Saturday, December 14, 2013

A classic that will never go out of date

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, naturalists, advocacy

(For the record, I read most of a book on investing, and it was so poor I decided not to review it. Thus the delay for this book, which is shorter than most.)

I just finished reading A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. In case anyone doesn't know, the volume includes Sketches Here and There plus The Upshot. I suppose it is a bit odd that I had not read it before, as I have read Thoreau's Walden and a couple of writings by John Muir. This book outclasses Walden by a large margin.

I suppose Sand County has been reviewed hundreds of times in the 66 years since it was published, so I feel little need to plow worn-out ground. But a few things struck me with sufficient force that they require comment.

In the essay "Prairie Birthday" he writes of the annual blooming of Silphium, seen here, in mid-July. In the
1940s he could find it only in one small abandoned graveyard, and at the end of the essay he notes that the graveyard has been "developed" and the plant is now probably extinct in Wisconsin. This image shows a low-growing planting; this perennial can reach two meters. From the comments at Rob's Plants, it is apparently still found in Vermont and environs. I was particularly struck by the plainness with which Leopold reported the demise of the plant and the yard in which it grew. His is not to castigate, but to unflinchingly report.

Later in the same essay he writes, "…it comes to pass that farms are good in proportion to the poverty of their floras." Having kept a record of the species he has seen blooming in two areas—one his farm and the other the campus where he taught—he noted that the former hosted 226 flowering species, the latter, but 120.

In the essay "Marshland Elegy" his penultimate paragraph reads, "Thus always does history, whether of marsh or market place, end in paradox. The ultimate value of these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondls, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish." This may be the truest and saddest ecological statement in print.

In the essay "Green Lagoons", one of the Sketches, he writes in a similar vein, more tersely, "Man always kills the things he loves, and so we pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?"

I find it strange that land is being developed at a clip greater than the increase in population. Here are before-and-after satellite images (clipped from Google Earth), one just about 20 years ago, the other earlier this year:

The two neighborhoods thus constructed, not more than a few miles from where I live, quite overloaded the school seen at upper right in both images, so a couple of miles away a new one was built. I know, continued construction is good for the jobs market, but the number of unused homes in the US has reached more than 14 million (11% of the total), quite an incredible number! Having lived most of my life in rural areas, I consider it tantamount to a capital crime to put houses on land that can grow crops, or even worse, shelter wild things. It is even more criminal to do so when there are a few million acres of land under millions of homes that nobody lives in. Hey out there! Remodeling is construction work also.

A final note. I am so poor at both fishing and hunting that I never enjoyed either activity. Leopold excelled at both, and writes of them with lyrical fervor. It touched my heart. He deeply understood all the motives that a person could have toward the land and its denizens. I wonder if any of today's "environmentalists" either hunt or fish. Yet I am distrustful of most "sport" hunters and fishermen. I favor both activities only if you eat everything you kill. But I think it is not true "sport" unless you do all your sport hunting naked with only a knife in hand, and all your sport fishing with your bare hands. I suspect Leopold would be at least mildly supportive of such a view.

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