The Land Pyramid as Philosophy and Structure in Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac"

Term Paper, 2007

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Characteristics of an Ecosystem

3. The Ecosystem of A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There
3.1 Pyramidal Structure
3.2 Chains of Dependency
3.3 Complexity, Cooperation, and Competition

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited
5.1 Primary Sources
5.2 Secondary Sources

1. Introduction

The essays which compose Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There have been written in a time span of over thirty years, some dating back to the 1910’s. Therefore, the work could rather be seen as a collection of essays than a monographic book. Additionally, Leopold writes about such a diversity of places and species, that the work as a whole seems to be very fragmented.

However, this style of composition is not as randomized as it seems at first glance. Instead, as a whole, the essays of A Sand County Almanac form the structure of an ecosystem with interdependent parts supporting and challenging each other.

In this paper, I will first explore Leopold’s own definition of an ecosystem as he describes it in the subchapter “The Land Pyramid”. Then, I will demonstrate that A Sand County Almanac mirrors the complex structures of such a system.

2. Characteristics of an Ecosystem

In “The Land Pyramid”, Leopold depicts the ecosystem as a pyramid: “The bottom layer is the soil. A plant layer rests on the soil, an insect layer on the plants, a bird and rodent layer on the insects, and so on up to the apex layer, which consists of the larger carnivores” (215).The species in one layer are grouped by means of their nutrition: “Each successive layer depends on those below it for food and often for other services, and each in turn furnishes food and services to those above” (215). The pyramid is pervaded with food chains, the chains of nutritional dependency.

However, not only the higher levels are dependent on those below: “Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upwards; death and decay return it to the soil” (216). Thus, the lowest layer is as dependent on the higher layers as it is the other way around. Leopold depicts the ecosystem as a pyramid, because this form reflects a “numerical progression from apex to base” (215). There are innumerable plants, which are devoured by an already smaller number of herbivores, which then form the prey of a still smaller number of carnivores.

Besides, also the complexity of an ecosystem is important for its functioning: “The velocity and the character of the upward flow of energy depend on the complex structure of the plant and animal community” (216). The pyramid is so complex that it seems “disorderly” (215), but in fact it disposes of a well-organised structure. This structure lives on “the characteristic numbers, as well as the characteristic kinds and functions, of the component species” (216). Thus, Leopold argues, every species, also the little ones and those without economic value are important for the ecosystem: “These creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance” (210). Moreover, the ecosystem also “depends on the co-operation and competition of its diverse parts” (215).

3. The Ecosystem of A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

3.1 Pyramidal Structure

The Pyramidal Structure of the ecosystem as pointed out above, thus the numerical progression from apex to base, can be applied to the structure of A Sand County Almanac. The book consists of three parts. Part I, “A Sand County Almanac”, depicts Leopold’s experiences on his sand farm in Wisconsin. The second part, “Sketches Here and There”, recounts episodes from all over the country, whereas Part III, “The Upshot” gives a philosophical background for the topics treated in the first parts.

The numerical progression in the structure lies in an interaction of form and content. Part I consists of 22 essays which are arranged seasonally. The essays are assigned to the months in which the episodes described in them happen. They are very fragmented, depicting particular events like the “Sky Dance” (30) of the male woodcock which can only be observed in April and May. Other examples are the “smoky gold” (54) tamaracks in October or the snow-covered pines in December (87). Thus, they happen in and stand for very limited time units. Besides, the accounts in Part I carry a very personal voice. For example, in “65290”, Leopold tells the reader about his relationship with a chickadee carrying a band with the above-mentioned number code which is the only one of his kind in Leopold’s observation who survives five winters. When 65290 fails to reappear in the sixth year, Leopold gets very sentimental: “I hope that in his new woods, great oaks full of ant’s eggs keep falling all day long, with never a wind to ruffle his composure or take the edge of his appetite. And I hope he still wears my band” (92). Leopold often tells his experiences of Part I in the first person “I”.

This changes in the 15 essays of Part II: Here, Leopold changes from the very intimate first person to the more expository “we” or even “you” (see Fritzell 133). In the essays of this part, which are arranged according to place names, Leopold shifts away from mere description of particular events. In this part, he focuses on descriptions of locations like the mountain of Escudilla (133) or the Rio Gavilan (149). Hereby, he enhances the time span necessarily because of the greater perpetuity that lies in the nature of places, in comparison to the little points in time of Part I. Hence, the narrative time is extended in Part II. Leopold also becomes more general and interpretative in the second part. For example, in the essay “Thinking Like A Mountain”, he combines his personal experience of killing a wolf with a more theoretical account on killing wolves in particular and human interference in the ecosystem in general:

The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit into the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea. (132)

The same applies to the essay “Clandeboye”: Describing grebe watching, he changes very quickly from personal description to general observation:

All rounded a bend before I recovered my breath. And now I heard the bell, clear and derisive, behind the curtain of the reeds. A sense of history should be the most precious gift of science and of the arts, but I suspect that the grebe, who has neither, knows more of history than we do.” (161)

Thus, the number of essays diminishes from Part I to Part II, whereas they gain in scope, or, as Peter A. Fritzell puts it: “If Part I of Sand County validates the land community, Part II extends that validation, taking it beyond personal experience and carrying it across conventional geobiotic and cultural boundaries” (133).

Part III, then, consists of only four essays, which are a theoretical and philosophical account on the principles of conservation, wilderness recreation, aesthetics and science. Additionally, in the final essay “The Land Ethic”, Leopold lays down the groundwork for an ethical relationship of man towards land. In this third part of the book, a personal voice is rarely used. Leopold clings to the third person in order to show the objectivity of his writings: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of the Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it” (204). Additionally, the narrative time broadens further in Part III: Whereas Part I gives descriptions with a very limited time scope and Part II enhances this time scope already, Part III lays down philosophical accounts which can be seen as eternal truths. Fritzell observes, that “In essence, the relation of Sand County’s Part I, “A Sand County Almanac”, to Part II, “Sketches Here and There”, to Part III, “The Upshot”, is the relation of percept to generalized observation to concept” (130).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Land Pyramid as Philosophy and Structure in Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Department of English and Linguistics)
Nature Writing
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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443 KB
Environmental Literature, Nature Writing, Aldo Leopold, conversationism, ecological conscience, ecosystem
Quote paper
Susanne Hefekäuser (Author), 2007, The Land Pyramid as Philosophy and Structure in Aldo Leopold's "Sand County Almanac", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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