My colleague’s hands were trembling. The joy of an unexpected and precious discovery. After two days of poking around the Manitoba Provincial Archives in Winnipeg, we had found an original manuscript of A Sand County Almanac.
A rough binding, non-descript cover and hand-written margin notes from the author made the discovery particularly special. In the world of conservation, it was like finding the Holy Grail.
Aldo Leopold finished writing A Sand County Almanac just before he died in 1948. He had a heart attack while helping put out a fire on his neighour’s farm in Wisconsin. It was a tragic end to a full, complex and significant life.
Aldo Leopold is often called the father of modern conservation. His idea of a “land ethic,” revolutionary at the time, outlined a holistic approach to nature. He famously wrote, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
Aldo Leopold was talking about ecosystems before the word was in our vocabulary.
Dr. Stanley Temple knows a bit about Leopold. He is Professor Emeritus and a Senior Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, a noted authority on conservation issues and once held the same teaching position as Leopold at the University of Wisconsin. If you want to find out about Aldo Leopold’s legacy, Temple is a good place to start.
“In many ways, Leopold is more influential today than when A Sand County Almanac was first published,” says Temple. The book, he says, was an absolute bust in the beginning. It hardly sold at all through the 1950s and 1960s. It wasn’t until 1966, when Oxford University Press published a paperback, that Leopold’s ideas were embraced by the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Who knew that one day Leopold and “hippies” would connect?
“You had this perfect collision, if you will, of very thoughtful statements that Leopold made in the book and an audience that was ready to soak it up. If you look at sales of A Sand County Almanac, it was pretty flat until the late 60s. It’s gone absolutely, mathematically exponential since then.”
“They embraced it for one fundamental reason: it provided the ethical foundation for the modern environmental movement. It was the land ethic that made the book influential… the meaty part that really got down to the ecological, philosophical and ethical dimensions of our relationship with nature.”
Since that first embrace, Leopold’s ideas have filtered through all manner of society. His holistic view of nature helped turn our cultural bias against top predators. Wolves, big cats and bears are increasingly seen as critical parts of a healthy ecosystem, not simply threats to be eliminated. Leopold recognized the role of private landowners in conservation. He saw how the life cycle of waterfowl pushes conservation past national borders. He lamented a future increasingly distanced from nature.
“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them,” he writes. “Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television.”
A Sand County Almanac may have started slow, but much of what Leopold talked about was prophetic. As climate change becomes more ingrained in daily conversations; as we struggle to conserve precious ecosystems such as wetlands; and as we consider what’s in store for our children, we asked Stanley Temple whether or not Leopold’s legacy can make a difference.
“I’m not optimistic. I’m hopeful,” says Temple. “And you know the difference between an optimist and someone who is hopeful? An optimist knows the odds are strongly in their favour. A hopeful person is someone who knows the odds are against them, but is willing to keep at it. I think that’s really where we are. It’s a hopeful situation. We see lots of promising societal changes happening. The real dilemma is whether those changes are happening rapidly enough to keep pace with the scale at which we’re messing up the planet.”
It’s just a guess, but I believe Aldo Leopold was a hopeful person. He saw the challenges at an early stage. He knew the odds were stacked, but he kept at it his entire life.
When we stumbled across a long forgotten working copy of his seminal work, it rekindled a sense of that hope. Flipping through the pages you got a feeling that if we dig deep, find the Aldo Leopold in each of us, it just might be enough to make a difference. It seems to be our only choice.
Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 – April 21, 1948) was an American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist and environmentalist. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and is best known for his book A Sand County Almanac (1949), which has sold more than two million copies.
Leopold was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation. His ethics of nature and wildlife preservation had a profound impact on the environmental movement, with his ecocentric or holistic ethics regarding land. He emphasized biodiversity and ecology and was a founder of the science of wildlife management.