Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

It's a classic, Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, and it's been a talisman for a few generations of environmental types now. Ah, sweet, sweet was the day I recall as my first encounter with this book, recognizing in another's perspectives a fundamental harmony with my own - what? Oh, sorry. Nostalgia does funny things, and I'm always interested to see how the return to a classic works, especially when you remember it fondly.

My response is somewhat mixed, though, as it was in my late teens when I first stumbled across it. For one thing, the blurb on the reverse of the Ballantine edition - still making money after all these years, no doubt with the same typos still uncorrected - is a masterpiece of hyperbole and misrepresentation, and it suggests a profound disconnection between the book itself and at least part of its reception history. For another, it's a collection of disparate pieces, not all of them left in immaculate form by Aldo Leopold, and not all of them edited to the same standard by his son Luna Leopold. As a casual reader on my first readerly visit to Leopold's Wisconsin, I saw only that there was repetition and even some inconsistency (in his discussion of the words "land" and "country," for example); it wasn't until I learned a bit more about its publication history that I made a lasting peace with what I now take to be the book's editing inconsistencies rather than the author's lack of clarity.

It's a wonderful read, this book, and some of its passages meant that Leopold legitimately earned his place on the core environmentalist bookshelf. A Sand County Almanac feels somewhat dated to me, though, in a way that Walden doesn't, in Leopold's evocation of hunting and farming lifestyles, but nothing wrong with that: it's where nostalgia comes from, and nostalgia can be - though isn't necessarily - a force for positive change.

But that blurb needs to be stripped from the Ballantine edition, an edition which really should be updated if Ballantine is to justify charging now more than twice what they did for the EXACT SAME PAGES a decade ago, three times what they did two decades ago. This long period of profitable but unhelpful passivity on Ballantine's part is the main reason that I'm teaching from the Oxford edition in the fall, some aspects of which unhelpfulness are exemplified by the blurb:
A series of astonishing portraits of the natural world, A Sand County Almanac explores the breathtaking diversity of the unspoiled American landscape at the peak of its beauty and majesty.
Amateurish, that's I call that blurb. There was nothing "unspoiled" about the landscape Leopold was addressing, and what made the 30s or so the "peak" of America's landscape beauty? And really, it's just plain cruel for one to be astonished as well to have one's breath taken away.

In Leopold's defense, I really do mean that this book is a wonderful read, and I'm excited by the chance to teach it. The natural description is very clear, the philosophy engaging, and the sense of history palpable.

One of these times, though, I should actually review a book rather than report on my response to it....


Popular Posts