Leopold often turns the tools of a farmer into metaphorical tools for living a thoughtful, carefully considered life. Early in the book he describes cutting down a tree, and through its rings discovering slices of history. As he cuts down this tree he refers to an axe, a wedge, and a saw as tools not only for the woodworker but for the historian. Each one has a special purpose that allows it to excavate a different aspect of history. Similarly, he later extols the shovel and the axe, which he believes help him become like a god on his farm, as he undertakes the “divine function” of “creating and destroying plants.” The axe, in this scenario, becomes a way for the farmer to enact his or her will on the land. It is a tool of targeted destruction, whose strokes reflect the biases of the person who wields it. The shovel, meanwhile, is a tool of creation, which can sharply cut into the earth and make way for new life. Thus, tools for Leopold come to symbolize the ways that humans impose their will on the land—whether this is done with respect and responsibility or not.
Tools Quotes in A Sand County Almanac
Now comes the job of making wood. The maul rings on steel wedges as the sections of trunk are upended one by one, only to fall apart in fragrant slabs to be corded by the roadside.
There is an allegory for historians in the diverse functions of saw, wedge, and axe.
The saw works only across the years, which it must deal with one by one, in sequence. From each year the raker teeth pull little chips of fact, which accumulate in little piles, called sawdust by woodsmen and archives by historians; both judge the character of what lies within by the character of the samples thus made visible without. It is not until the transect is completed that the tree falls, and the stump yields a collective view of a century. By its fall the tree attests the unity of the hodge-podge called history.
The wedge, on the other hand, works only in radial splits; such a split yields a collective view of all years at once, or no view at all depending on the skill with which the plane of the split is chosen. (If in doubt, let the section season for a year until a crack develops. Many a hastily driven wedge lies rusting in the roods, embedded in unsplittable cross-grain.)
The axe functions only at an angle diagonal to the years, and this only for the peripheral rings of the recent past. Its special function is to top limbs, for which both saw and wedge are useless.
The three tools are requisite to good oak, and to good history.
The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, but He is no longer the only on to do so. When some remote ancestor of ours invented the shovel, he became a giver: he could plant a tree. And when the axe was invented, he became a taker: he could chop it down. Whoever owns land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying plants.
Other ancestors, less remote, have since invented other tools, but each of these, upon close scrutiny, proves to be either an elaboration of or an accessory to, the original pair of basic implements. We classify ourselves into vocations, each of which either wields some particular tool, or sells it, or repairs it, or sharpens it, or dispenses advice on how to do so; by such division of labors we avoid responsibility for the misuse of any tool save our own. But there is one vocation—philosophy—which knows that all men, by what they think about and wish for, in effect wield all tools. It knows that men thus determine, by their manner of thinking and wishing, whether it is worthwhile to wield any.
I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.