I have read Leopold throughout my life in short essays, but never before had I sat down to read his magnum opus, A Sand County Almanac. Thankfully, this year for my birthday, R got me a huge, beautiful version of the book, illustrated with photographs from throughout the area of his cabin in central Wisconsin. I may be a bit biased, but I have to say it is by far one of the prettiest places on earth.
The beauty of the book, however, is the fact that it illustrates how the tiniest and most mundane details of life are imbued with a beauty that often goes unnoticed. He talks about geese, making astute observations about what the timing of their migration, or the chatter of their flocks, might mean. He discusses the way that chickadees survive the winds by choosing the proper leeward parts of a branch. He discusses how trout elude him in a small brook or how his dog interprets each part of the world through his sense of smell.
His detailed writings make you think about just how much you don’t see. They make you long to be still in a forest and let the life around you become accustomed to your presence such that no being feels then need to hide or censor it’s goings about. His musings make you wonder why you spend your time trail running, or mountain biking, or jabbering along as you hike, when so much more could be communicated by and through a conscious silence and observation. His writings make you painfully aware of the overall tackiness of being human.
I read about something called the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement which essentially is a movement that espouses voluntarily forgoing breeding. It’s a hopeless, yet intriguing cause. People will never get over their instinctual need to breed and their narcissistic love of seeing themselves reproduced in new generations. It’s in our nature and it’s not going to change. I can’t fault anyone for this, because my whole life I have fantasized about having a big, loving family. But, that being said, it’s not really a bad idea to voluntarily limit our growth either. As you watch the crisis magnify in Japan, it’s hard not to acknowledge that we (humans) made this worse than it needed to be. Nuclear reactor on an active fault? Whoops. Development along a coastline susceptible to tsunamis due to it’s proximity to active fault lines? Yet again, we shot ourselves in the collective foot. Will we ever learn? Probably not. We humans are short on memory and long on the ability to rationalize bad decision-making.
But bringing it back to my original point, reading a Sand County Almanac is enlightening because it manages redirect our focus from the need for exploration and growth to the recognition of the mysteries and complexities that sit right under our noses. It makes it sound like an adventure in and of itself to walk to the edge of a marsh and absorb the birds, plants, and other creatures just living their lives. It makes it a challenge to know when the first migratory birds will appear on the horizon. It reminds you that not long ago, these observations could mean the difference between going to bed hungry and being well-fed. Not all that long ago these were the observations that helped us to distinguish the changing seasons and keep time with the rhythm of the natural world.
Reading A Sand County Almanac gives me something to strive for that is reflective of a simpler time. It’s a goal to see what is right before my eyes with a more critical eye–to be less of an actor in the world around me and more of an observer. To make time for silence and reflection, in the face of ongoing pressures to act and engage. To find a balance that many do not even strive for; to be but a cog in the larger machine of the natural world, rather than a cog in an economic machine programed for ever-increasing growth.