Thursday, April 8, 2010

With Reverent Hands: A Sand County Almanac

With Reverent Hands

I bring you with reverent hands / the books of my numberless dreams.
-WB Yeats, "A Poet To His Beloved"

WB Yeats, I'm sure, gave books to his beloved that he valued highly himself, and that he handled with reverence.  If you had to recommend a book you revered to someone, what would it be?
I'm asking you to highlight one book.  One book that you adore, that you prize, that changed your life, that you would save from a burning building, that you found serendipitously on a library shelf or at a used bookstore, looking lonely and ignored.  A book that thrills you but that, you have come to realize, no one else has really ever heard of, much less read.  With Reverent Hands is all about those books- the ones that deserve a wider audience than they are given and that you want everyone to go out and read, even if they are out of print.

This week's post is by one of my non-book blogger followers (I have a few, see!), Mike.  I never would have known him if not for my friend Sudha, who sadly has left Chicago for the cold but lovely St. Paul, MN.  But at least she found amazing people in St. Paul, and has introduced me to some of them.  Mike is one of her friends there, and I've been lucky enough to meet him a few times myself.  I know, for example, that he has excellent taste in both real and fictional women ;-)  He also has fabulous taste in books and I wish he lived closer so that we could trade once in a while.  This book, in particular, seems to speak so much of life in the Midwest that I want to clutch it to my chest and sigh happily that all of us from this area really know how wonderful (and frustrating) it is to live here!

What book are you highlighting?
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold

When did you first read it?
I think that I first read it myself sometime in middle school, probably around 8th grade.  But for as long as I can remember, my mother read parts of certain essays at appropriate times of the year.

What is it about?  Please give a brief summary.
It is a collection of essays, which are mostly about observations that Leopold made on his farm in western Wisconsin (in one of the "Sand Counties").  The first section is made up of essays that are related to a month of the year--between one and three essays for each month.  The rest of the book is made up of more general essays about nature, and most importantly, about Leopold's idea of a "Land Ethic."  Leopold's ideas of land ethics and wilderness were very influential to the thinking of the modern environmental movement and to our modern concepts of conservation and wilderness.  He writes about all aspects of nature and ecosystems.  He has a particular affection for birds, but spends plenty of time talking about other animals and plants, and he spends a huge amount of time writing about our relationship with the land and with wild places.

What makes the book stand out to you?  Why do you love it?
I love the language.  I love his observations, from the grandiose to the tiny.  I try to make reading the month-appropriate essays a habit as the seasons change.  Especially in a place like the upper Midwestern United States, where the seasonal change is so dramatic, Leopold captures the beauty and the incredible size of the shifts.  He notices the little things--from a chickadee that survives a few extra winters--to the big things, like the changes that his farm must have undergone in the time that a hundred-plus-year-old oak tree has been alive.  Reading his observations about spring have become as much a part of the annual ritual for me as the first tulips poking through the soil and the first time we fire up the grill.

I also love his ideas about a land ethic.  To quote Leopold:

"This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter down river. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

As someone who loves wild places, loves the land, and would consider himself an environmentalist, Leopold sums up much of my basic thinking concisely and eloquently, and because of people who have worked to conserve and preserve wild places, I have been able to have some experiences that simply can't be found in more developed areas.

Please finish this analogy:  If you liked _____________, you'll probably enjoy this book.
The obvious answer is Walden, (or other works by Thoreau and Emerson) and that doesn't make it a bad answer.  But really any nature-focused writing:  A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or even some of Barbara Kingsolver's non-fiction work could be considered either similar to or influenced by Leopold.  John McPhee might have some of the closest work--especially Encounters with the Archdruid and The Survival of the Bark Canoe.

What sort of person would you recommend to read this book?
Someone who enjoys nature writing  Someone who likes reading and thinking about the wonder of our natural world.  Someone who wonders where the modern environmentalist movement has its roots.

Do you have any quotes you would like to share?
It is wonderful that I'm writing this in March, because my favorite quote from the book is from one of the March essays, called "The Geese Return":

"One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.  A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence...But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges."

This is particularly timely because on Sunday, as we were bringing the grill out for the first time, we saw a line of a few hundred geese fly over.  It was our first big line of the season, and it truly is a welcome sign.

From "A Marshland Elegy":

"High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes.  At last, a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds.  On motionless wing, they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of the sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds.  A new day has begun on the crane marsh."

Thanks to Aarti for letting me take up her space again!


  1. This sounds like a real interesting book, I'll have to check it out. While I don't have any books that I actually revere (outside of religious texts) there are two books that I absolutely love and which I make sure to have spare copies of so that I can lend them out to everyone I meet. These are A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. These books truly transport me to the places they talk about and make me feel like I've been there myself.

  2. This is a wonderful review and reminds me how much I love nature writing! Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Sounds really nice. Thanks for letting us know about it!

  4. I like reading beautiful passages about nature, and this sounds like a god one. I am so used to people that I would be hesitant to tackle the book if I didn't break it up and read it slowly.

  5. My high school biology teacher would regularly read this book to our class throughout the year. This post brings back fond memories :)

  6. I was thinking that this sounds so beautiful but that there's just no way I will read it because I don't do short stories/essays. I have SO much trouble appreciating them like they should be appreciated.
    And then I read the quote he picked. And I'm still breathing more slowly than normal.
    Just gorgeous!
    Thanks, Mark, for bringing this book to my attention!

  7. What a wonderful review! And such beautiful, beautiful passages. This is one of my husband's all-time favorite books, and he often has his students read it. Heck, one of our cats is even named Aldo after Aldo Leopold (even though she's female).

  8. This is a wonderful, wonderful book and when I read it, I was struck by how modern, how current it was. I love this:
    'There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.' I'm so glad you've spotlighted this book for those who haven't ever read it.

  9. I remember when I first moved to Wisconsin, and people were shocked that I had never read this. I felt I had to read it in order to stay in the state! :--)

  10. Thanks for all the great comments!

    @Nan: That's another one of my favorite passages. But with this book, I could probably open to any page in the book and find another of my "favorite passages."

  11. I really, really, really have to read this book. I've known about it for a long time, but it's one of those that never seems to make it off the shelf into my hand. I can't explain why.

    Mike, if you liked this, just judging by the excerpts you may really enjoy A Place Between the Tides by Harry Thurston, if you can find it.

  12. A non book blogger post, the horror ;) just kiddin'.

    Interesting, and as always, never herd about it. But I am glad I have now.

    pst, Aarti (gonna give away Shadow Prowler next week, just giving you a heads up) ;)

  13. I actually just discovered that I love nature writing about a year ago after reading Bernd Heinrich's amazing book, Summer World. Mike, if you have not yet read that book, I think it would definitely be the book for you. I liked it so much that I just went out and bought Winter World, which I am anxious to read. This book sounds wonderful and like something that I would love! Thanks so much for sharing it with us. It is going on the wish list for sure!

  14. Good review!, must try.

  15. I really like the passages Mike shared with us. This isn't something I would normally pick up and read, but I'm definitely interested now. Thank you for sharing this one with us, Mike and Aarti.


I read every comment posted on this blog, even if it sometimes takes me a while to respond. Thank you for taking the time and effort to comment here! Unless you are spamming me, in which case, thanks for nothing.