Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The book that made me crazy with homesickness for America

Aldo Leopold
I have a young teenage friend here in Istanbul who pines to be out in the Turkish countryside among apple orchards, tending herbs, growing living plants and enjoying nature. Instead, he's growing up in a city of 15 million! That has to make his summers out in the country just that much more special.

I tried to think of English-language books that I could share with him that spoke to this inner calling of nature. "Walden" of course, by Thoreau. "The other side of the mountain" by Jean Craighead George, one of my own childhood favorites. To this day I still remember how much I savored reading her young adult novel about trying to live off the land by oneself as a teenager in the woods. Instead, I gave him a book, even though I hadn't read it myself. I had, however, heard mentioned over and over again as one of the best in the American canon for nature writing: "Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold.

"Sand County Almanac"
 has sold over 2,000,000 copies
"Sand County Almanac" proved too difficult for his intermediate English. So he gave it back to me.
Having always meant to read it because of its steady, growing reputation, I opened it up and began.

"Sand County Almanac" is divided into a year of observations about living on a Wisconsin farm and the natural life that goes on there through the seasons. Aldo Leopold, the Iowa-born author, was a professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Wisconsin when he wrote it. He would retire to his "tired-out" farmland and shack on the weekend with his wife and five kids. Before his professorship, he was very active in the United States Forest Service writing the first fish and game handbook ever and proposing the first National Wilderness Designation ever for Gila Wilderness Area.

Thank goodness, I was going home to America within the month! The beauty of the Wisconsin farm landscape came pouring of every page of this book. So did his pride and passion for observation of his piece of land, something every property owner has felt. Having last lived in central Wisconsin when I was in America, I could hardly bear reading it so evocative was it for all that was gorgeous about nature in the Midwest, and Wisconsin in particular.

Aldo Leopold is considered
the father of wildlife ecology

No wonder my young friend had such difficulty with the English. Aldo Leopold's language is so learned and his thinking so lofty, I began to regard what was in my hands as "divinely-inspired" like Mozart's works or Handel's "Messiah." Could a human being create such a work of such sacredness, joy, and wisdom without help from a higher power?

If I could have every American read one chapter, it would be "February." There is no action in this chapter other than Aldo sawing apart a tree for his wood-burning stove. Doesn't exactly sound like a must-read, does it? And yet, each sentence is utterly compelling.

Aldo describes not knowing where our heat comes from as a "spiritual danger." A spiritual danger! Is that not what we experience when we consume our petrol mindlessly as we do without acknowledgement of the depletion of nature and cost to human life?

He says "if one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend a week in town astride a radiator."

I am not going to split my own oak for heat anytime soon, but let you and I just ask ourselves if we know the details of where our heat comes with the same deep consciousness and thought for its replacement as Aldo did. While sawing, he recalled exactly where the tree originated from, what it measured in length and width, what was going on in history at the time of its birth, and what the oak had to survive to get to this age. When another oak was felled by lightening on his property, he allowed it to properly age in the sunshine it could no longer use, and then split it one fine winter day secure in the knowledge that there was a renewable source of new wood growing on his farm. Do we consume our heat with that level of awareness and consciousness about where it's coming from, how it shall be renewed, and at what cost?

The forward alone is full of such copious amounts of wisdom it was, again, awe-inspiring to read. May I absorb his wisdom to my bones.

From the forward:

"But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal-clear: our bigger and better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy. The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap. Nothing could be more salutary at this stage than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings."                                          
                                                                                    ~Aldo Leopold, 1949

You might also enjoy these Wisconsin or nature-related posts:

The Marvelousness of Madison

A Spectacular Hike to Gem Lake

Elk Bugling Season

Couchsurfing Hike to Český ráj

Hiking the Sázava River in Central Bohemia


Joy said...

Always looking for new, inspiring books to read. Just bought the kindle version so hopefully it is the same. Thanks!

Karen said...

I think you'll love it, Joy. Please report back when you finish it. I'd love to hear your opinion.

Laura M. said...

There's a very interesting documentary on the life of this important man called Green Fire.

Karen said...

Thank you, Laura, for sharing about the new documentary detailing the life and philosophy of Aldo Leopold. I did not know about it, and I can't wait to see it!

Liz said...

Another Midwestern naturalist and academic -- anthropologist Loren Eiseley who spent his youth observing the seasons of life on the Platte River -- wrote The Immense Journey, a logical companion to Sand County Almanac. Profoundly insightful, beautifully written.

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