Some paintings become famous because, being durable, they are viewed
by successive generations, in each of which are likely to be found a
few appreciative eyes. I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except
by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is
the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work,
erases it forever from human view. After that it exists only in my
Like other artists, my river is temperamental; there is no predicting
when the mood to paint will come upon him, or how long it will last.
But in mid-summer, when the great white fleets cruise the sky for day
after flawless day, it is worth strolling down to the sandbars just to
see whether he has been at work.
The work begins with a broad ribbon of silt brushed thinly on the
sand of a receding shore. As this dries slowly in the sun, goldfinches
bathe in its pools, and deer, herons, kill-deers, raccoons, and turtles
cover it with a lacework of tracks. There is no telling, at this stage,
whether anything further will happen.
But when I see the silt ribbon turning green with Eleocharis, I
watch closely thereafter, for this is the sign that the river is in a
painting mood. Almost overnight the Eleocharis bucomes a thick turf, so
lush and so dense that the meadow mice from the adjoining upland cannot
resist the temptation. They move en masse
to the green pasture, and apparently spend the nights rubbing their
ribs in its velvety depths. A maze of neatly tended mouse-trails
bespeaks their enthusiasm. The deer walk up and down it, apparently
just for the pleasure of feeling it underfoot. Even a stay-at-home mole
has tunneled his way across the dry bar to the Eleocharis ribbon, where
he can heave and hump the verdant sod to his heart's content.
At this stage the seedlings of plants too numerous to count and
too young to recognize spring to life from the damp warm sand under the
To view the painting, give the river three more weeks of solitude, and
then visit the bar on some bright morning just after the sun has melted
the day-break fog. The artist has now laid his colors, and sprayed them
with dew. The Eleocharis sod, greener than ever, is now spangled with
blue mimulus, pink dragon-head, and the milk-white blooms of
Sagittaria. Here and there a cardinal flower thrusts a red spear
skyward. At the head of the bar, purple ironweeds and pale pink
joe-pyes stand tall against the wall of willows. And if you have come
quietly and humbly, as you should to any spot that can be beautiful
only once, you may surprise a fox-red deer, standing knee-high in the
garden of his delight.
Do not return for a second view of the green pasture, for there is
none. Either falling water has dried it out, or rising water has
scoured the bar to its original austerity of clean sand. But in your
mind you may hang up your picture, and hope that in some other summer
the mood to paint may come upon the river.
These excerpts are from “A Sand County Almanac, with essays on
conservation from Round River”,
by Aldo Leopold and published by Oxford University Press
For more information about Aldo Leopold, see: http://www.aldoleopold.org