Friday, May 11, 2012

A Sand County Almanac: May

I picked up my copy of A Sand County Almanac the other day. It has been years since I first read it, and if anything my delight in it is even greater this second time around. Written by Aldo Leopold, the great conservation pioneer, and first published in 1949, just a year after his death while fighting a neighbor's grass fire, this book is a treasure. Sterling North, in a review, went so far as to say "The late Aldo Leopold...was both a better writer and a better naturalist than Thoreau." I love Henry David, but it's hard to argue with that.

The first part of the book is a journey through the months of the year on his beloved Wisconsin farm. Here is the section entitled "May."

Illustration by Charles W. Schwartz

Back From the Argentine
When dandelions have set the mark of May on Wisconsin pastures, it is time to listen for the final proof of spring. Sit down on a tussock, cock your ears at the sky, dial out the bedlam of meadowlarks and redwings, and soon you may hear it: the flight-song of the upland plover, just now back from the Argentine.

If your eyes are strong, you may search the sky and see him, wings aquiver, circling among the wooly clouds. If your eyes are weak, don't try it; just watch the fence posts. Soon a flash of silver will tell you on which post the plover has alighted and folded his long wings. Whoever invented the word "grace" must have seen the wing-folding of the plover.

There he sits; his whole being says it's your next move to absent yourself from his domain. The county records may allege that you own this pasture, but the plover airily rules out such legalities. He has just flown 4000 miles to reassert the title he got from the Indians, and until the young plovers are a-wing, this pasture is his, and none may trespass without his protest.

Somewhere nearby, the hen plover is brooding the four large pointed eggs which will shortly hatch precocial chicks. From the moment their down is dry, they scamper through the grass like mice on stilts, quite able to elude your clumsy efforts to catch them. At thirty days the chicks are full grown; no other fowl develops with equal speed. By August they have graduated from flying school, and on cool August nights you can hear their whistled signals as they set wing for the pampas, to prove again the age-old unity of the Americas. Hemisphere solidarity is new among statesmen, but not among the feathered navies of the sky.

The upland plover fits easily into the agricultural countryside. He follows the black-and-white buffalo, which now pasture his prairies, and finds them an acceptable substitute for brown ones. He nests in hayfields as well as pastures, but, unlike the clumsy pheasant, does not get caught in hay mowers. Well before the hay is ready to cut, the young plovers are a-wing and away. In farm country, the plover has only two real enemies: the gully and the drainage ditch. Perhaps we shall one day find that these are our enemies, too.

There was a time in the early 1900's when Wisconsin farms nearly lost their immemorial timepiece, when May pastures greened in silence, and August nights brought no whistled reminder of impending fall. Universal gunpowder, plus the lure of plover-on-toast for post-Victorian banquets, had taken too great a toll. The belated protection of the federal migratory bird laws came just in time.


  1. I read Sand County Almanac quite a few years ago. Good book.
    He was quite a man.