Review: A Sand County Almanac

Review: A Sand County Almanac

A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round RiverA Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River by Aldo Leopold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a dull world if we knew all about geese!

Nature is refreshing. Even a short walk in a park can powerfully clear one’s head. For whatever reason—perhaps because our ancestors lived in trees—surrounding oneself with birches and maples produces in nearly everyone feelings of warmth, comfort, and peace. And for many people, nature is more than refreshing: it is awe-inspiring, even divine. Natural environments are, for some, more uplifting than cathedrals. Emerson might have captured this strain of mystical naturalism best:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. … Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being flow through me; I am part or particle of God.

I myself have had comparable experiences in the woods. Yet both Emerson and I are pure amateurs next to Aldo Leopold.

Leopold was a pioneering conservationist and forester. He was also a superlative writer, and in this brief book he covers a lot of ground. He begins with a month-by-month account of Sand County, a poor farming region in Wisconsin. This was my favorite section, since Leopold’s sensitivity to his environment is nearly superhuman. He has a keen sense of both the history of environments—how they change with the seasons, how they have evolved through time, how they have been warped by human activity—and the close-knit interdependence of ecosystems, how each organism shapes and is shaped by every other organism, forming a perfect whole.

As a stylist, he manages to be lyrical and poetic while sticking scrupulously to what he sees and hears. His sentences are short, his diction simple, and yet he manages to evoke a densely complex ecosystem. This is because, unlike Emerson or I—and more so than Thoreau—Leopold really understood his environment. He can name every species of plant, and tell what soils they prefer and what plants they like as neighbors. He can identify every bird by its call, and knows where it roosts, what it eats, when it migrates, and how it mates. Scratches on a tree tell him a deer is nearby, his antlers fully grown; the footprints in snow tell him a skunk has passed, and how recently.

All this is described with exquisite sensitivity, but no romantic embellishment. To borrow a phrase from E.B. White, Leopold had discovered “the eloquence of facts.” And, like White, Thoreau, and Emerson, his writing has a pleasing, folksy, rambling, ambling quality, wherein each sentence is nailed to the next one at an oblique angle.

In the rest of the book, Leopold puts forward a new philosophy of conservation. This train of thought reminded my very much of another book I read recently, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In that book, Jane Jacobs explains how top-down approaches to city planning killed neighborhood vitality. Just so, when Leopold was a young man in the forestry service, he participated in the policy of removing predators—bears, wolves, and mountain lions—to protect livestock and to increase the supply of hunting animals, like deer. When hunting became necessary to control population, parks began building more and more roads to make access easier; and meanwhile the exploding deer population prevented new trees from growing. Thus the park was encroached upon by cars, and the ecosystem thrown off balance—in the same way that blindly building highways and public housing can destroy neighborhoods.

Leopold was, I believe, one of the first to popularize the idea that ecosystems act like one giant organism, with a delicate balance of cooperating and competing components. Every healthy ecosystem is a harmony that cannot be disturbed without unpredictable results. To again borrow from Jacobs, an ecosystem—like a city economy or a human brain—is an example of “organized complexity.” Thus ecosystems baffle attempts to understand them by thinking of their components separately, as a collection of individual species, or even statistically, as the average behavior of interchangeable parts. Complexity like this tends to be a product of historical growth, with each distinct component making minute adjustments to each other in a dense network of influence. Leopold doesn’t say this in so many words; but he does something even more impressive: he illustrates this quality using short anecdotes and schoolboy vocabulary.

His most philosophic contribution to the environmental movement is what he called a “land ethic.” Previous arguments for conservation were couched in terms of expediency: how national parks and nature reserves could benefit us economically. Leopold believed that this approach was too narrow; since hunting lodges and mechanized farms are always more profitable in the short term, this would eventually result in the destruction of wild ecosystems and the disappearance of species. We needed to move beyond arguments of expediency and see the land—and everything on it—as valuable for its own sake. Leopold believed that we had an ethical duty to preserve ecosystems and all their species, and that the aesthetic reward of wild nature was more valuable than dollars and cents could measure.

I want to go along with this, but I thought that Leopold was unsatisfyingly vague in this direction. It is simply not enough to say that we have an ethical duty to preserve nature; this is quite a claim, and requires quite a bit of argument. Further, aesthetic value seems like a slender reed to rest on. For every Emerson and Thoreau, there is a Babbitt whose tastes are not so refined. To his credit, Leopold does argue that a great part of conservation must consist in elevating the public taste in nature. Otherwise, conservation will consist of little more than the government using tax dollars to purchase large swaths of land. Individuals must see the value in wilderness and actively participate in preserving it. But molding tastes is no easy thing; and, more importantly, if we are to do so, there must be compelling reasons to do it.

The most compelling reasons for conservation are, I believe, expediency—but expediency in the widest sense. The difference between folly and wisdom is not that the former is preoccupied with expediency and the latter higher things; it is that wisdom considers what is expedient on a grander scale. Leopold comes close to making this same argument. He was, for example, ahead of his time in being deeply concerned about extinction. Every time a species disappears it is an irreplaceable loss; and considering that our medicine partly depends on new discoveries, extinctions may have terrible consequences for us down the line. (I saw a PBS special the other day about scientists trying to discover new antibiotics by shifting through raw soil.) Since Leopold’s day—long before Silent Spring or An Incovenient Truth—we have learned plenty more ways that environmental destruction can be equivalent to self-destruction.

Carping aside, this is a deeply satisfying book: lyrical, descriptive, educational, and innovative. Leopold realized what Orwell also realized: that winning converts requires both argument and propaganda. He does not only argue for the value of nature, but he really captures the beauty of unspoiled environments and serves it up for his readers’ consideration. We are not only convinced, but seduced. This is propaganda in its noblest form—propaganda on behalf of nature.

