In the essay “The Good Oak” from A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, a well-known writer and conservationist, writes about his sawing of a tree and his analysis of its rings which represent years. While it seems like this may be just a story of making wood and an overview of historical facts at first, the tone and order in which Leopold presents the events reveal an underlying purpose in his writing. Leopold’s intent in writing this essay is to criticize the manner in which humans treat the environment and push for greater conservation efforts. Leopold’s critique is that humans too often forget about the impacts of their actions even if society relies on the environment to survive. This purpose is directed towards society in general, but also to the direct readers of his book and essay being that the readers are part of modern society and may make contributions to the problems that Leopold describes. Leopold works towards his aim because he relates to the reader, creates a personification of a tree, uses unique word choice, cites statistics, and creates comparisons to real-life events.
Leopold begins his essay with “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace” (6). This quote implicitly states his purpose in that Leopold say that humans are forgetting where their everyday products and life derive from, and that humans rely on the environment for basic survival with food and heat. Through this, Leopold criticizes society because of the modernization and the reliance on technology that has taken over. The rhetorical strategy in this quote is the use of pathos. Pathos is achieved as Leopold relates to the audience because the audience likely buys their food from a grocery store and has their home heated by a furnace. Overall, this quote is meant to invoke a feeling of pity in the reader because they associate with Leopold’s criticism in that people may forget about the origins of their everyday utilities.
Leopold then goes on to tell the story of the actual cutting of the tree where he analyzes conservation in the United States in a reverse chronological order starting from the 1930’s and ending in the 1860’s. Leopold cites major events and the year of major events in the United States throughout this entire time. Throughout this, Leopold mentions that the sawdust and makeup of the tree was not changed despite major wildfires, droughts, and other negative environmental happenings in the United States and Wisconsin. Leopold also includes other details which indicate that the tree remained relatively unchanged throughout its life. Leopold also says that “An oak is no respecter of persons” when referencing the oak’s reaction to the abusive previous owner and the Great Depression. Overall, the tree shows no reaction to the outside activities of humans and continues to produce wood nonetheless. These hypothetical thoughts are a personification of the tree so that the reader can relate their thoughts to the tree. The reader can relate because society does not do the reverse to the environment: The world’s ecosystems give products and materials for society, but people don’t make a good effort to help the environment. This supports Leopold’s purpose because it demonstrates how people have forgotten about the environment’s contribution to their lives and treat it unfairly for its efforts. Also, all of this supports Leopold’s naming of the tree. Throughout the essay, Leopold calls the oak a “good oak” because the oak continues to produce wood despite abuse from the owner and society. This further contributes to Leopold’s purpose by providing a contrast to the audience and society. This word choice gives an underlying tone of negativity towards society and hinting as if to call people bad.
Another strategy of Leopold’s is the use of logos through statistics and logic. Throughout his essay, not only does Leopold cite major storms and natural disasters, but he also states crippling and significant statistics on hunting and other such ventures. For example, Leopold writes “In 1875 four hunters killed 153 prairie chickens” (15) and “On 10 September 1877, two brothers, shooting Muskego Lake, bagged 210 blue-winged teal in one day” (15). Both of these numbers are extremely large numbers of animals being killed which serves Leopold’s purpose because it’s the use of logos which directly supports his claim of societal carelessness through raw numbers. However, these statistics are also used for pathos. These large numbers are meant to open the reader’s eyes to the problem of overhunting and the numbers are also supposed to scare the audience and appeal to their emotions of pity and sadness. The audience feels bad for the fallen animals and anger towards the recklessness of the hunters. These appeals are used to support Leopold’s thesis because these emotions cause the reader to relate with Leopold’s claim that people treat the ecosystem poorly and also cause the audience to contemplate their previous actions.
Furthermore, Leopold makes comparisons to real-life events. Towards the end of the essay as Leopold talks about the birth of his tree in the 1860's, he says "Our saw now cuts the 1860's, when thousands died to settle the question: Is the man-man community lightly to be dismembered? They settled it, but they did not see, nor do we see, that the same question applies to the man-land community" (16-17). The dismemberment of the man-man community that Leopold references is obviously the Civil War. In the last sentence of the quote, Leopold relates the current environmental struggle to the Civil War. Leopold makes this comparison stand out through the use of the phrasing "man-man community" and "man-land community." This intentional word choice of man-man and man-land establish Leopold's view that people rely on each other to survive in the same way that people rely on the environment to survive. The word community further supports that viewpoint. Also, because the Civil War and the environment are generally seen as being unlike and unrelated, this comparison can be seen as a use of juxtaposition. Nonetheless, this comparison shows how society is destroying the land in a similar fashion to war even though everybody relies on the same land in order to survive. Overall, the similarities drawn by Leopold between the Civil War and today's environmental problems help support his overall purpose in asserting that modernized society and people abuse the land despite the benefits and aspects drawn from the land that are necessary for survival.
The entirety of this essay was written by Leopold in order to criticize modern society. Leopold’s criticism is that people in the modern world often forget the consequences of their actions and have an increasing reliance on technology. Leopold achieves this critique through relating to the reader, personification of a tree, word choice, facts and statistics, and drawing comparisons to real-life events.
- Leopold, Aldo, and Charles Walsh Schwartz. A Sand County Almanac With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. [Enl. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1966. Print.