The first section of A Sand County Almanac (which shares the same title as the book) is meant to show, month by month, how Aldo Leopold and his family live on the weekends. Although he teaches at the University of Wisconsin during the week, the rest of the time he lives out on a sand farm in rural Wisconsin where he lives off the land and close to the natural world.
Although Leopold’s weekday life is centered around a conventional educational institution, in his free time he is more excited about learning from the land than teaching about it in the abstract. This relationship with the land has structured his entire outlook on life, as well as his academic practice.
Leopold observes a midwinter thaw after a series of blizzards. A skunk comes briefly out of hibernation, which Leopold marks as “one of the earliest datable events” in the year. Leopold follows the skunk, attempting to “deduce his state of mind and appetite, and destination if any.” He appreciates that in January, his observation of the natural world is “simple and peaceful.” He notes “there is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.”
Leopold marks time not by the calendar, but by weather patterns and the behavior of animals. It is evident from the very start of the book that Leopold is constantly on the hunt for knowledge. Even the behavior of a single, simple skunk is valuable to him, a mystery worth investigating.
Leopold watches a meadow mouse and hypothesizes about the animal’s thoughts. Leopold supposes that the mouse exists in its own little world, where grass grows so that mice can harvest and store it, and snow falls specifically so that mice can tunnel through it. He observes “to the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.” Similarly, Leopold suspects a hawk has “no opinion on why grass grows,” but believes that the snow melts so it can more easily catch mice.
Leopold indulges in some anthropomorphism here to make a point that all animals see the value of the land in different terms. He sees the behavior of the animals as selfish, but passes no judgment. He believes that these animals only see the world in terms of how it benefits them, because that is all they need to survive. Later in the book, Leopold will criticize his fellow humans for having a similarly narrow world view, when they have the capacity to think more grandly and holistically about their place in the world.
Following the skunk tracks farther across the snow, Leopold wonders about the skunks’ thoughts and motivations once again. He wonders if it is fair to “impute romantic motives” to this woodland animal.
Once again, Leopold finds joy and value in investigating the inner thoughts of a skunk. For him, there is no hierarchy of knowledge—he is interested in everything the natural world has to offer.