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Review: Essays of E.B. White

Review: Essays of E.B. White

Essays of E.B. WhiteEssays of E.B. White by E.B. White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is really no way for a man to put his arms around a big house plant and still remain a gentleman.

E.B. White’s name, along with Will Strunk’s, is now synonymous with good style. If that isn’t a compliment to a writer, I don’t know what is.

My first encounter with the duo was in my high school English class of junior year. My teacher was old-fashioned enough to believe that we should learn how to use punctuation. This came as a shock, since none of her predecessors had spared so much as a moment on a semicolon. It was with bewilderment and wonder, then, that I opened up The Elements of Style and encountered this sentence: “The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.” How often is so much instruction packed into so few words?

In college I picked up the habit of rereading Strunk and White at least once a year. Probably I should do so more often, since verbal profligacy—Strunk’s sworn enemy, the capital sin of writing—is something that I can’t seem to shake, no matter how often I try. One of the reasons I picked up this book was the hope that, by observing White at work, his example might serve where his precepts failed.

With White, the style is the man; and any discussion of his works inevitably becomes an analysis of his prose. To begin with, White is not what I’d call a vocal writer. A vocal writer is one whose writing seems to come alive and speak, whose writing cannot be read in your own voice, only in the author’s own accent. White’s writing, while personable, charming, and full of feeling, does not leap from the page into your living room. It is writerly writing.

His style is conversational, not aphoristic. His sentences are not pointed, his wit is not barbed, his lines are not militantly memorable. His writing is loose; it breathes like a cotton shirt; it is drafty like an old wooden cabin. You might say that his essays are a controlled ramble, a balancing act that looks like a casual stroll. They take their time. Like a scatterbrained errand boy, they pause in a thousand places for momentary rendezvous and covert dalliances before reaching their destinations.

White seldom speaks in abstractions, and hardly makes an argument. His writing is held together not by the logic of ideas but by the tissue of memory. This is partly why the style is unfilterable from the content. There is no thesis to take away. He is not trying to make a point, but to communicate his perspective, to encapsulate a piece of his personality.

White’s personality is delightful. Modest and gently humorous, he is animated by a curiosity for the little things that comprise his world. He can study a train schedule with avidity, he can spend hours gazing at a spider’s web, he can write poetry on the life-cycle of a pig. This is what makes him such a consummate essayist. In the humdrum facts and quotidian occurrences of life he hears music and meaning, and spiderlike weaves his own web to stitch them into a delicate structure:

As I sat at table, gnawing away at a piece of pie, snow began falling. At first it was an almost imperceptible spitting from the gray sky, but it soon thickened and came driving in from the northeast. I watched it catch along the edge of the drive, powder the stone wall, and whiten the surface of the dark frozen pond, and I knew that all along the coast from Kittery on, the worst mistakes of men were being quietly erased, the lines of their industrial temples softened, and U.S. 1 crowned with a cold, inexpensive glory

There is not much to be said against these essays, except what can be said against all stylists. Since what White says is less important than the way he says it, upon finishing the reader is left with nothing but echoes and aftertastes. Yet it is a delicious aftertaste, tart and tangy with a touch of smoke, and it whets my appetite for more.

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Quotes & Commentary #7: Bill Bryson

Quotes & Commentary #7: Bill Bryson

We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas.

—Bill Bryson

I originally wrote down this quote because it was an excellent illustration of Bryson’s excellent prose.

Style manuals often tell us to focus on nouns and verbs. Such is the advice of E.B. White in The Elements of Style, where he says that “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give writings its toughness and color.” Stephen King, in On Writing, even advises writers to avoid adverbs altogether: “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.”

Bryson shows how effective adjectives and adverbs can be in the hands of a master. First, the chain of three-syllable words with “ly” endings gives the sentence a rolling rhythm, each adverb tumbling off the tongue. He has also chosen his adverbs well. Saying the word “sumptuous” makes me feel sumptuous; and the word “radiant” almost glows. The comedic twist is when he connects his chain of adverbs with the adjective “ignorant.” I understanding being astoundingly ignorant, but what does it mean to be sumptuously and radiantly ignorant?

I also like this sentence because it reminds me of my childhood. One of my first obsessions was with whales. As often as I could, I would go to the Museum of Natural History and stare in awe at the gargantuan blue whale hanging from the ceiling of the Hall of Ocean Life.

My favorite was always the sperm whale. These leviathans, the largest toothed predators on earth, dive thousands of feet down into the dark deep to do battle with giant squids. The display in the Museum of Natural History pictures this battle mid-scene, the whale’s jaw clamped around the squid’s tentacles, both of their massive forms emerging from the shadows.

Something about this scene fascinated me, and still does. I drew the diorama over and over again, until I had hundreds of copies. The sperm whale seemed heroic to me: it descended into the depths and fought a monster, just to have lunch. And if a creature as big and terrifying as the giant squid could be lurking down there, what else might?

This wonder was reignited when, several years later, I heard of “Bloop,” a powerful underwater sound detected in 1997. The sound is now believed to have been caused by an icequake, but originally it drew attention because its sonic profile was similar to a noise made by an animal. This was noteworthy because the sound was much too loud to be made by even a whale, which led to a lot of speculation on the internet about giant monsters. There’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to these unexplained, underwater sounds, which I’m sure has provided valuable ammunition to pseudo-scientists and conspiracy theorists.

To me, the ocean’s depths exert a primal fascination. We still know relatively little about the deep, and what we do know has been consistently surprising. With no sunlight, freezing temperatures, and immense pressure, life has still eked out an existence, taking on many bizarre forms in the process. Maybe “radiant” is the best way to describe our ignorance of a place so devoid of light.