By Caitlin Zera                      January 1, 2016

There is little use for the calendar year outside of the human need to keep time. The ringing in of a New Year on December 31st means nothing to the Great Horned Owl or the Hellbender. The great rhythms of the Earth fall in line with the turning of the seasons at the equinoxes and the solstices and so the holiday of New Year’s holds little in comparison.  Yet our human community places an enormous emphasis on the celebration of a new year. We see it as a clean slate, a time to start anew, an opportunity to resolve. As you make your journey through the New Year, consider making Aldo Leopold your guide with this pairing of his masterwork A Sand County Almanac and the movie Green Fire, a portrait of his life.

A Sand County Almanac & Sketches Here and There
by Aldo Leopold
240 pages, Oxford University Press (1949)

Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time
Directed by Dave Steinke, Ann Dunsky, Steve Dunsky
Runtime: 1 hour, 13 minutes, 2011

Leopold stands as one the great ecological ethicists and writers of the American environmental movement, and like many passionate environmentalists he also possessed a great gift for eloquence and poetry, elevating nature writing to new philosophical and aesthetic heights.

A Sand County Almanac is Leopold’s impassioned tribute to the land and wildlife on his family’s farm in Wisconsin. This account chronicles one year of observations and activities on the sand farm woven seamlessly with reflections on ecological ethics. Leopold’s entries in Sand County are by month, making it the perfect New Year’s read. You can read along each month and watch the beauties of Sand County unfold with the season, or read the book in its entirety this January (it’s a mere 87 pages) and look forward to what natural wonders lie ahead in the coming year. 

Oxford University’s edition of A Sand County Almanac & Sketches Here and There contains additional writings including Leopold’s regional reflections on Illinois, Iowa, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Manitoba. His piece on Chihuahua and Sonora opens, “The physics of beauty is one department of natural science still in the Dark Ages. Not even the manipulators of bent space have tried to solve its equations.” Leopold’s writings invite readers to share in this ponderousness, and his insights remain relevant and revelatory. Also included in this edition are his essays on conservation and environmental ethics and beautiful illustrations to accompany his inspiring text. 

While reading Leopold is the foremost way to know his work and his passion, the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time is a full-length documentary that contextualizes A Sand County Almanac and “The Land Ethic” within the entirety of Leopold’s life.  The film takes an informative approach to Leopold’s life and work and gives viewers a bigger picture view of his importance to the American environmental movement. The landscape cinematography of Leopold’s Wisconsin farm is lovely but reading A Sand County Almanac before seeing the film is a must to fully grasp how Leopold came to love the land and be inspired by dwelling upon it. The film is a biographical sketch of Leopold and focuses on the conception of the Land Ethic but it most importantly demonstrates how Leopold impacted the way we think about our relationships with the land on which we live. It also encapsulates the very real ways in which he challenged destructive human assumptions about how we ought to live, work, and interact with the natural world around us.

With January 1st upon us, we can take this new year as another opportunity to challenge these assumptions and forge new relationships with the land that nurtures us.