Leopold wonders if his universe is bigger, or if the animals that live on his land travel more broadly than he does. Although the animals cannot speak to him, by examining their tracks and watching their behavior he can begin to make assumptions about the extent of their home ranges, and what areas of his farm are most familiar to them.
Leopold finds value and personal joy in learning about the lives of the animals he shares his property with. This is the kind of knowledge he seems to love the most—that which requires physical labor, like the tracking and observation of creatures.
Leopold argues that “science knows little about home range,” but the farm itself is “a textbook on animal ecology,” happy to offer information about the behavior of animals to the careful student.
Leopold believes his way of learning about the natural world—through direct observation—is superior to learning in a textbook.
Leopold compares the act of caring for a farm to an act of divine creation. Planting a tree feels especially holy, as it begins as a small seed but can grow tall and strong, and swiftly multiply in size. He wonders why “the shovel [is] regarded as a symbol of drudgery.” He jokes that it is perhaps because many shovels are themselves dull, but he has found that with a sharp shovel he can find joy and music in his work.
Calling back to the previous chapter, where Leopold set up the axe and shovel as the “divine” tools of creation and destruction, he here takes a moment to celebrate the shovel, which allows new life to be created in fertile soil. Although he does not specifically mention it, this is an extension of his philosophy of what it means to be a conservationist.
Leopold tracks a year in the life of a pine. Its year begins in May, when the bud or “candle” at the tip of the tree begins to grow. Leopold sees the pines as bankers or bookkeepers, always recording how much nutrients they took in the past year, and carefully growing based on past stores. Because of this, when a pine is cut down, it is easy to read in its rings which years were good and which years were hard, as it will have grown (or not grown) accordingly.
Once again, Leopold turns to a tree to track the passage of time. Instead of traveling back through the decades, he simply imagines a year going by for a single pine tree, and then imagines the way the conditions of each year will affect the tree’s growth, which will eventually be uncovered if it is chopped down and its rings exposed, each one telling the tale of a single twelve-month period.
Pines can also share “gossip” with Leopold. For example, based on how many of the lower branches of a pine have been eaten, Leopold can tell how hungry deer have been. Similarly, when the “candle” at the top of a pine begins to die, disrupting the tree’s normal growing pattern, Leopold knows the tree has been attacked by a pine weevil.
Trees hold many kinds of knowledge for Leopold. Like people, they are a member of his greater ecological community, and he has uncovered how to “speak” to them, or at least how to listen carefully and share in their knowledge.
One way to track animals is to “band” them (that is, to mark them with numbered tags in order to later identify them). Leopold bands the chickadees that visit his feeder, and describes the act of banding a bird and waiting for its return the following year as akin to holding “a ticket in a great lottery.” For the young, banding birds is a kind of game, but for the more experienced birder the joy comes from recapturing an old bird you have seen for many years, and know intimately.
Banding birds makes Leopold more aware of them, and makes him feel a greater kinship with the chickadees, who are now his confirmed semi-permanent neighbors. This is a type of academic work, a style of knowledge collection, but it requires no college education. It is a way to learn about and appreciate the land that requires very little human infrastructure or oversight, aside from a bird feeder and some bird bands.
Every year for the past ten years, Leopold and his family have captured and banded birds, which they have then released into the wild. One chickadee in particular, 65290, was first captured in the class of 1937, and although the bird didn’t seem to be exceptional in any other way, he lived for five more winters, surviving all other chickadees in his cohort. Leopold has no idea why or how he lived so long, and notes that few people stop to observe such a small bird. Instead, “everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.”
Leopold feels a special kind of love for this single chickadee, which manages to live much longer than its friends and family. Although this single bird’s lifespan is anomalous, and teaches Leopold nothing quantitative that he cares to share in his book, it nonetheless brings joy and unquantifiable value to his life.
Leopold considers the life of a chickadee. Wind governs much of their behavior, and acts as “the boundary of the habitable world.” Leopold hopes that chickadee 65290 is happy in his afterlife, and that there is always low wind, and always recently fallen oaks full of insects and eggs for him to eat. He also hopes that 65290 continues to wear Leopold’s band.
Leopold sees the chickadee not as an animal different and separate from him, but as a member of the same community in which he resides. As such, he hopes the chickadee had a good life, and a happy afterlife, affording it the same well wishes he would give any human.