Thoughts on ‘A Sand County Almanac’

The irony of innovation is that it’s gradually overshadowed by its own impact. A once-seminal idea can—by its own power—become self-evident, erasing its tracks through time. This progression makes it difficult to appreciate what something meant at its beginning; the appreciation that remains is rooted more in retrospect than true inspiration.

Given this, I’m surprised by how well A Sand County Almanac retains its juice. The landmark essay collection turns 65 this year and is still worth reading.


Some essays resonate more than others. Like many my age, I’ve never sat behind a duck blind or worked on a farm, and I think little of this absence in my life. As Leopold himself observed, “we grieve only for what we know.” But, like Leopold, I ponder the balance of human progress, and note that the deeper questions haven’t changed. This, from “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” caught my attention:

Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?

Thinking Like a Mountain” follows a few essays later. It is amazing, and among the best short essays I’ve ever read. I’m struck by the strength of Leopold’s prose—in this essay especially, but also in general. His best remarks leap off the page, propelled by keen observation and intimacy with what he called “country.” Here Leopold writes of a chickadee he banded in 1937:

65290 was one of 7 chickadees constituting the ‘class of 1937.’ When he first entered our trap, he showed no visible evidence of genius. Like his classmates, his valor for suet was greater than his discretion. Like his classmates, he bit my finger while being taken out of the trap. When banded and released he fluttered up to a limb, pecked his new aluminum anklet in mild annoyance, shook his mussed feathers, cursed gently, and hurried away to catch up with the gang. It is doubtful whether he drew any philosophical deductions from his experience (such as ‘all is not ants’ eggs that glitters’), for he was caught again three times that same winter… By the fifth winter 65290 was the sole survivor of his generation. Signs of genius were still lacking, but of his extraordinary capacity for living, there was now historical proof.

I was not expecting such grace and character, nor such an interdisciplinary mind. All the more delight then to have found them.

[ February 2014 ]

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