Home   About   Links   Archives   Tech   
 · You Got Style ·
   You Got Style
· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

« My Excuse | Main | X-Mas-Letter Blues »

· Aldo Leopold: Good Oak, Good Cedar, Good History ·

Log spliting has put me in mind of Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac (1949). It is a treasured text in the plain style, simple and direct, honest but subtle, and indeed, like a weblog, ordered monthly and topically. Here begins, for instance, Leopold's "February" — written by the warmth of "Good Oak" burning in his fireplace: "There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger," he says, "of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace." Admirable thought. Though I work no farm and own a furnace, yet as I garden and burn logs in season and end toiling today in three quarter-sections — herein called my classes — I'm happily at ease. · Aldo Leopold ·

What Leopold has happily set me to thinking about today is a famous passage near the end of "February." Leopold reflects on the tools of good history in it — and meditates simply and deeply on a glowing oak on his andirons, one cut, bucked, and split from an eighty-ring giant scarred by lightening and transecting, twice, American history from 1945 to 1865. He considers especially the environmental-geographical, not political, history of his oak, and dwells, at last, on the aforementioned tools making good wood of it. It is to these tools — "requisite to good oak, and to good history," as he says — that he points: namely, the saw, the wedge, and the axe.

The saw works only across the years, which it must deal with one by one, in sequence. From each year the raker teeth pull little chips of fact, which accumulate in little piles, called sawdust by woodsmen and archives by historians; both judge the character of what lies within by the character of the samples thus made visible without. It is not until the transect is completed that the tree falls, and the stump yields a collective view of a century. By its fall the tree attests the unity of the hodge-podge called history.

The wedge, on the other hand, works only in radial splits; such a split yields a collective view of all the years at once, or no view at all, depending on the skill with which the plane of the split is chosen. (If in doubt, let the section season for a year until a crack develops. Many a hastily driven wedge lies rusting in the woods, embedded in unsplittable cross-grain.)

The axe functions only at an angle diagonal to the years, and this only for the peripheral rings of the recent past. Its special function is to lop limbs, for which both saw and wedge are useless. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, New York: Balantine, 1966 [1949], 18-19; above 6.

Tomorrow, you should know, I am going to be making myself useful with the wedge (probably between rain showers). But I'm working on "Good Cedar," not "Good Oak." Two summers ago a Stihl chainsaw felled the cedars I'm splitting — indeed, cedars killed not by lightening but by tree bugs. But like Leopold's oak my cedar will soon warm the holidays (as it has warmed me twice already in summer) in a doubly reflective glow of Leopold's environmental meditation. Understandably, though, Leopold is an especially difficult stylist to follow.


I like it. I couldn't tell you exactly why yet.

Posted by chris dugan on January 14, 2003 10:43 PM

We humans, then — we who work our way through history — are we "saws," are we "wedges," or are we "axes"? Are some of us more like one tool and some like another? If so, perhaps some folks are not tools at all but more like swings, hanging from the limbs of time or swinging along through it, like Frost in "Birches."

Then again, maybe we humans resemble the trees, the "forest primeval" itself, each with our own collective histories; while events around us — war, say, or weather — affect each of us or all of us like a saw or a wedge or an axe would. Last week, 36 persons were killed by harsh weather in my native Tennessee. Along with their lives, their homes and businesses (whether handsome or humble) and all their worldly goods were swept away by violent windstorms that laid bare whole neighborhoods like clear cut land in old growth forest. By this latter analogy, a tornado or a hurricane or a tsunami is like a massive chain saw in the hands of a mad giant, the kind of cruel god our primitive ancestors blamed for natural disorder.

Or maybe there is no explanation and no need to philosophize. Maybe it's just the way things are. Some trees live for centuries. Some grow and bloom and shed seed to grow and bloom anew. Some are cut for fuel or fortune. Some fall. And some die.

Posted by Loretta Markle on April 11, 2006 01:21 PM
Posted by Styles on April 12, 2006 01:36 PM

 · XML RSS · Copyright © 2007  YouGotStyle.org
 · MT- Powered ·     

Unless otherwise stated, all original materials of whatever kind included in these pages, including weblog archives, are licensed under a Creative Commons License.
April 2013
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30        
  Last Posts
  Category Archives
  Monthly Archives