On a blustery Sunday evening in December 2016, a book club discussion of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac was held in Qingdao University’s Boyuan Building.
Professor Wenhui Hou, a Chinese pioneer of environmental history and translator of A Sand County Almanac, and Aquan Zhang from Inner Mongolia, a documentary filmmaker, writer, and scholar of grassland civilization, were guests for the occasion. More than thirty students from different courses of study and several book lovers from outside the university joined the discussion, listening respectfully and sharing generously.
On the table before each seat were two or three leaves, yellow or red or green, of various species: ginkgo, maple, and sakura. Outside the wind blew, while inside there was hot tea and passionate discussion.
At the start, the book club’s young facilitator, a teacher, Wenli Lu, told a moving story of how she came to know Wenhui Hou and Aquan Zhang, also teachers. It began with her spiritual attraction to Teacher Hou’s essay, “Seeing Willows in the Snow” (an account of the 1980s environmental movement in the United States), when she first read it as a young student at Sichuan University in 2001 and then reread it the next year in the national college humanities textbook, People and the World. She finally met Teacher Hou (by then retired) after she came to Qingdao University. Together they worked to organize the visit of Susan Flader, University of Missouri historian and former chair of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, to Qingdao in 2011 (pictured above). The visit included a screening of the Leopold film Green Fire and a discussion about land ethics and environmental citizenship. It was then Teacher Wenli first read A Sand County Almanac, Hou’s Chinese translation of which had just been republished and presented in multiple copies to the university library by Flader on behalf of the Leopold Foundation. Thus began a beautiful friendship between generations.
Later, in 2015, Teacher Wenli invited noted Mongolian scholar and environmental author Aquan Zhang to lecture at Qingdao University and learned that he too was a fan of Teacher Hou’s translation of A Sand County Almanac. Wenli became the matchmaker of a meeting between the translator, Teacher Hou, and the devoted reader, Teacher Aquan.
Now, three teachers who formed ties because of A Sand County Almanac were reuniting for the book club discussion. They would share with the students their perceptions of the book and their understanding of Leopold’s land ethic.
Teacher Hou, in a dark green sweater matched by a simple and elegant silk scarf and a navy jacket embroidered with white roses, always had a kind smile on her face. She shared her journey of the heart translating A Sand County Almanac in the 1980s. Since then, the book has been distributed in China by six different book publishers, and selected essays have been published in numerous anthologies in the last quarter century. In her remarks, she also noted the filial piety of Leopold, as a son who wrote weekly letters home to his parents, and his influence as a father of five children, four of whom became noted scientists and academics and the fifth a superb naturalist. To encourage more reading, Teacher Hou said that reading was the best way for people to attain self-cultivation: “Wisdom in hold, elegance in mold.” If there were no self-cultivation in our heart from reading, it would be hard to develop a good disposition and noble temperament. That also symbolized to us the way of the Leopold family’s education.
Aquan Zhang made a special trip, flying from Hohhot in Inner Mongolia to participate in this discussion of A Sand County Almanac, he advocated that readers should learn from the book a simple, low-carbon lifestyle of environmental consciousness.
Later on, another teacher, Li Jun, and seven students shared their perceptions from the reading. They also came up with some questions to discuss with the two guests and other readers:
- How can we avoid the environmental crisis brought on by over-modernization?
- How can we adjust relationships between people and nature?
- How could students gain ecological consciousness?
- What is the environmental responsibility that citizens should take?
The discussion, which was supposed to end at eight o’clock, continued to half-past ten, long after all the lights in the building had automatically turned off. Students were in such high spirits that they resorted to the weak lights of their cell phones to communicate with each other after the blackout of Boyuan Building.
Besides considering what it means to “think like a mountain,” most of what was discussed focused on how to put ecological consciousness into action for environmental protection. We students may not be able to bring about much environmental protection yet. But, we hope that we can accept our individual responsibilities as citizens voluntarily and practice the land ethic of Leopold: hold the land in awe and veneration; begin from everyday chores; be the guardians and the stewards of nature; and sow the seeds of environmental awareness in every heart in the future. That may be the most meaningful lesson of our book club discussion of A Sand County Almanac.