Review: A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold’s daughter published this book (subtitled “…and sketches here and there“) in 1949, just after he died from a heart-attack at the age of 61.

The book has a strong reputation in the environmentalist community, but this reputation only came in the 1970s (Earth Day, etc), which is why Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) is credited with sparking the environmental movement.

Leopold’s book is not as pointed or lyrical as Carson’s, but it’s well written, insightful, and yes — decades ahead of its time.

The book’s 226 pages fall into three parts: an “almanac” reflecting on 12 months of natural and human phenomena around the Leopolds’ Wisconsin farm (located in a region with sandy soils); “sketches” from Leopold’s travels in North America; and the “upshot” of what it all means. Leopold’s daughter chose the mix of topics and their order for the book. I found the contrast of different times and places (followed by a call for new thinking) to be a natural progression.

The book opens with Aldo’s main point: The rate of “progress” is slowing as  human increase their burden on Nature. Leopold’s claim was a minority view in 1949, and it is perhaps a minority view today, but I see it as extremely perceptive. Although many people think our environmental problems began with the Industrial Revolution (true if you’re talking about fossil fuel consumption), I date them to the post-WWII surge in destruction (courtesy of modern machines) and consumption (courtesy of excess prosperity). Leopold ends with a call for more nature and less artificial, more wild and free, and less tame and confined. Sadly, 70 years of loss and negligence confirm his worries.


The struggle for survival delivers balance. The “circular economy” is a zero-waste system because resources are fought over and completely consumed. Every death brings new life. He reminds city folk that food and wood do not just appear in stores. Farmers know that food comes from struggle. Wood is precious to those who spend hours cutting, chopping, hauling and stacking. Wildlife chasing scarce resources will migrate to survive, spreading diversity and connecting distant places. A fisherman must work the waters and take his chances. For the fish, it’s life and death, so it’s only fair if your hunger endures because a fish’s life continues.

Leopold trained in forestry as a means of studying wildlife, and he quantifies his hunches. He compares, for example, the variety of flower species on his (weekend) “backward farm” to the (weekday) suburbs and campus. The farm has roughly double the species count throughout the year, mostly due to its open, unmanaged (“backwards”) spaces.

Leopold is sly:

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. (p 59)

The shovel giveth and the axe taketh away, which is why the thoughts of the axe-wielder are so important: Is the chop going to improve or deface the land?


Cranes and other birds were cousins of the dinosaurs. They have evolved with ecosystems over millennia eons, and their intricate adaptations to ecological niches are rightly confused with miracles. The paradox, notes Leopold, is that we, in our fascination with wilderness, are often the cause of its destruction. He is no fan of economists. Obsessed with marginal gains, they are blind to the efficiency of the messy chaotic system. (This perception is generally true today — and made worse by over-specialisation within and across academic disciplines.*)

Leopold’s descriptions of man’s interruption of circularity and ham-handed attempts to replace it are poetic but sad:

The old prairie lived by the diversity of its plants and animals, all of which were useful because the sum total of their co-operations and competitions achieved continuity. But the wheat farmer was a builder of categories; to him only wheat and oxen were useful. He saw the useless pigeons settle in clouds upon his wheat, and shortly cleared the skies of them. He saw the chinch bugs take over the stealing job, and fumed because here was a useless thing too small to kill. He failed to see the downward wash of over-wheated loam, laid bare in spring against the pelting rains. When soil-wash and chinch bugs finally put an end to wheat farming, Y [an atom] and his like had already traveled far down the watershed. 

When the empire of wheat collapsed, the settler took a leaf from the old prairie book: he impounded his fertility in livestock, he augmented it with nitrogen-pumping alfalfa, and he tapped the lower layers of the loam with deep-rooted corn. But he used his alfalfa, and every other new weapon against wash, not only to hold his old plowings, but also to exploit new ones which, in turn, needed holding.

So, despite alfalfa, the black loam grew gradually thinner. Erosion engineers built dams and terraces to hold it. Army engineers built levees and wing-dams to flush it from the rivers. The rivers would not flush, but raised their beds instead, thus choking navigation. So the engineers built pools like gigantic beaver ponds, and Y landed in one of these, his trip from rock to river completed in one short century. (pp 107-8)

Leopold traversed the Colorado River Delta in 1922 and vowed never to go back, for fear of the loss he would see. He was right. In 1922, the Colorado River Compact divided its waters among US states, without any reserve for the river itself. In 1935 Hoover Dam opened, its hydropower used to push water to Los Angeles via the Colorado River Aqueduct (opened in 1941). In 1938, Imperial Dam and All-American Canal opened, diverting a majority of the river’s remaining water to irrigators in the desert. “Since 1963, the only times when the Colorado River has reached the ocean have been during El Niño events in the 1980s and 1990s.

