized age. Recording his thoughts in the wake of World War II and at the dawn of suburban sprawl, and with the Dust Bowl still fresh in public memory, Leopold had an even greater sense of the planet's vulnerability. In this way, A Sand County Almanac is a bridge of sorts between earlier naturalists like Thoreau and John Burroughs and contemporary commentators on ecology such as Wendell Berry, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Scott Russell Sanders.

In many ways, A Sand County Almanac stands planted between antiquity and the present. Its prose is sometimes quaintly florid, in the venerable tradition of Burroughs or Henry Beston, but its themes acknowledge the implications of a nuclear era in which man can make war against not only his species, but the planet itself.

Leopold recognized that there was no practical way to outrun the effects of technology on the environment-no virgin wilderness preserve where one could hide from the actions of government or industry. Acknowledging that reality, he argued for national and global policies that worked in harmony with nature. His clear sense of Earth's smallness and fragility seems self-evident today, at a time when the globe can be viewed whole from space, and greenhouse gases produced in New Delhi can yield clues about the health of polar ice caps.

But precisely because his global sensibility is now shared so widely by Berry, Moore, Sanders, and others, Leopold's vision is easy to take for granted. "It's hard to say what the American landscape might look like if Aldo Leopold hadn't come along when he did," biographer Marybeth Lorbiecki writes. "His discoveries and policy recommendations drove forward the emerging fields of forestry, soil conservation, wildlife study and management, ecology, wilderness protection, land restoration, and environmental ethics."

Although the timing of Leopold's death shook his friends and admirers, no one seemed very surprised that he had died outdoors. Nature had defined Leopold's life from an early age. When he wasn't outside-mainly when school or work forced him indoors-he was invariably scheming to get back under open sky.

Born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, Leopold grew up as the son of a successful businessman father and a highly cultured mother. Leopold's mother helped nurture his love of reading and tried, with varying degrees of success, to introduce him to the finer points of opera and dance. Instead, Leopold appropriated the family opera glasses for his own purposes. Lorbiecki's biography includes a photograph from Leopold's boyhood in which he's dressed in a tiny powdered wig and eighteenth-century costume for a minuet class. …

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