Aldous Leopold- A Sand County Almanac

Aldous Leopold
A Sand County Almanac

“The tracks is likely to display an indifference to mundane affairs uncommon at other seasons; it leads straight across-country, as if its maker had hitched his wagon to a star and dropped the reins.”

“. . .Governor Phillip pontificated that ‘state forestry is not a good business proposition.’ (It did not occur to the Governor that there might be more than one definition of what is good, and even of what is business.  It did not occur to him while the courts were writing one definition of goodness in the law books, fires were writing quite another one on the faces of the land.  Perhaps to be governor, one must be free from doubt on such matters.)”

“Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?  The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.”


“By this international commerce, the waste corn of Illinois is carried through the clouds of the Arctic tundras, there to combine with the waste sunlight of a nightless June to grow goslings for all the lands between.  And in this annual barter of food for light, and winter warmth for summer solitude, the whole continent receives net profit a wild poem dropped from the murk skies upon the muds of March.”


“Thus, he who owns a veteran bur oak owns more than just a tree.  He owns a historical library, and a reserved seat in the theater of evolution.  To the discerning eye, his farm is labeled with the badge and symbol of the prairie war.”


“The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters.  They live on the land, but not by the land.”


“We found the main stream so low that the teeter-snipe pattered about in what last year were trout riffles, and so warm that we could duck in its deepest pool without a shout.  Even after our cooling swim, waders felt like hot tar paper in the sun.”


“For the duration of a cigarette I sit on a rock midstream- and watch my trout rise under his guardian bush, while my rod and line hang drying on the alders of the sunny bank.  Then- for prudence sake- a little longer. . .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 the river of time!  And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook.  Even so, I think there is some virtue in eagerness, whether its object prove true or false.  How utterly dull would be a wholly prudent man, or trout, or world!  Did I say a while ago that I waited ‘for prudence sake’?  That was not so.  The only prudence in fishermen is that designed to set the stage for taking yet, and perhaps a longer, chance.”


“I shall confess to you that none of those three trout had to be beheaded, or folded double, to fit their casket.  What was big was not the trout, but the chance.  What was full was not my creel, but my memory.  Like the white-throats, I had forgotten it would ever again be aught but morning on the Fork.”


“The erasure of a human subspecies is largely painless- to us- if we know little enough about it. . .We grieve only for what we know.”


“Getting up too early is a vice habitual in horned owls, stars, geese, and freight trains.  Some hunters acquire it from geese, and some coffee pots from hunters.  It is strange that of all the multitude of creatures who must rise in the morning at some time, only these few should have discovered the most pleasant and least useful time for doing it.”


“Early risers feel at ease with each other, perhaps because, unlike those who sleep late, they are given to understatement of their own achievements.  Orion, the most widely traveled, says literally nothing.  The coffee pot, from its first soft gurgle, underclaims the virtues of what simmers within.  The owl, in his trisyllabic commentary, plays down the story of the night’s murder.”


“The wind that makes music in November corn is in a hurry.  The stalks hum, the loose husks whisk skyward in half-playful swirls, and the wind hurries on.”


“God passed on his handiwork as early as the seventh day, but I noticed He has since been rather noncommittal about his merits.  I gather that He spoke too soon, or that trees stand more looking upon than do fig leaves or firmaments.”


“The pine’s new year begins in May, when the terminal bud becomes ‘the candle.’  Whoever coined that name for the new growth had subtlety in his soul.”


“It is an object lesson: one need not doubt the unseen.”


“About a bird and why he still is alive]: “Signs of genius were still lacking, but of his extraordinary capacity for living, there was now historical proof.”


“That whimsical fellow called Evolution, having enlarged the dinosaurs until he tripped over his own toes, tried shrinking the chickadee until he was 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 enthusiasm.”


“Hence if I were selling insurance to chicks [chickadees], I could compute the premium with assurance.  But this would raise the problem: in what currency would I pay the widow?  I suppose in ants’ eggs.”


“It seems likely that weather is the only killer so devoid of both humor and dimension as to kill a chickadee.”


“Books on weather seldom mention wind; they are written behind stoves.”


