Saturday, November 5, 2011

Edwin Way Teale’s Autumn across America

Today we’re celebrating another classic work by the famous midcentury natural history writer Edwin Way Teale: Autumn across America: A Naturalist’s Record of a 20,000-Mile Journey through the North American Autumn (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1956).

This is my third “book report” on Edwin Way Teale this year: I decided that in 2011, I would reread all four of Teale’s “American Seasons” books, in their appropriate seasons! To catch up with me, click here for my post on Teale’s North with the Spring (and an introduction to this remarkable quartet of books), and click here for my post on Teale’s Journey into Summer (including a discussion of the timing of the trips and the publication of the books).

The American Seasons Series: Spring and Summer

Each of the four American Seasons volumes chronicles the automobile travels of Edwin Way Teale and his wife, Nellie, as they traverse the continent for months, following the progress of a season in as many places and aspects they can.

In the spring volume (published in 1951 based on travels made in 1947), they rode the wave of the season from the southern tip of Florida all the way up to Maine: one big, long extended springtime of migrating birds and opening wildflowers—and lots more that you never would have noticed—all the way up the coast, ending as spring does with the summer solstice.

The summer book was published in 1960, based on their travels during the summer of 1957. For that project, they started at the summer solstice in New Hampshire, traced the northern edge of the United States clear to Montana, then wandered south through the Great Plains and explored Colorado and its Rockies. Thus they experienced “the summer of the shore, the summer of the forest, the summer of the Great Plains, the summer of the mountains . . . in vacation spots—along lake shores, on the mountain heights, in the cool north woods . . . [as well as] on salt flats and in corn country, amid swamps and in areas where falling rain would be sucked up by the thirsty atmosphere before it reached the ground.”

The Autumn Project

The autumn travels, and publication of the autumn book, actually occurred between the spring and summer projects. Autumn across America was published in 1956, based on travels that occurred in 1952. Their trip began in late August, looking east across the waves of the Atlantic on Cape Cod. Why in August? Teale explains at the beginning of chapter 3:

The season of summer extends to about September 21 but the summer season ends with Labor Day. Then the newspapers begin referring to summer in the past tense. Vacations are over. Schools commence. To the popular mind, September belongs to autumn as December belongs to winter. (p. 19)

Their autumn trip starts out rather like the summer one, for they travel west from New England taking a somewhat northern route, through Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. But here they continue west all the way to the Pacific, visiting Wyoming, Montana (and Yellowstone), Idaho, Utah, Oregon, and Washington.

Then they proceed southward into California, seeing the sequoias, Monterey, the migrating monarchs at Pacific Grove, and Yosemite. They end up on a very windy Point Reyes, north of San Francisco, facing westward across the Pacific, at sunset on the shortest day of the year.

Some Major Themes

Teale was an incredibly organized writer. Each book of the quartet offers about the same blend of topics. In each, there’s a chapter or two spotlighting individuals who make their living from the land, and he marvels at expansive agricultural endeavors, and their picturesque qualities.

And although he’s mostly interested in animals and plants, with chapters spotlighting particular species, he always includes a few chapters focusing on geological matters, on landscapes, on astronomy, and on notable environmental tragedies, or on disasters averted.

But in this volume, more than the others, there are certain subjects Teale weaves through the whole book:

Bird Migration. The Teales were avid birders! It’s no accident that their autumn trip took them across all four major flyways for migration, and Teale writes enthusiastically about the flocks they see. The map in the front endpapers has the four major North American flyways marked on it. Along the Atlantic Coast Flyway, there are “swallow clouds” at Cape May, where bazillions of migrating birds concentrate before crossing the Delaware Bay. The Teales trace the Mississippi Flyway in five states, and see the Central Flyway as they travel through the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana.

At some point, if you’re not really into birding, you either get weary of reading about the birds, or you begin to chuckle affectionately at Teale’s enthusiasm. At the Bear River delta on the Great Salt Lake, they experience their “Million-Duck Day,” where Teale, well, positively gushes at the thousands and thousands and thousands of birds they saw.

He keeps returning to his writerly style but always ends up helplessly gushing once again about the huge flocks: “For us who, among the depleted, overgunned ponds of the populous east, were accustomed to counting our flocks of migrant ducks in dozens and scores, the wonder never diminished in these thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl” (p. 194). (Remember, Teale was writing at a time when conservation laws were still rather new.)

