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In A Sand County Almanac’s “September”, Aldo Leopold once again returns to the joy of birdsong, remarking on the fact that by autumn, the birds no longer greet the day quite so vociferously.

“It is on some, but not all of these misty autumn daybreaks that one may hear the chorus of the quail,” Leopold writes. “The silence is suddenly broken by a dozen contralto voices, no longer able to restrain their praise of the day to come. After a brief minute or two, the music closes as suddenly as it began.”

The predictable symphony of birdsong in June becomes unpredictable as fall approaches, he says.

“In autumn,” he writes, “on the other hand, the robin is silent and it is quite unpredictable whether the covey-chorus will occur at all. The disappointment I feel on these mornings of silence perhaps shows that things hoped for have a higher value than things assured. The hope of hearing quail is worth half a dozen risings-in-the-dark.”




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Bonaventure vixen

It is August and while Aldo Leopold turns his thoughts toward one of nature’s more temperamental artists, I reflect back on the August in which I was fortunate enough to have an encounter with a young fox.

“Like other artists, my river is temperamental,” Leopold writes. “There is no predicting when the mood to paint will come upon him, or how long it will last.”

He continues shortly, “The work begins with a broad ribbon of silt brushed thinly on the sand of a receding shore. As this dries slowly in the sun, goldfinches bathe in its pools, and deer, heron, kill-deers, raccoons, and turtles cover it with a lacework of tracks. There is no telling at this stage if anything else will happen.

“But when I see the Eleocharis [note: of which there are 250 varieties so no photo as Leopold isn’t specific], I watch closely thereafter, for this is the sign that the river is in a painting mood.”


While at Bonaventure Cemetery early one morning, working on a new photo project, I was peering through the infrared camera when I noticed an animal behind the statue I was photographing.

It took me a moment to register that it was a fox. She scooted away before I could take a photo, but was curious enough to return–tasting the coffee in Frank’s mug, sniffing my hand, relaxing in the grass, posing for photos, until she got bored and disappeared into a giant sago palm.

I went back to work, and a few minutes later she reappeared with an enormous lizard clenched in her jaws. She displayed it proudly before trotting off to enjoy her breakfast. It was an encounter I will never forget.


The fox meets Corinne.

Back to the river–three weeks later:

“The artist has now laid its colors,” Leopold writes, “and sprayed them with dew. The Eleocharis sod, greener than ever, is now spangled with blue mimulus, pink dragon-head, and the milk-white blooms of Sagittaria. Here and there a cardinal flower thrusts a red spear skyward. At the head of the bar, purple ironweeds and pale pink joe-pyes stand tall against the wall of willows.”

Leopold warns us not to return for a second viewing as in all likelihood the colorful painting will have disappeared, having either been dried out from falling water or scoured away by rising water.





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Field Sparrow

July has come to Dane County, Wisconsin, and Aldo Leopold begins the chapter with his daily (good weather) ceremony on his 120-acre farm:

“At 3:35 (a.m.),” he writes, “the nearest field sparrow avows, in a clear tenor chant, that he holds the jackpine copse north to the riverbank, and south to the old wagon track.”

Leopold then continues to describe the daily symphony of birdsong as they all call out their territories, ending with a bedlam of birdsong at dawn as grosbeaks, thrashers, yellow warblers, bluebirds, towhees, cardinals, make their claims. When the bird songs are no longer decipherable, Leopold heads out for his morning walk with his dog.


by Charles W. Schwartz

They never know what will turn up on their walk, Leopold notes. It could be a rabbit, a coon, or a mink; perhaps a deer returning to the thickets, a heron caught in the act of fishing, or a wood duck trailed by her ducklings. A tractor roaring to life recalls them to the fact they are not alone in this early morning world, and they return home for breakfast.

Most of the chapter on July is dedicated to the once ubiquitous prairie plant know as Silphium or Compass plant (because its leaves have an east-west orientation).

July-Silphium by Frank Mayfield

Silphium by Frank Mayfield

“Every July I watch eagerly a certain country graveyard that I pass in driving to and from my farm,” Leopold writes.

This cemetery is ordinary, he says, except, “It is extraordinary only in being triangular instead of square, and in harboring, within the sharp angle of its fence, a pinpoint remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840’s. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers.”

Leopold spies the blooms on July 24, a week later than normal, but when he drives by again, on August 3, the fence has been removed and the corner of the cemetery mowed down, along with the Silphium. He then laments the world in which, “Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy-nilly, he must live out his days.

