Dear Aldo Leopold: A Winter’s Note from Houston

Dear Aldo,

Greetings from Greater Houston. We are finally coming out of the big winter storm of 2021. 

Power and water have been restored throughout the region. Yesterday it got up to 70 degrees and the boil water orders were finally lifted. 

A lot of people are still clearing up water damage in their homes. Schools are still closed as maintenance crews resolve remaining plumbing issues.

The thing is, folks actually prepared for this cold spell. We wrapped the outside faucets and kept the inside ones dripping. Still, the pipes froze and burst. 

Being from Wisconsin, you might be surprised to learn that our plumbing runs through our houses on top of the insulation, unprotected from the ambient air except for the outer walls and roof.

Normally, it’s not a problem.  It doesn’t get cold here for very long. And even if it does, we count on having power to keep inside temperatures above freezing. But when the power went out, and the freeze didn’t lift, there wasn’t much anyone could do.

The good news is that it’s not cold anymore. And the grocery stores are stocking up again. 

Which brings me to the purpose of this letter. 

I can’t stop thinking about your February entry in The Sand County Almanac, where you write:

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm.  One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from a furnace.”  

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

This gave me pause because here in suburban Houston, we get our breakfast from H-E-B  and our heat from CenterPoint. 

I don’t think that’s a spiritual failure. It’s simply the way we live.

You go on to explain that you can avoid this danger by planting a garden and chopping wood:

“To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue. To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and to let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the tree outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the week end in town astride a radiator.”

I really like the idea of being spiritually and physically self-reliant. It’s just not my experience. Last week’s winter storm really drove that home.

Like most Texans, I am accustomed to climate-controlled comfort.

I do not cut my own wood. There is no stand of strong oaks in my backyard. If there were, I have no saw with which to cut down the tree. Neither have I an ax, nor the strength to lift it should you place one in my hands. 

Photo by Lum3n on

As for growing a garden, we have a 6’ x 3’ raised bed at the side of our house. We have grown tomatoes and jalapenos, snap peas, and kale. Even with our best harvests, the most we can produce are a few supplemental salad fixings–nothing you could consider substantive groceries–or even breakfast.

Still, I get your point: there is spiritual danger in taking for granted the things that sustain us. 

So with a little prompting from your almanac, I am counting my advantages:

  • I have power, most of the time.
  • I have clean running water, most of the time.
  • I can get the food I need at the grocery, most of the time.
  • I can afford all of the above.
  • Most of the time, it doesn’t get below freezing in Texas.

I won’t soon forget Snowmegeddon 2021, nor your almanac’s timely reminders to be grateful.  

It occurs to me that there must be a modern-day suburban Houston equivalent to your growing a garden and chopping wood in 1940s rural Wisconsin.  

I’m not sure what that is yet, but I’m letting my mind work on it.

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