Book Review: The Library of America Aldo Leopold

A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservationlibrary of america aldo leopoldby Aldo LeopoldLibrary of  America, 2013

The Library of America continues its stellar lineup (those of you who missed, for example, last year's boxed set of genre-defining sci-fi novels should rectify that oversight without delay) with the long-overdue addition of great naturalist, conservationist, and ecologist Aldo Leopold, whose eloquence is often overshadowed by the huge effect he had on the caretaker sensitivities of the entire 20th century. Born in 1887 in the great American Midwest state of Iowa, Leopold spent his entire life encountering the wild and then writing about it in prose so true (and often gorgeous) that it laughs off the passage of time. This new Library of America volume, edited by Curt Meine, Senior Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Foundation and author of the biography Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, includes dozens of letters, papers, and addresses that have never been published before, most of them arranged in rough chronological order, so we can meet young teen Aldo writing to his mother in 1909 under a shady tree in Florida, already displaying the acute observational skills that would later help to make him a legend:

We coasted very close to the Florida shore, - often within a mile. We could see the palms and pine forests, and the long shining stretches of sandy beach tempted one to jump overboard and swim ashore and play Robinson Crusoe. I spent the entire day leaning over the rail at the bow, watching the things in the water. There were hundreds of flying fish, large covies of them breaking water every few minutes and skimming off over the waves like big grasshoppers or dragonflies with gauzy wings. Finally they would drop back into the water with a funny splash. Occasionally we encountered a shoal of sharks – big lazy fellows, “Hammerheads” they called them, 6 or 10 feet long. They would suddenly dark away just under the surface of the water. Every few minutes one would see a big brown-yellow hulk a couple of feet under the water, and once in a while one would poke out its head – a huge sea-turtle. George, but they looked lazy and comfortable! Some of them must have weighed several hundred pounds. In the afternoon we encountered a shoal of porpoises. They were the real treat of the day. They look like a miniature whale, 4 or 5 feet long, with a sharp nose. George how they do swim!

(one observation notably missing: hammerhead sharks are actually hammerheaded! Maybe he was planning on saving it for the P.S.)As with any professional circuit-speaker, Leopold developed what a later generation would call talking points, so any collection of his speeches will have some repetition, often (under the excellent principle of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it') nearly verbatim. The rhetoric – blazing a trail from the natural consciousness of John Muir to the ethos of present-day conservationism – is rousingly powerful throughout, spurred by a born-again compassion that did more than any other single thing to change the thinking of an entire country.Far more frequently than might be expected from modern-day adherents of ecology who view Leopold as some kind of latter-day saint, that compassion could on the hoary, horns-down aspect of a fearless man who often suspected he was fighting a no-win battle. When in 1938 he noticed that some anonymous malefactor had dug up the last remaining laydslipper in the Wingra woods, he wrote a coldly furious open letter to that malefactor in The State Journal:

Only one man has ever succeeded in germinating the seeds of this species in artificial surroundings. It takes a high-powered chemist to reproduce the conditions necessary for its germination. Wild woods sometimes allow of reproduction, but backyards never. After the seedling has been born, it takes four years to reach the age of flowering. Do you think your ladyslipper will reproduce its kind in your backyard? … I invite your attention to the fact that this ladyslipper is not the only public property which you might lift for the embellishment of your home. There are numerous paintings in the Memorial Union which you could cut out of their frames when nobody is looking.

schwartz - geesejpgBut of course, with all due respect to Meine and his superb editorial efforts (the end-notes of this volume are marvels of concision), the real star of this show can only be Leopold's immortal 1949 classic A Sand County Almanac. The book has been reprinted dozens of times in the last 70 years, and here it gets one of its prettiest editions yet, with an evocative cover photo of geese in flight, plus the Library's customary sewn binding and light, acid-free pages (thankfully, Charles W. Schwartz's beloved illustrations are also included). The letters, essays, and addresses serve wonderfully to put this seminal text into a broader setting, but it's the Almanac itself, half-memorized by every hopeful soul who's ever trod a sunset meadow or paddled with reverential quiet along a salt marsh at dawn, that so effortlessly commands the volume, rolling its easy cadences over the reader yet again – as in the chapter “Too Early,” in which we're told, in typical homely fashion, that “getting up early is a vice habitual in horned owls, stars, geese, and freight trains”:

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 murders. The goose on the bar, rising briefly to a point of order in some inaudible anserine debate, lets fall no hint that he speaks with the authority of all the far hills and the sea.

There's abundant authority in these pages as well, and readers whose paperbacks of A Sand County Almanac are battered and dog-eared now have this lovely Library of America volume to batter into loving dilapidation.