He compares the number of wild plant species growing on this farm to those that grow in the suburbs and the university campus where he works–226 versus 120–the price of progress. We are confronted by two alternatives, he writes: “either insure the continued blindness of the populace, or examine the question whether we cannot have both progress and plants.”

“We grieve only for what we know,” he writes later.


by Charles W. Schwartz

“Why does Silphium disappear from grazed areas?” he asks, then posits, “I once saw a farmer turn his cows into a virgin prairie meadow previously used only sporadically for mowing wild hay. The cows cropped the Silphium to the ground before any other plant was visibly eaten at all. One can imagine that the buffalo once had the same preference for Silphium, but he brooked no fences to confine his nibblings all summer long to one meadow. In short, the buffalo’s pasturing was discontinuous, and therefore tolerable to Silphium.

“It is a kind of providence that has withheld a sense of history from the thousands of species of plants and animals that have exterminated each other to build the present world. The same kind of providence now withholds it from us. Few grieved when the last buffalo left Wisconsin, and few will grieve when the last Silphium follows him to the lush prairies of the never-never land.”


by Charles W. Schwartz



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A field of sunflowers in Bulloch County, Georgia

In June, the sunflowers are in bloom in South Georgia. In Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold finds himself reminiscing about a fishing idyll on Alder Fork in A Sand County Almanac:

“In the fresh of the morning, when a hundred whitethroats had forgotten it would ever again be anything but sweet and cool, I climbed down the dewy bank and stepped into the Alder Fork. A trout was rising just upstream. I paid out some line–wishing it would always stay thus soft and dry–and, measuring the distance with a false cast or two, laid down a spent gnat exactly a foot above his last swirl. Forgotten now were the hot miles, the mosquitoes, the ignominious chub. He took it with one great gulp, and shortly I could hear him kicking in the bed of wet alder leaves at the bottom of the creel.”


“Another, albeit larger, fish had meanwhile risen in the next pool, which lay at the very ‘head of navigation,’ for at its upper end the alders closed in solid phalanx. One bush, with its brown stem laved in the middle current, shook with a perpetual silent laughter, as if to mock at any fly that gods or men might cast one inch beyond its outermost leaf.”


Macro shot of sunflower . . .

Leopold continues his reminiscence, and closes with:

“I shall now confess to you that none of those three trout had to be beheaded, or folded double, to fit in their casket. What was big was not the trout, but the chance. What was full was not my creek, but my memory. Like the whitethroats, I had forgotten it would ever again be aught but morning on the Fork.


Macro of the ripening seeds . . .



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Plover by Charles W. Schwartz

It’s May in Wisconsin and clearly Aldo Leopold has a great love of birds, as this month he chronicles the return of the plovers from “the Argentine”:

“When dandelions have set the mark of May on Wisconsin pastures,” he writes, “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.”

Once the plover has landed, it surveys its domain:

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

By August, Leopold says, the young plovers will have graduated from flight school and the birds will wing their way, once again, toward the pampas.

“Hemisphere solidarity is new among statesmen, but not among the feathered navies of the sky,” he writes.

Leopold ends by saying: “In farm country, the plover only has 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 their toll. The belated protection of the federal migratory bird laws came just in time.”

The plover, fortunately, was luckier than the carrier pigeon, for example. And since 1963, we’ve managed to eliminate nearly 40 more species of birds, fish, amphibians, molluscs, plants, mammals, and insects in North America alone.

That number will continue to grow as our population continues to expand. According to population estimates recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 328 million people rang in the new year in the United States. This is an increase of more than 2 million people from the previous year.

The growth was concentrated in western and southern states, where communities and wildlife have felt increasing pressure from drought, severe weather, threats to public land and unsustainable development, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Wildlife and wild places face pressures from a rapidly growing population as politicians and corporations gun to open public lands in high-growth areas to toxic mining, drilling and fracking,” said Kelley Dennings, a population campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Runaway growth and development will harm irreplaceable natural and cultural treasures and our incredible biodiversity.”

Red wolves and Florida panthers in the south, Mount Graham red squirrels in Arizona, and Humboldt martens in California are just some of the species that are facing extinction.

When are we going to start taking seriously the loss of all these creatures?



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By Charles W. Schwartz

“The same logic that causes big rivers always to flow past big cities causes cheap farms sometimes to be marooned by spring floods,” Aldo Leopold writes in his opening to his chapter on April. “Ours is a cheap farm, and sometimes when we visit it in April we get marooned.”