“To build a road is so much simpler than to think of what the country really needs.  A roadless marsh is seemingly as worthless to the alphabetical  conservationist as an undrained one was to the empire-builders.  Solitude, the one natural resource still undowered of alphabets, is so far recognized as valuable only by ornithologists and cranes.”


“. . .and then a silence never to be broken, unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way.”


“Finally there is Draba, beside whom even Klinaria is tall and ample.  I have never met an economist who knows Draba, but if I were one I  should do all my economic pondering lying prone on the sand, with Draba at nose-length.”


“The male woodcock, while doing his peenting prologue to the sky dance, is like a short lady in high heels: he does not show up to advantage in dense tangled ground cover.”


“X had marked time in the limestone ledge since the Paleozoic seas covered the land.  Time, to an atom locked in a rock, does not pass.”


“The elemental simplicities of wilderness travel were thrills not only because of their novelty, but because they represented complete freedom to make mistakes, 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.”


“Girdling the old oak to squeeze one last crop out of the barnyard has  the same finality as burning the furniture to keep warm.”


“When I call to mind my earliest impressions, I wonder whether the process ordinarily referred to as growing up is 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.  This much at least is sure: my earliest impressions of wildlife and its pursuit retain a vivid sharpness of form, color, and atmosphere that half a century of professional wildlife experience has failed to obliterate or to improve upon.”


“It must be a poor life that achieves freedom from fear.”


“The physics of beauty is one department of natural science still in the Dark Ages.  Not even the manipulators of bent space have tried to solve its equations. Everybody knows, for example, that autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse.  In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre.  Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.  An enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost.”


“And there flashes through your mind the sad premonition of what will happen when the road is built, and this riotous reception committee first greets the tourist-with-a-gun.”


“Never did we plan for morrow, for we had learned that in the wilderness some new and irresistible distraction is sure to turn up each day before breakfast.  Like the river, we were free to wander.”


“At the time my ornithology was homemade, and I was pleased to think them whooping cranes because they were so white.  Doubtless they were sandhill cranes, but it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that we were sharing our wilderness with the wildest of living fowl.  We and they had found a common home in the remote fastness of space and time; we were both back in the Pleistocene.”


“There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of plants, animals, and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra.  These men are called professors.  Each selected 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 dismemberment is called a university.

Professors may pluck the strings of his own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellow 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.  Its great moral contribution is objectivity, or the scientific point of view.  This means doubting everything except fact; it means hewing to 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.”


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


“The shadow of a pelican sailed over a pool in which a yellow-legged alighted with warbling whistle; it occurred to me that whereas I write a poem by dint of mighty celebration, the yellow-leg walks a better one just by lifting his foot.”


“A sense of history should be the most precious gift of science and off the arts, but I suspect the grebe, who has neither, knows more history than we do.  His dim primordial brain knows nothing of who won the Battle of Hastings, but it seems to sense who won the battle of time.  If the race of men were as old as the race of grebes, we might think better to grasp the import of his call. Think what traditions, prides, disdains, and wisdoms even a few self-conscious generations bring to us!  What pride of continuity, then, impels this bird, who was a grebe eons before there was a man.”


“Some day my marsh, dyked and pumped, will lie forgotten under the wheat, just as today and yesterday will lie forgotten under the years.”


“To such the Kansas plains are tedious.  They see the endless corn, but not the heave and the grunt of ox teams breaking the prairie.  History, for them, grows on campuses.  They look at the low horizon, but they cannot see, as de Vaca did, under the bellies of the buffalo.”


“One of the marvels of early Wisconsin was the Round River, a river that flowed unto itself, and thus sped around and around in an never-ending circuit. . .

