A Sand County Almanac

The Sacred Texts of Last Wolf

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold (1949)

A Sand County Almanac was in my Amazon wish-list for about ten years before I bought it. I don’t know why it took me so long. It was never expensive, only ever around £10 or so, I just never got around to buying it. I eventually got it a few years ago, just before Christmas, and I read it quickly.

Every Hogmany (New Year’s Eve non-Scots) we spend several days at a cabin in the west of Scotland. This had replaced the hubbub of Christmas and become my favourite time of the year. It is very quiet, rarely do we even see anyone. Before the bairns came along I used to use this as a time to drink whisky, sleep, walk and of course read. Reading uninterrupted with nothing but a log fire and a view of the mist on the loch, or the frost on the ground. What could be better? Some books fit this scenario better than others. Books on Scotland for example, especially Scottish history, fit very well. Stephen King’s It, not so much. I read A Sand County Almanac at our cabin, finishing it on New Year’s Day.

It’s a wonderful book, an undisputed classic of the genre. I haven’t been so affected by nature writing before or since. I reread parts of it over and over. I wrote down an entire chapter in my notebook and I am just going to repeat part of it here.

August: The Green Pasture

“Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed by successive generations, in each of which are likely to be found a few appreciative eyes.
I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work, erases it forever from human view. After that it exists only in my mind’s eye.
Like other artists, my river is temperamental; there is no predicting when the mood to paint will come upon him, or how long it will last. But in midsummer, when the great white fleets cruise the sky for day after flawless day, it is worth strolling down to the sandbars just to see whether he has been at work.

The work begins with a broad ribbon of silt brushed thinly on the sand of a receding shore. As this dries slowly in the sun, goldfinches bathe in its pools, and deer, herons, kill-deers, racoons and turtles cover it with a lacework of tracks. There is no telling at this stage, whether anything further will happen. But when I see the silt ribbon turning green with Eleocharis, I watch closely thereafter, for this is a sign that the river is in a painterly mood”.

Leopold then goes on to end this section…

“Do not return for a second view of the green pasture, for there is none. Either falling water has dried it out, or rising water has scoured the bar to its original austerity of clean sand. But in your mind you may hang up your picture, and hope that in some other summer the mood to paint may come upon the river”.

Beautiful imagery, and nature writing at its very best.

It’s harder to pinpoint how this book has influenced Last Wolf directly but it has to do with how the simple things in life are all connected. Everything fits together in and we, as humans, need to respect that and fit in too. The best trophy of the outdoors, the wilderness, the wild, whatever you want to call it, is the experience itself, and that is ultimately human. He discusses ideas that were way ahead of his time, topics we have met already atop Word Mountain, and no doubt will meet many times before the day that this project ceases to be.

How do we encourage use of the land to ensure it remains protected and conversely protect it at the same time? Is governmental influence an answer? This book is a plea to value these places. Think the idea of tropic cascades came from George Monbiot? Aldo Leopold discusses this in 1949 within a heart-breaking yet life changing story of shooting a wolf mother and at least one pup. This was a time when the killing of wolves was almost considered good manners; less wolves equals more deer for the sportsmen. But the young trigger happy author instantly regrets it.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realised then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes- something known only to her and to the mountain”.

When thinking of farmers clearing the range of wolves, Leopold writes…

“He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”

And that,

“too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run”, he then goes on to quote or old pal Henry David Thoreau.

Think like a mountain. Be like Aldo Leopold.

Live deliberately


Currently listening to Winter Solstice by Black Pyre and Speak English or Die by S.O.D.