Later, he continues, “The enthusiasm of geese for high water is a subtle thing, and might be overlooked by those unfamiliar with goose-gossip, but the enthusiasm of carp is obvious and unmistakable. No sooner has the rising flood wetted the grass roots than here they come, rooting and wallowing with the prodigious zest of pigs turned out to pasture, flashing red tails and yellow bellies, cruising the wagon tracks and cow-paths, and shaking the reeds and bushes in their haste to explore what to them is an expanding universe.

“Unlike the geese and the carp, the terrestrial birds and mammals accept high water with philosophical detachment.”

Continuing on the subject of the April floods, Leopold writes, “The spring flood bring us more than high adventure; it brings likewise an unpredictable miscellany of floatable objects pilfered from upriver farms.”

Among those pilfered items are boards: “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.”

“I know of no solitude,” he writes, “so secure as one guarded by a spring flood; nor do the geese, who have seen more kinds and degrees of aloneness than I have.”



Another April sign announcing the coming of spring is a small flower.

“Within a few weeks now Draba,” Leopold writes, “the smallest flower that blows, will sprinkle every sandy place with small blooms.”

He continues a bit later: “Draba plucks no heartstrings. Its perfume, if there is any, is lost in the gusty winds. Its color is plain white. Its leaves wear a sensible wooly coat. Nothing eats it; it is too small. No poets sing of it. Some botanist once gave it a Latin name, and then forgot it. Altogether it is of no importance–just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.”


Bur Oak savanna in Wisconsin hill country.

“Each April before the new grasses had covered the prairie with unburnable greenery,” Leopold writes, “fires ran at will over the land, sparing only such old oaks as had grown bark too thick to scorch.” And thus a battle between the forest front and prairie was ignited, each vying for each other to take over the land.

Later, he continues, “But the average battle line between prairie and forest was about where it is now, and the net outcome of the battle was a draw.

“One reason for this was that there were allies that threw their support first to one side, then to the other. Thus rabbits and mice mowed down the prairie herbs in the summer, and in the winter girdled any oak seedlings that survived the fires. Squirrels planted acorns in fall, and ate them all the rest of the year. June beetles undermined the prairie sod in their grub stage, but defoliated the oaks in their adult stage.”

“In the 1840s,” he later writes, “a new animal, the settler, intervened in the prairie battle. He didn’t mean to, he just plowed enough fields to deprive the prairie of its immemorial ally: fire. Seedling oaks forthwith romped over the grasslands in legions, and what had been the prairie region became a region of woodlot farms.”

John Muir grew up during this era, and in his Boyhood and Youth he writes:

“The uniformly rich soil of the Illinois and Wisconsin prairies produced so close and tall a growth of grasses for fires that no tree could live on it. Had there been no fires, these fine prairies, so marked a feature of the country, would have been covered by the heaviest forest. As soon as the oak openings were settled, and the farmers had prevented running grass-fires, the grubs [roots] grew up into trees and formed tall-thickets so dense that it was difficult to walk through them, and every trace of the sunny [oak] ‘openings’ vanished.”



“I owned my farm for two years before learning that the sky dance is to be seen over my woods every evening in April and May,” Leopold writes.

“The show begins on the first warm evening in April at exactly 6:50 p.m. The curtain goes up one minute later each day until 1 June, when the time is 7:50.”

“The stage must be an open amphitheater in woods or brush,” he continues later, “and in its center there must be a mossy spot, a streak of sterile sand, a bare outcrop of rock or a bare roadway.”

And then: “Knowing the place and the hour, you seat yourself under a bush to the east of the dance floor and wait, watching against the sunset for the woodcock’s arrival. He flies in low from some neighboring thicket, alights on the bare moss, and at once begins the overture: a series of queer throaty peents spaced about two seconds apart, and sounding much like the summer call of the nighthawk.

“Suddenly the peenting ceases and the bird flutters skyward in a series of wide spirals, emitting a musical twitter. . . . Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.

“It is soon too dark to see the bird on the ground, but you can see his flights against the sky for an hour, which is the usual duration of the show.”


Woodcock by Charles W. Schwartz

Leopold concludes: “The drama of the sky dance is enacted nightly on hundreds of farms, the owners of which sigh for entertainment, but harbor the illusion that it is to be sought in theaters. They live on the land, but not by the land.”