Saturday, March 26, 2011

Teale’s North with the Spring: A Natural History Classic

At some point when I was in college, my inveterate book collecting transitioned from “literature” to “natural history literature,” and it was about that time I discovered the prolific Edwin Way Teale (1899–1980). (Follow this link to see the Wikipedia entry about him.) His manuscripts and papers are archived at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut.

Here is a photo of Teale that appeared in his book North with the Spring.

It bugs me that he seems so little-read today; in the middle twentieth century, his writings and photographs were everywhere: In bookstores and libraries, in magazines like Natural History and Popular Science, and in the glowing reviews of his books in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and Scientific American. He was the author or editor of more than thirty books.

He won the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing in 1943 for one of his early books, Near Horizons, “the story of an insect garden.” Some other authors who have won the Burroughs medal are David Quammen, John Alcock (who also wrote of his own insect garden, in Tempe, Arizona), John McPhee, David Rains Wallace, Peter Matthiessen, Barry Lopez, Aldo Leopold, Ann Zwinger, Hal Borland, Loren Eiseley, Joseph Wood Krutch, Rachel Carson, Roger Tory Peterson, Ernest Thompson Seton, and William Beebe. And these are distinguished authors indeed.

Teale also won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, which puts him into a category of even more famous authors. His book that won the Pulitzer, Wandering through Winter (1965), was an offshoot of the book I’m focusing on today.

North with the Spring

Teale was an established nature writer when he began the North with the Spring project; it’s not clear to me that it even started out as a book. Instead, it began with the simple human desire to escape winter. But during the years of planning, his desire to remove himself to a warmer place intensified: Teale and his wife, Nellie, lost their only son, David, in action during World War II. I think at that point the Teales just wanted to get away, to go driving. But it had started with a late-winter yearning for an extended road trip, one that would give them a grand tour of the North American spring:

Bare trees imprinted the black lace of their twigs on a gray and somber sky. Dingy with soot, snowdrifts had melted into slush and were freezing again. Behind us, as we drove south, city pallor was increasing. Tempers were growing short in the dead air of underventilated offices. . . . February, at once the shortest and the longest month of the twelve, had outstayed its welcome. The year seemed stuck on the ridge of winter.

At such a time, when you look with dread upon the winter weeks that lie before you, have you ever dreamed—in office or kitchen or school—of leaving winter behind, of meeting spring under far-southern skies, of following its triumphal pilgrimage up the map with flowers all the way, with singing birds and soft air, green grass and trees new-clothed, of coming north with the spring? That is a dream of the winter-weary. And, for nearly a decade, it was, for Nellie and me, both a dream and a plan. (1)

They had been contemplating a springtime-long trip for years, but had put it off. “And while we waited, the world changed and our lives changed with it. The spring trip was something we looked forward to during the terrible years of World War II, during the strain and grief of losing David, our only son, in battle.” The book (plus the three other “seasons” books that followed) is dedicated to David, “who traveled with us in our hearts.”

It was on Valentine’s Day in 1947 that the Teales loaded up their Buick with maps, binoculars, field guides, notebooks, and camera equipment, and departed from their New York home for the southern tip of Florida, where “spring” is more of a concept than an observable event.

Starting in the Everglades, the Teales drove a widely zigzagging route all the way to Maine. From February to the summer solstice in June, they “witnessed the defeat of winter” in twenty-three states, and put 17,000 miles on their Buick.

Here is the map printed on the endpapers of North with the Spring; a similar map appears in each book of the quartet. Once Wandering through Winter was done, it and each reprint of the others included a map showing all four routes together. There are only a few states that get short shrift.

And they took excellent notes; they met fascinating people, both famous and unknown. They visited a gracious Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (author of The Yearling) at her Florida home (now a historic state park)—the visit Teale documents, it turns out, was only six years before Rawlings died; she treated them to a lovely picnic lunch out in the Florida scrub at a cool sinkhole that had inspired a location in her most popular novel.

Teale documents equally well a day spent with a Mrs. Toy Miller, a snuff-using backwoods herbwoman in Kite Hollow, North Carolina. She showed the Teales how she collects medicinal plants for the Greer Drug Company, which at that time was a wholesaler of pollen, ginseng, goldenseal, and all manner of other wildcrafted botanicals (today, the company has become Greer Laboratories; look here).

Each chapter is a snapshot of a time and a place, all revolving around nature and the way human lives were interacting with it at midcentury. The book is a travelogue by an insightful and knowledgeable pair of travelers. Reading the book in 2011, sixty years after the publication of North with the Spring, fills me with curiosity about “the rest of the story.”

Teale tells of viewing a lone whooping crane at the zoo in Audubon Park, New Orleans, likening his experience to what people must have felt upon viewing the last living passenger pigeon at a zoo in 1914. As of 1941, there were probably only about twenty-one whooping cranes in the whole world. But, Teale writes, not long after he saw this individual crane, it was used in a captive-breeding program and became the mother of the first whooping crane hatched in captivity. In the sixty years since Teale saw this bird (named Jo), the cranes have rebounded somewhat; today there are some four hundred in the wild. It is still one of the most endangered birds in America, but it’s much better off than when Teale visited the zoo that day in 1947.

Teale mentions details that make me nostalgic for the Americana that was disappearing when I was a little girl—they spend the night in “tourist courts”; they purchase gas at service stations, where attendants pump gas into their car for them and offer up friendly, colorful comments. It was America before interstate highways, when driving faster than fifty was “careening.”

