I am reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac for the first time. A classic and now I understand why. Leopold’s wry descriptions of birds, prairies, and people make me laugh, yet the “dilemma” of the cost of modern living to the natural world is ever present. Tucked between the humor and gravity is the pleasure of his wisdom. Consider his thoughts about lumber found in his meadow after a spring flood:
Our lumber pile, recruited entirely from the river, is thus not only a collection of personalities, but an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests. The autobiography of an old board is a kind of literature not yet taught on campuses, but any riverbank farm is a library where he who hammers or saws may read at will. Come high water, there is always an accession of new books.
Many in western Massachusetts are familiar with the sight of vagrant wood floating along during seasonal floods. The land in this valley is a patchwork seamed with the Connecticut, Westfield, Deerfield, and Mill rivers. All swell when the snow in Vermont melts or rain falls hard and fast, flooding the yards of those who live within their alluvial borders. When the torrents of Hurricane Irene barreled north into Vermont, beating on soil already too saturated to soak up any more liquid, buildings and trees slipped into the Connecticut River currents.
As the Connecticut roared toward the ocean it deposited a whole library of Vermont history on our shores. Run your hand over a discarded joist, still covered on one side with bark, and your mind wanders back in time. Who was the person who planed this wood? Most likely a man; was he married? Did he like his wife? Did he go to war and fight for the union? What did he think of as his neighbors clear-cut the forests all around his home, leaving the Vermont mountains bare as far as the eye could see? Did he worry about his crops as the topsoil on his farm washed away or mourn the loss of the last 300-year-old hemlock? Did we learn the lesson of what happens when we take more than the land can give?
My son is headed to first year of college this fall. I think I will tuck a copy of Sand County Almanac in his suitcase. Most likely he will be bored by the lack of action and adventure, but I will mark the passage quoted above so he remembers our rivers, all he has learned, and has yet to discover.