Within A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold often marks the passing of time by noting the hour, day, week, or season. However, although he divides the first, eponymous part of his Almanac into months, the natural occurrences within each block of time prove more important indicators of changing seasons and natural development than dates on a calendar. Dates are only useful as long as they allow for the monitoring of natural occurrences, but his life is lived by the freeze and thaw of the world around him, the migration of the geese, and the flooding of the river. Dates provide a suggestion of when these events may occur, but the earth’s own biological clock requires more focused attention, and rewards the listener more generously than a paper calendar or mechanical watch. Similarly, Leopold often looks to nature for lessons on history, and finds that events of the past are often carefully recorded in the landscape itself, providing supplemental, or even entirely new resources for the observant naturalist. Leopold, leading by example, advises readers to look carefully at the natural world for truly useful markers of time, and for truly comprehensive accounts of history.
Time can be marked in two different ways. It can be tracked on a calendar created by mankind, or it can be inferred through the weather and the behavior of plants and animals. The book opens with a description of a hibernating skunk waking from his sleep and cutting a path through the January snow. Leopold remarks that this “track marks one of the earliest datable events in that cycle of beginnings and ceasings which we call a year.” Leopold finds importance in the behaviors of the natural world, which provide more information and real-time feedback than a conventional calendar. Similarly, in May, the “final proof of spring” is not the date on the calendar, but instead the “flight-song of the upland plover, just now back from the Argentine.” Leopold watches the plants and animals around him respond to the changing seasons. He notes that each species has its own special way of marking time, and takes different significance from changing seasons and weather. Mice recognize “snow means freedom from want and fear,” while hawks see thaws as “freedom from want and fear.” Although the time-marking of the animals seems self-centered, Leopold argues that humans who are cut off from nature, not forced to chop their own wood or monitor the seasons themselves, are similarly obliviously self-centered.
Just as time can be tracked on paper or on the land itself, history can be recorded both by humans and by the landscape. Leopold describes history as a “hodge-podge,” and is happy to look for clues to the past in unexpected places. He describes how records of the past are contained within a tree he has cut down on his property. When he takes the saw to it, “fragrant little chips of history spewed from the saw cut,” and in the sawdust he sensed “something more than wood…the integrated transect of a century.” He continues, “our saw was bating its way, stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime, written in concentric annual rings of good oak.” Leopold respects and carefully observes this tree, and as he cuts it he records in his Almanac the events of each year, both in terms of human history (federal laws, Supreme Court decisions), and events in the natural world (floods, fires, droughts). Later in the Almanac, Leopold describes the peats and bogs of his county as containing their own history. They are made of “compressed remains of the mosses that clogged the pools, of the tamaracks that spread over the moss, of the cranes that bugled over the tamaracks since the retreat of the ice sheet. An endless caravan of generations has built of its own bones this bridge into the future, this habitat where the oncoming host again may live and die.” Although he does not suggest taking a cross section of the bog like he did of the oak he felled in the winter months, Leopold acknowledges how time and history are hidden in so many out of the way places. Even the cranes themselves, whose migration path allows them to stop on the bogs, live “not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock.” These birds hold history in their bodies, minds, and behavior, instinctively acting out a ritual that stretches into the distant past and (hopefully) into the far future. Similarly, Leopold believes “A sense of history should be the most precious gift of science and of the arts,” but also believes that the grebe “knows more history than we do,” and holds within him a “sense [of] who won the battle of time.”
Leopold doesn’t argue that the reader should do away with man-made markers of time or burn their history books. In fact, the first section of his Almanac, which tracks his observations across seasons, is divided into months to give the reader a clearer sense of the passage of time. Similarly, he enjoys watching birds in the early morning, but only knows when to wake up by consulting a clock and setting an alarm. Instead, he advises readers to become more attuned to the natural rhythms of time, and the ways in which the plants, animals, climate, soil, and rivers record the past, shifting and changing with and against the carefully demarcated human hours, days, and months.
Time and History ThemeTracker
Time and History 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.
One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a mark thaw, is the spring.
A cardinal, whistling spring to a thaw but later finding himself mistaken, can retrieve his error by resuming his winter silence. A chipmunk, emerging for a sunbath but finding a blizzard, has only to go back to bed. But a migrating goose, staking two hundred miles of black night on the chance of finding a hole in the lake, has no easy chance for retreat. His arrival carries the conviction of a prophet who has burned his bridges.
A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese. I once knew an educated lady, banded by Phi Beta Kappa, who told me that she had never heard or seen the geese that twice a year proclaim the revolving seasons to her well-insulated roof. Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers
During every week from April to September there are, on the average, ten wild plants coming into first bloom. In June as many as a dozen species may burst their buds on a single day. No man can heed all of these anniversaries; no man can ignore all of them. He who steps unseeing on May dandelions may be hauled up short by August ragweed pollen; he who ignores the ruddy haze of April elms may skid his car on the fallen corollas of June catalpas. Tell me of what plant-birthday a man takes notice, and I shall tell you a good deal about this vocation, his hobbies, his hay fever, and the general level of his ecological education.
Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.
This much, though, can be said: our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of the incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.
And so they live and have their being—these cranes—not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of evolutionary time. Their annual return is the ticking of the geologic clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun. The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.
Since the beginning, time had gnawed at the basaltic hulk of the Escudilla, wasting, waiting, and building. Time built three things on the old mountain, a venerable aspect, a community of minor animals and plants, and a grizzly.
The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire of an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together.
The bureau chief who sent the trapper was a biologist versed in the architecture of evolution, but he did not k now that spires might be as important as cows. He did not foresee that within two decades the cow country would become tourist country, and as such have greater need of bears than of beefsteaks.
The Congressmen who voted money to clear the ranges of bears were the songs of pioneers. They acclaimed the superior virtues of the frontiersman, but hey strove with might and main to make an end of the frontier.