Here is a photo of Nellie Teale (and their nifty 1961 Oldsmobile) that appeared in Wandering through Winter. The caption notes that she is identifying a desert plant.

So much has changed since Teale wrote. In some ways, his “seasons” books are sadly “out of date.” But by now, we can read them knowing full well that science has marched on and refuted some of the knowledge that had been gained at midcentury; meanwhile, we can appreciate the America of the past, despite its faults and naivety. Reading North with the Spring aloud to Sue, I kind of choked when I came to this passage, describing scenes they witnessed in South Carolina: “With green, freshly cut bamboo poles, Negroes were out for the spring fishing, angling for ‘stump-knockers’ in brimming roadside ditches” (136). I don’t find the diction as thought-provoking as I do the scene of people fishing with the crudest of implements in flooded roadside ditches. There are clues to the past in these books that I’m not sure Teale quite intended to provide.

Teale’s Quartet of Seasons

North with the Spring
was the first book in a quartet that took twenty years to complete; after its publication in 1951, the Teales completed three more trips, each carefully planned to maximize their experience of seasonal progress across the United States. In 1952, the couple traveled from Cape Cod to Point Reyes (north of San Francisco) to experience Autumn across America (published in 1956). Their Journey into Summer took place in 1957, and the book came out in 1960; the Teales’ summer travels covered the entire eastern three-quarters of the United States, beginning in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and ending at the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. Wandering through Winter, the final book of the quartet and the volume that won the Pulitzer Prize, was published in 1965, based on their 1961–1962 trip that stretched from the Silver Strand, south of San Diego, to the northeastern corner of Maine.

By the time they were done with their travels for the four books, including return trips to some places to check facts or obtain additional information, Teale states in his acknowledgments in Wandering through Winter that they had logged “well over 100,000 miles by automobile, airplane, ferry, mudboat, snow Weasel, scout car, Jeep, cog railway, canoe, on foot and on showshoes.” (If you don’t know what a snow Weasel is, you have to look at the winter volume!) (By the way, using the current IRS mileage reimbursement rate for business-related travel, that amount of traveling would count for $51,000 in 2011!)

These books represent America as it was, and America as it is (for much in the natural world changes little, even though human fashions change); the Teales are like gentle, reflective, knowledgeable grandparents. Sometimes, perhaps, Teale waxes a little too much about the birds they see (one reviewer on Amazon complained wearily: “He points out every single bird he sees!”)—but mostly, the reason I think Teale is not so popular today is that he simply takes his time. He reflects on the things they witness; he reflects on humanity. The Teales poke along on America’s back roads. Teale explains things well; he occasionally goes off on tangents. But all his tangents are interesting!

When I read these books, I feel as if Teale is speaking to me. There are occasional moments when Teale, in addition to addressing his contemporary audience, also nods to the posterity who would hear his voice in their minds long after his death. Here is one such passage from North with the Spring:

Later . . . we stopped by the wooden bridge once more. . . . The limpkins were snail hunting among the eelgrass of the shallow borders. The river rang with the wildness of their calls. Theirs was a voice that spoke for an older time, a long-ago time. . . . It was the voice of the dark, the swamp, the vast wilderness of ancient times. It links us—as it will link men and women of an even more urbanized, regimented, crowded tomorrow—with days of a lost wilderness. (93)

Reading this makes me want to hear limpkins, too, and not just on Cornell’s ornithology website.

Teale understood that he was placing himself at a distinct moment in time, that he was writing for the future, in addition to his many contemporary readers. This is most evident on pages 346–47, at the end of Wandering through Winter, the volume that finishes the quartet:

And so we came home at last. We came home rich in memories. We drove down the long lane to the 160-year-old white cottage under the hickory trees. We unlocked the door in spring that we had locked in autumn. We found calendars of another year hanging on the wall....

Another spring is coming in as these words are written. The white magic of another winter is gone. Another night is falling over our woods and fields and pond. I switch on the lamp above my study desk. Its soft light falls on typed sheets of fieldnotes, on marked maps, on odds and ends, mementos of our winter travels. I am nearly at the end of that self-imposed task that for more than two decades has been my work and my relaxation, my livelihood and my diversion. While I have been wandering across the country and writing of what I have seen . . . two new states, Alaska and Hawaii, have been added to the Union, the population of the United States has grown by 50,000,000 and the earth has traveled through space 10,000,000,000 miles.

I set down these final words in the dusk of an early spring day. You are reading them when, where, under what conditions? Now the light—my light here, your light wherever you are—falls on the last page of the last book of the last season. We have traveled far together. We have watched the successive seasons flow and merge and intermingle. We have seen the beauty of the land through the whole cycle of the year. To those of you who have journeyed so long, who have traversed the four seasons in our company, to all farewell.
For here ends the story of our travels
through the spring and summer
and autumn and winter of
The American Year.

This is the year, I think, that I will reread all four of these books during their respective seasons. What a rich, pleasant exercise! I think the only thing that could be better than this would be to grab our binoculars, field guides, laptops, pack our bags, get in the Honda with Sue and her photography equipment, and disappear for some months, retracing one of the Teales’ seasonal paths, looking to see what’s become of the places and people his books today memorialize. . . . And finding all new adventures along the way.

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