A Sand County Almanac is divided into four sections. As a project, it began simply as the first section, the Almanac, but after Leopold’s early death, his family collected many of his other essays and compiled them into this book.
The first part of A Sand County Almanac is the eponymous almanac. In it Leopold records observations of the landscape on his Wisconsin farm each month, beginning in January and ending in December. Sometimes his observations are incredibly specific: in January he tracks a skunk across his property, and in June he recounts a weekend-spent fishing at a particular bend in a local river. Other times, Leopold uses his immediate surroundings as a jumping-off point for longer philosophical or historical tangents. In February, he writes about cutting down a tree, and as he saws through its rings he takes the reader on a journey back through time, looking at developments in the environment as well as in environmental regulation. Throughout the Almanac, he emphasizes the ways in which people have become alienated from the natural world, as well as the ways in which intimate familiarity with one’s environment is an important part of preserving the balance of the ecosystems upon which human life depends.
In the second part of the book, The Quality of the Landscape, Leopold describes various North American landscapes that he visited in his lifetime. He discusses Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, Arizona and New Mexico, Chihuahua and Sonora, Oregon and Utah, and Manitoba. In each section of this longer essay, he returns to the same themes, describing how spectacular the natural landscape is or was, and how human interventions are destroying and degrading it.
The book’s third section, A Taste for Country, is a series of loosely connected essays about how humans use the land. In “Country,” he mediates on the distinction between the idea of land, which can be owned, and that of country, which is the personality of the land, and cannot be regulated or possessed by humans. In “The Round River” Leopold describes his philosophy of conservationism. In “Wildlife in American Culture,” Leopold breaks down what he believes are the three most important ways people can interact with the land, and the values they take from these three interactions. He defines these tree categories of values and experiences as: split-rail values, which connect people to their ancestors (who in turn were more connected to the earth); man-earth experiences, which remind people of the importance of the natural world; and sportsmanship, which encourages hunters and fishermen to hunt in a way that emphasizes the quality of their skill, as opposed to focusing on the quantity of animals killed.
In the book’s final section, Leopold puts forth an extended argument for what he calls a land ethic—an ethical code for interacting with and caring for the land that acknowledges that humans are not just living off the land, but are living with the land. Humans are part of a community that includes plants, animals, and the landscape, and Leopold argues that humans need to do a better job of respecting and caring for the natural world.