Wisconsin’s sand county odyssey, part 1: seeing a world in a grain of sand — and Homeric echoes in a Leopold essay

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wildflower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour…

-William Blake, Auguries of Innocence


(With thanks to Curt Meine, who corrected several errors of fact in my original draft; I am solely responsible for any remaining errors)


Seventy-one years on, it is difficult to imagine just how frightening the future appeared to Americans in early December, 1941.

Still staggering out of the Great Depression, the nation now plunged into world war. The attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7 had prompted President Roosevelt to ask for a formal declaration of war against Japan and Congress swiftly gave him one. In Europe, Hitler’s army and air force were toppling one shell shocked country after another, imprisoning and exterminating Jews and others the Fuhrer deemed vermin. Our greatest ally, Great Britain, braced for a Nazi invasion after several months of heavy aerial bombardment. Americans, like people the world over, looked to the dawn of 1942 with more anxiety than hope.

It was in this gathering gloom, in the darkest and coldest days of a Wisconsin winter, that a professor at the University of Wisconsin sat down at his desk in Madison and began to draft an odd little story. His tale’s main characters were not the furred and feathered denizens of the state about which he often wrote; he chose instead much smaller protagonists: two “itinerant” atoms. In spite of the un-lyrical names he gave them – one is X and the other Y – he invested them with very human emotions.

Each particle’s journey begins when it is unlocked from a ledge of Paleozoic rock by a tree root, but from there the two follow very different paths. X courses through the “bloodstream” of a land as yet unmarred by industrial humans, “too free to know freedom.” Along the way, it nourishes myriad forms of life in a rich native prairie, from flower and fungi to eagle and Indian, before finally washing back into a sea similar to the one in which it had been locked millions of years prior.

By contrast the journey of the second atom, Y, is swift and inglorious. Because of a “new animal” on the landscape, Y’s time in the prairie is brief. It soon finds itself part of a farmer’s wheat field, which is soon overrun by pests and disease. Subsequent impoundments in other commodity crops like alfalfa and corn, and in livestock, briefly prolong Y’s stint on the farm before it is flushed into a dam-choked river, then into a retention pond. The end of the story finds Y in a sewer, “inert, confused” and “imprisoned in an oily sludge.”

Lessons from the sands

Some of the science Aldo Leopold put into his story – for whatever else he intended “Odyssey” to be, it was foremost an ecology lesson  – was gleaned from research he and his colleagues conducted in the intensively farmed area near Prairie du Sac, on the Wisconsin River, just minutes from where I live, and from personal observations on property Leopold and his wife Estella purchased in 1935 near Portage, also along the sandy banks of the Wisconsin. Until the day he died in 1948, Leopold and his family worked hard to restore their abused land to health.

The data Leopold and his fellows gathered on the working lands near Prairie du Sac jibed with what Leopold found wherever he went in the Midwest: soil and nutrient loss were exceeding what could be sustained. Leopold’s own parcel, which had never been prime farmland, was nevertheless representational of the damage that can be done when humans continuously take from the land without much thought to what the land is best suited for, and give little back. The family that farmed the land before Leopold happened upon it on a hunting trip evidently were not able to squeeze much of a living out of it, and abandoned it years before Leopold bought it.

With “Odyssey,” Leopold sought to creatively illustrate how much natural systems, like the sandy native prairies he knew so well, gave to the biotic community, and how much, by contrast, the commodity agriculture of the time took from it. The transformation of farming, which began in the 1920s with mechanization, accelerated after World War II into an enterprise relying heavily on cheap oil and the internal combustion engine. More and more hedgerows came down to make way for ever-larger, straight-rowed fields of annual crops.

In this context X and Y are more than just characters to help move Leopold’s plot, albeit an instructive one, along, more than merely beneficial elements in the nutrient cycle. They also stand for starkly contrasting land systems. X keeps the grand equation supporting myriad species, including our own, in a kind of equilibrium; Y upsets that equilibrium.

Despite  thin soils unsuitable for most farming, Leopold knew the “sand counties” – parts of the state which included the Central Sands region where his property lay but also other sandy parts of Wisconsin – were anything but wastelands. His years of training and experience as a forester and game manager helped him to see that the sand counties were biologically rich places of tremendous ecological value.

