C. F. Tunnicliffe, Geese - Galen O'Hanlon on Aldo Leopold

Word from the Wood

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My grandfather taught me how to light a fire. I remember crouching by his side in the sitting-room on cold mornings, watching his huge hands crunching the paper, piling up the kindling, slotting the logs into place and lighting a match.

After the flare of the match, a few moments of silence. Then a glow, a flicker, a thin tongue of flame curling at the paper’s edge, sliding up a length of kindling, touching the bark, then slipping back into the little cave of orange light in the middle of the pile. It was my job to watch it didn’t go out, while he went to see to the cows. I crouched, and watched.

There’s an essay in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) that brought me back to that moment:

My dog does not care where heat comes from, but he cares ardently that it come, and soon. Indeed he considers my ability to make it come as something magical, for when I rise in the cold black pre-dawn and kneel shivering by the hearth making a fire, he pushes himself blandly between me and the kindling splits I have laid on the ashes, and I must touch a match to them by poking it between his legs.

It’s one of those times when a book transports you instantly into a memory: conjuring the feelings, the smells, the sounds of a brief, vivid moment of childhood. I was there again, with my grandfather, but this time feeling very much like the dog that Leopold describes: silent, expectant.

A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There is a collection of Leopold’s writing from the 1930s and 1940s. Author, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist and environmentalist, Leopold was truly a powerhouse of natural history. His Sand County had a profound impact on the environmental movement, introducing the idea of wilderness management and environmental ethics. That makes it all sound rather dry, but in fact the essays sparkle with precise details. Whether he

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About the contributor

Galen O’Hanlon thinks about his grandfather every time he lights a fire.

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