Wisconsin Academy Review
Volume 35, Number 1 (December 1988)
Companion to A Sand County Almanac
Edited by J. Baird Callicott.
Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987
ix + 288 pp. $22.50 cloth.
This volume (hereafter Companion), edited by a member of the
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point's Philosophy Department and its College
of Natural Resources, contains a number of previously published essays along
with some newly written and rewritten material. The finished product presents
Aldo Leopold and his best-known work from a variety of points of view --
philosophical, biographical, historical, literary-critical, and practical. It
brings together some fine work by some of the country's most able Leopold
scholars and is a welcome addition to the Leopold literature.
Companion's most notable feature is Part II, "The Book." In "The
Making of A Sand County Almanac" Dennis Ribbens traces the history of
Leopold's efforts to get his book published. The letters back and forth between
Leopold and prospective publishers, and between Leopold and friends and
advisors, tell us some important things about the genesis of "The Book," and
about Leopold's purposes in putting it together, e.g., why he insisted on
keeping sections such as the familiar essays which comprise "The Upshot" when
publishers recommended their excision. In "The Conflicts of an Ecological
Conscience," an essay Callicott describes as being "in my opinion the most
insightful study of A Sand County Almanac as a whole, ever made,"
Peter Fritzell analyzes "The Book" as a literary whole, calling attention to
its deep tensions and ambiguities, some of which Callicott tries to resolve in
his own essays later in Companion. Both Ribbens's and Fritzell's
essays bring much-needed light to the problems of interpreting "The Book" and
are among the most interesting essays in the book.
In Part I, "The Author," Curt Meine and Susan Flader -- both of whom have
published their own book-length discussions of Leopold -- offer useful analyses
of Leopold's boyhood and his central Wisconsin "shack experiences." Roderick
Nash's discussion in "Aldo Leopold's Intellectual Heritage," on the other hand,
is thin and superficial, and, as Callicott points out in his introduction,
seriously distorts the basis of Leopold's "land ethic."
More sophisticated analyses of the substance of the "land ethic" appear in
Part III, "The Upshot." In "Building 'The Land Ethic'" Meine teases out
different strands in what he calls "Leopold's most important essay"; and his
analysis of how these strands were woven together by Leopold displays well the
care with which Leopold worked. Sand County is much more than an
eloquent nature book; it is a carefully conceived, subtly crafted whole, and
"The Land Ethic" is a carefully wrought part of that whole. Callicott's
"Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic" is a useful corrective to Nash's
superficial and misleading analysis.
In "The Land Aesthetic" Callicott suggests that "natural... aesthetics is a
persistent concern" of Leopold. This is worth dwelling on. The ubiquity and
variety of perceptual terms in Sand County is striking. Leopold writes
of a "refined taste in natural objects," of a "taste for country," of "habits
of the human eye," of "the superficial eye," of "our ability to perceive
quality in nature" and the fact that "ecological science has wrought a change
in the mental eye." He laments the tendency of "biological education" to dull
one's impressions of one's surroundings by filling one's mind with unimportant
details. And duck hunting is, in the last analysis, an "aesthetic exercise."
Callicott illustrates very nicely Leopold's conception of the role of
ecological understanding in one's perception of nature. "Ecological science has
wrought a change in the mental eye" -- where Daniel Boone saw only "facts" and
"attributes" one can now see "origins" and "functions" and "mechanisms." Hence
Leopold's belief that essential to the "recreational process" is perception of
the natural processes by which the land and the living things upon it have
achieved their characteristic forms (evolution) and by which they maintain
their existence (ecology). Callicott rightly points out the relative neglect
"natural aesthetics" has suffered at the hands of philosophers and suggests
that the visual bias of much "artifactual aesthetics" may be partly responsible
for this neglect. Visual terms form a large part of the aesthetic vocabulary of
Sand County; but there are aural terms (recall the first sentences of
"January" and "November" and some of the titles of sections in Sand County:
"The Choral Copse," "Marshland Elegy," "Song of the Gavilan," "Goose Music");
olfactory ones (consider Leopold's reference to his dog's "educated nose"
searching for "olfactory gold," and finding "the olfactory poems that
who-knows-what silent creatures have written in the summer night"); and tactile
ones (e.g., having one's shins warmed by the oak one has split, feeling the sun
as it rises in the morning). One of the things that contributes to the force
and durability of Sand County is the close attention Leopold gives to
sensory details in his descriptions of the land. Callicott is to be thanked for
calling attention to this aspect of Leopold's work; and those who want to
explore the full range of Leopold's thought would do well to pursue his lead.
I think that the most important essays in this collection and the ones which
will prove most beneficial to those interested in Leopold and his impact on
environmental thought are those focused most closely on Leopold's written work.
Interpreting a work as many-layered as A Sand County Almanac is
difficult, and to have attention drawn to its structure, organization, and
genesis cannot but help in that process. It is a testimony to the lasting value
of Leopold's writings that they repay critical attention of the sort this book
Peter Losin, assistant professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University in
Spokane, Washington, received his Ph.D. from UW-Madison.