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Sierra Magazine
Inside Sierra: Sand County Bivouac

by Joan Hamilton

In 1935 university professor Aldo Leopold bought some sad-looking land in Wisconsin. "On this sand farm, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society," Leopold declared, "we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere." How successful was this world-renowned conservationist at bringing wildness back to his humble 120 acres? On the 50th anniversary of Leopold's classic book, A Sand County Almanac, we sent a writer-photographer team to find out.

One half of the team was Kenneth Brower, who wrote his first article for this magazine when he was 14-his father, conservation powerhouse David Brower was editor at the time. At 20, Kenneth Brower worked with photographer Ansel Adams to assemble a Sierra Club book on the Big Sur coast. At 21, he joined photographer Eliot Porter to produce a volume on the Gal pagos Islands.

Since that precocious beginning, Brower has published in the Atlantic and Smithsonian and has written, cowritten, or edited 25 more books. A trip to the sand counties of Wisconsin might seem a little flat, so to speak, for a man who has explored such vertiginous landscapes as the California coast, the Brooks Range, and Yosemite. But what's important is not so much what a person sees (to paraphrase Leopold) as the quality of the eye that sees it. We couldn't hope for a writer with better vision than Kenneth Brower.

Nor could we have found a more determined, innovative photographer than Michael Sewell. Soon after dropping his bags on a bunk at the Leopold Shack, Sewell was out pushing a cart with 100 pounds of camera equipment among the prairie and pines. He set up a blind in "the great marsh" and a remote camera beside a slough, rigged to take a photo whenever a creature crossed its infrared beam. At one point, Sewell lured a red fox close to his shutter by imitating the high-pitched squeal of a cottontail rabbit in distress. Day after day, from before dawn to after dusk, he combed Leopold's land for visual wonders. "I wanted to photograph the very descendants of the things Leopold had written about," he says.

In the end, Brower and Sewell produced the compelling "Leopold's Gift".  They also landed a book contract. Sand County's original publisher, Oxford University Press, will reissue the almanac next fall, with a foreword by Kenneth Brower and photos by Michael Sewell.

Joan Hamilton is Editor-in-chief of Sierra.


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