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Skunk illustration from A Sand County Almanac
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A Sand County Saunter

Aldo Leopold begins A Sand County Almanac with a walk. He follows the trail of a skunk who had been roused from hibernation and hitched to a star. Leopold’s skunk-drawn meander crosses paths with creatures of heaven and earth and takes him beyond the woods through ecosystems far and wide, through the seasons and the years, beyond Sand County to the mythical Round River. His journey is circular like that Round River, a circuit of energy moving through his woods and the entire global community without beginning or end. He arrives back at his family shack with a new vision of the land-community and what it means to be a part of that community:

Saunters quote: In short, the land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to a plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow members, and also respect for the community as such.

Leopold’s walk was transformative, so walking seemed like a good rubric for a backyard ecology workshop I developed for the Aldo Leopold Foundation last year. One might expect a workshop that promised to transform urban yards into native habitats to provide plant lists and design ideas. Instead, I assigned readings from Leopold’s Almanac and Henry David Thoreau’s “Walking.” But our primary texts were the woods and meadows where Leopold followed his skunk. To be a good steward of the land is to be a good naturalist; a good naturalist is one who walks. We spent the day walking in Leopold’s woods, in search of wildness and a new vision of the land.

Around a hundred years before Leopold followed that skunk, Thoreau foreshadowed his land ethic in the beginning lines of his essay “Walking:”

“I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”
— Henry David Thoreau

Freedom and wildness are found by a particular way of walking that Thoreau refers to as sauntering. Sauntering is not walking for exercise or to reach a destination, neither is it aimless. Like a skunk hitched to a star, it has intention and direction, but the destination remains mysterious.

Saunter at the Shack

Participants in the 2015 Backyard Ecology workshop cap off their saunter with a group photo at the Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm.

Sauntering explores inner landscapes as well as the terrain underfoot. Sauntering transforms the walker into a holy pilgrim, and the land that is walked becomes sanctified in the eye of the walker. “Walking” ends with Thoreau turning toward home at sunset but his homeward trek becomes a saunter toward the Holy Land, where the sun shines brightly into hearts and minds to “light up our whole lives with a great awakening light.”

Leopold demonstrates Thoreauvian-style sauntering in the Almanac,  but describes his transformative vision using biological instead of religious images. In his “Round River” essay, the land-community in which he walks is a single organism. A fountain of energy, a flowing circuit, enlivens and heals the land-community and can restore harmony. For Leopold, the unifying principle is community; for Thoreau, it is wildness. Our pilgrimage takes us not away from humanity into the wilderness, but into the wild heart of the community to which we belong.

At the end of the day, our long sunny saunter took us the Shack where Leopold started. We sat on stumps outside the door still used by the Leopold family. Like Thoreau’s shack at Walden, it began as a makeshift dwelling on an abused piece of land. The Leopold family invited wildness home; they planted thousands of native trees and worked to heal the land as they made a retreat for themselves. The land grows wilder still today.