Few if any individuals alive at the time could match Leopold’s ability to “see the world in a grain of sand,” as William Blake had so elegantly put it centuries before, much less in the worn-out “sand farm” Leopold owned. His professional training was only part of the reason. From a young age, Leopold had been a keen observer of nature, having spent the better part of his childhood exploring the woods, waters and fields of the upperMidwest. Although Leopold built his house – in reality a refurbished chicken coop known affectionately as “The Shack” – directly on sand, he was anything but the fool of biblical parable who did likewise. To Leopold, each part of an ecosystem, each organism and even each grain of sand served a vital function. Each contained, if not a world, at least the story of worlds that once were. Worlds that could help us restore the one we were so rapidly despoiling.

Thanks in part to soil conservation methods and policies Leopold helped pioneer, Wisconsin’s sand counties, though degraded, still hold a startling diversity of life. Many are home to several rare and endangered species like the Karner blue butterfly, species which evolved over millennia to thrive in particular ecological niches. The sand counties support hunting, fishing, agricultural and recreational opportunities worth tens of millions of dollars in revenue. They purify and safeguard water for hundreds of communities across the state. Besides drinking water, the aquifers below the sand counties, 100 feet deep in places, irrigate millions of acres of cropland and recharge many rivers and streams (problems loom, however).

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

Increasingly important in our warming world: the sand counties hold vast amounts of carbon. Estimates on the total amount vary, but one thing is clear: the less disturbed the land, the more carbon it sequesters.

Although Aldo Leopold would often lay his thin frame directly on the sand to better behold and study the Draba and other native plants growing on it, he never buried his head in it. He did not run and hide from unpleasant or inconvenient facts when he encountered them; rather, he embraced them and sought to see what they could teach him. Leopold did not always learn those lessons quickly, as evidenced by the pace at which his views on the value of large predators in an ecosystem evolved. But the methodical way in which he worked saved him countless errors of judgment and action, and led to invaluable insights into the intricate web of relationships that sustain life on the planet.

Digging deeper

Beyond its function as an ecological parable, there is much in “Odyssey” that might provoke a careful reader to wonder whether Leopold intended a more deeply layered allegory. As a Yale graduate, Leopold was well acquainted with Greek myth and the classics, and would have understood that the name of Homer’s title character in the famous epic poem literally means “trouble.” Leopold even opens his famous essay, “The Land Ethic,” with a reference to Odysseus. The Greek hero’s most evident character flaw, hubris, is shared by the two human characters in Leopold’s story. An Indian who inherits an eagle plume into which X has been incorporated assumes that the Fates – Homeric echoes themselves – take special interest in Indians. Pride — and ignorance — are personified in the wheat farmer who presides over much of Y’s sad sojourn. The farmer symbolizes the prevailing attitude of humanity’s relationship toward the natural world: divide and dominate. Assuming that only wheat and oxen are useful components of his environment, he clears the skies of the pigeons that settle on his crops.

Several other motifs from Homer’s epic are mirrored in Leopold’s story. Of them all, the journey, or quest, is most conspicuous. But also prominent are the themes of disguise and transformation, war, exile and homecoming.

Leopold would watch as two of his three sons, and many of his students, were swept into the Second World War. Although his sons survived, some of his students did not. Leopold himself would live long enough to see nuclear weapons vaporize entire cities, and economic imperialism supersede all other forms. Mercifully, perhaps, he did not live long enough to witness the many conflicts spawned by the “Good War,” the Cold War that followed it, and the environmental devastation wrought by each. He was spared the ecological ravages of an agriculture supersized by huge inputs of cheap fossil fuels and the fertilizers and pesticides derived from them. Leopold did not have to bear witness to the near death of the Great Lakes, the meltdown at Chernobyl, ozone depletion, Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez, fisheries collapse in the oceans, Deepwater Horizon, Fukushima Daiichi, or the global climate crisis. Yet “Odyssey” and Leopold’s other 1941 writings make it clear that he believed such disasters were possible, even probable, if our species continued on the same tack.

In part 2, I examine another 1941 essay (unfinished) of Leopold’s, and ponder whether lessons gleaned from it and “Odyssey” are being lost in the rush to mine the sand of the sand counties.




  1. what are the x and y is x carbon?