We of the genus Homo ride the logs that float down the Round River, and by a little judicious ‘burling’ we have learned to guide their direction and speed.  This feat entitles us to the specific appellation sapiens.  The technique of burling is called economics, the remembering of the old routes is called history, the selection of the new ones is called statesmanship, the conservation about oncoming riffles and rapids is called politics.  Some of the crew aspire to burl not only on their own logs, but the whole flotilla as well.  The collective bargaining with nature is called national planning.  In our educational system, the biotic continuum is seldom pictured to us as a stream.  From our tenderest years we are fed with facts about the soils, floras, and faunas that comprise the channel of Round River (biology), about their origins in time (geology and evolution), about the technique of exploiting them (agriculture and engineering).  But the concept of a current with drouths and freshets, backwaters and bars, is left to inference.  To learn the hydrology of the biotic stream we must think at right angles to evolution and examine the collective behavior of biotic materials.  This calls for a reversal of specialization; instead of learning more and more about less and less, we must learn more and more about the whole biotic landscape.

Ecology is the science that attempts this feat of thinking in a plane perpendicular to Darwin.  Ecology is an infant just learning to talk, and, like other infants, is engrossed with its own coinage of big words.  Its working days lie in the future.  Ecology is destined to become the lore of Round River, a belated attempt to convert our collective knowledge of biotic materials into a collective wisdom of biotic navigation.  This, in the last analysis, is conservation.”


“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not the television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism.  Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little is known about it.  The last word in ignorance is the man who says to the plant or animal: ‘What good is it?’  If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not.  If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts?  To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering”


“As for diversity, what remains of our native fauna and flora remains only because agriculture has not yet gotten around to destroying it.  The present ideal of agriculture is clean farming; clean farming means a food chain aimed solely at economic profit and purged of all non-conforming links, a sort of Pax Germanica of the agricultural world.  Diversity, on the other hand, means a food chain aimed to harmonize the wild and tame in the joint interest of stability, productivity, and beauty.”


“We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people.  In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.”


“Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relation with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim.  We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.  Time was when education moved toward soil, not away from it.”


“Then came the gadgeteer, otherwise known as the sporting-goods dealer.  He has draped the American outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them.  Gadgets fill the pockets, they dangle from neck and belt.  The overflow fills the auto-trunk, and also the trailer.  Each item of outdoor equipment grows lighter and often better, but the aggregate poundage becomes tonnage.  The traffic in gadgets adds up to astronomical sums, which are soberly published as representing ‘the economic value of wildlife.’  But what of cultural values?”


“Golf is sophisticated exercise, but the love hunting is almost a psychological characteristic.  A man may not care for golf and still be human, but the man who does not like to see, hunt, photograph, or otherwise outwit birds or animals is hardly human.  He is supercivilized, and I for one do not know how to deal with him.  Babes do not tremble when are shown a golf ball, but I should not like to own the boy whose hair does not lift his hat when he sees his first deer.  We are dealing, therefore, with something that lies very deep.  Some can live without opportunity for the exercise and control of the hunting instinct, just as I suppose one can live without work, play, love, business, or other vital adventure.  But in these days we regard such deprivations as unsocial.  Opportunity for exercise of all the normal instincts has come to be regarded more and more as an inalienable right.”


“Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use.  Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.”


“A land, ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.  Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.  Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”


“The combined evidence of history and ecology seems to support one general deduction: the less the man-made changes, the greater the probability of successful readjustment of the pyramid [trophic levels).  Violence, in turn, varies with human population requires a more violent conversion.  In this respect, North America has a better chance for permanence than Europe, if she can contrive to limit her density.”


“Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.”


“All these things rest upon the idea of trophy.  The pleasure they give is, or should be, in the seeking as well as the getting.  The trophy, whether it be a bird’s egg, a mass of trout, a basket of mushrooms, the photograph of a bear, the pressed specimen of wild flower, or a note tucked into the cairn on a mountain peak is a certificate.  It attests that its owner has been somewhere and has done something- that he has exercised skill, persistence, or discrimination in the age-old feat of overcoming, outwitting, or reducing-to-possession.  These connotations which attach to the trophy usually far exceed its physical value.”


“. . . the weekenders radiate from every town, generating heat and friction as they go.”


“It would appear, in short, that the rudimentary grades of outdoor recreation consume their resource-base; the higher grades, at least to a degree, create their own satisfactions with little or no attrition of land or life.  It is the expansion of transport without a corresponding growth of perception that threatens us with qualitative bankruptcy of the recreational process.  Recreational development is a job not of building roads into the lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”