Speaking of *disciplines:

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 lifetaking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for dismemberment is called a university. A professor 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 fellows or to his students. (p153)

…and another comment on “progress”:

The marshlands that once sprawled over the prairie from the Illinois to the Athabasca are shrinking northward. Man cannot live by marsh alone, therefore he must needs live marshless. Progress cannot abide that farmland and marshland, wild and tame, exist in mutual toleration and harmony. So with dredge and dyke, tile and torch, we sucked the combelt dry, and now the wheatbelt. Blue lake becomes green bog, green bog becomes caked mud, caked mud becomes a wheatfield. (p162)


Part three generalises from earlier examples. Leopold contrasts a “conservation esthetic” to a drive-by attitude that has choked natural areas with a ring of car parks (in 1949!) and valuations that favor spending on gasoline, diners and tents rather than Nature’s priceless value.

Crowd-pleasing commodification favours hatchery trout over migratory birds, even if that means replacing webs of natural species with “managed” single-species. Staff are paid to create artificial habitats and manage fish hatcheries. Ecosystems that provided diversity free of charge are replaced by landscapes that can be counted and collated in reports.

Rather than reflecting over the causes of failures, managers double down on interventions. Fences fail to limit pests whose population explodes without natural predators. Simplified managed spaces replaces ecosystems diverse with uncountable species. Businesses encourage the spread of roads and trails that will bring more cars to parking lots. Farmers do not “husband” the landscape for their descendants; they follow theoretical guidelines written at a distance and collect subsidies for chasing errant targets.

Hunters shoot many animals to get the 12-point buck whose head hangs on their wall. The rest of the animals rot. Secret hunting, fishing and camping places are overrun by tourists visiting guidebook highlights. Economists contribute to these problems by measuring known knowns and ignoring the unknown unknowns that make the knowns possible.

For the first time in the history of the human species, two changes are now impending. One is the exhaustion of wilderness in the more habitable portions of the globe. The other is the world-wide hybridization of cultures through modern transport and industrialization. Neither can be prevented, and perhaps should not be, but the question arises whether, by some slight amelioration of the impending changes, certain values can be preserved that would otherwise be lost. (p 188)

Shrinking ecosystems collapse roads and development encroach on food chains stressed by missing keystone species and voracious invasives.

The disappearance of plants and animal species without visible cause, despite efforts to protect them, and the irruption of others as pests despite efforts to control them, must, in the absence of simpler explanations, be regarded as symptoms of sickness in the land organism. (p 194)

Leopold calls for a science of land health to replace failing land management. This science would begin by understanding (and protecting) wilderness areas that have evolved and persisted for millions of years. The contrast with the “sick” lands humans are trying to save cannot be clearer:

In 1909, when I first saw the West, there were grizzlies in every major mountain mass, but you could travel for months without meeting a conservation officer. Today there is some kind of conservation officer ‘behind every bush,’ yet as wildlife bureaus grow, our most magnificent mammal retreats steadily toward the Canadian border. (p 198)

Leopold is known for espousing (inventing?) a “land ethic”, which “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such” (p204).

In calling for such equality he (rightly) criticises alternative value systems:

One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. 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.

When one of these non-economic categories is threatened, and if we happen to love it, we invent subterfuges to give it economic importance. At the beginning of the century song- birds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologists jumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence to the effect that insects would eat us up if birds failed to control them. The evidence had to be economic in order to be valid.

Leopold’s land ethic replaces corrupt and poorly functioning extrinsic motivators (regulations, subsidies) with the intrinsic motivation (respect for the entire ecosystem) necessary to respect and protect the wholeness of ecosystems:

To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts (p 214)

These days, Leopold’s ideas are echoed in the concepts of “spaceship earth,” industrial ecology, the circular economy, and so on:

Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life (p 216)

Sadly, most people are not just ignorant of this miracle of sustainability; they actively avoid contemplating or respecting it:

Your true modem is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff. If crops could be raised by hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well. Synthetic substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and other natural land products suit him better than the originals. In short, land is something he has ‘outgrown.’

These words are over 70 years old! Leopold’s perceptions were far ahead his time and his warnings have only grown more relevant. His wise recommendations have only grown more urgent. The sad thing is that he has been so right while most of humanity has continued on paths that are so wrong. We cannot claim “we did not know.” We were warned by Leopold and others (all five of his children became academics devoted to sustainability), but we have ignored those warnings. A land ethic would not just save nature in all its glory, but also save humanity. But we have continued to trash, shrink and ignore ecosystems that have brought us so much joy and prosperity. Humanity’s futures is now threatened, and we only have ourselves to blame.

I give this book FIVE STARS. Read it — and appreciate what we’ve lost and what remains.

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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