And then later, they visit the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (on the Pacific Flyway) and see more zillions of birds: “Wherever we went the roar of waterfowl wings preceded us as mallard and pintail and baldpate and green-winged teal—perhaps some of the very birds we saw at Bear River—shot into the air from behind the curtain of the tule rushes” (p. 316). But the big deal there, that day, for the Teales, was the swarms of blackbirds! (But I’ll let you read about that yourself.)

Tracing the Paths of Explorers. Their route took them west, but they do more than just intersect with the paths of some famous explorers: They trace them. They first join the trail of Lewis and Clark at the juncture of the Knife and Missouri rivers, where, at Fort Mandan, the explorers had met Charbonneau and “his amazing squaw, Sacajawea” (p. 127).

Wait a minute—a note on that loaded term: The word squaw was not a loaded term in standard American English in midcentury. Americans didn’t know it was a deeply offensive term in the Native American language from which it was adopted. As far as any of us knew, it was a Native word for “wife” or for “woman”—same as you might refer to a young French woman as a “mademoiselle,” or a Spanish man as a “señor.” The Russian king was a “czar” and a Muslim sovereign was a “sultan.” I’m pretty sure that nearly all Americans who were not First Nation peoples had no idea that squaw was an offensive term, and Teale was simply using the pleasantly widened vocabulary of an educated man.

So let’s cut him a break, and acknowledge that the word came to have a different meaning in American English than it had in its original language. And, yes, now that we know how offensive it is, let’s please quit using it.

At any rate, it is clear that Teale admired Sacajawea, for he speaks directly about the importance of her contribution to the expedition. He mentions her often and notes places where she has been memorialized in place-names.

And so their path leads them along the Missouri, through the Rockies, all the way to where the Columbia joins the Pacific. Teale quotes from the Lewis and Clark journals, and he notes several plants and animals named for the explorers. He keeps the famous expedition in the reader’s mind as well as his own.


(By the way, this is not the "Lewis and Clark" we've been talking about! --Just a bit of humor to see if you're still paying attention!)


Another explorer whose path the Teales keep intersecting is less well-known, except among biologists: Thomas Nuttall, and his assistant John K. Townsend, traveled the interior of America in the early 1800s not long after Lewis and Clark, botanizing and collecting biological specimens. Nuttall was the curator of the Harvard Botanic Garden, and as a result of his travels, he added “more new species to the lists of science than any other man in America” (p. 28). The Teales follow Nuttall’s path, off and on, from Cape May on the East Coast all the way to Vancouver and to Monterey. And yes, the parts about Nuttall are more fascinating than those about Lewis and Clark.

Autumn Color. Well, of course, Teale had to write about this subject. But perhaps the most surprising thing about Autumn across America is that the Teales, who lived in New York at the time, began their fall trip by promptly leaving New England! Remarkable, since New England is the official place to see a glorious riot of autumn foliage, picturesque white-painted churches, and so on. But the Teales have big plans—they’ve got to get across the continent, and through Rocky Mountain passes, while it’s still “fall.”

Teale gets around this problem by relating the splendor of New England’s fall color from memory! Then, he proceeds to witness and describe all the different colors of autumn, all across America. Autumn looks different in the Dakotas, in the treeless plains, in the Rockies, in the Pacific Northwest, in Northern California, than it does in the entire eastern half of the country.

One chapter focuses on “dusty autumn”—this is the dustiest time of year. (The early fifties, I understand, were drought years throughout much of America.) Though it is the bane of anyone trying to keep a place tidy, atmospheric dust, Teale points out, is what gives us our brilliant sunrises and sunsets, and it is what forms the nuclei of every single raindrop and snowflake: No dust, no clouds, no rain.

In his ruminations about fall color, Teale provides an especially insightful paragraph about the way we “feel” about autumn—how the lower humidity, the crisp air, the generally clear skies, and, especially, the riots of color in the landscape serve to exhilarate and uplift us:

In the forest, fall is the season of light. The aureate leaves, the golden carpet of fallen foliage reflecting rays upward from the ground, these fill the deciduous woodlands with a luminous radiance unknown at other seasons of the year. Henri Amiel noted in his Journal Intime: “The scarlet autumn stands for vigorous activity; the gray autumn for meditative feeling.” Later in the season there would come slaty skies, brown leaves, gray autumn. But now we wandered in the multicolored early days of fall, the time of vigor and elation. (109–10)

I truly appreciate that distinction between “red autumn” and “gray autumn,” for it helps me to conceptualize this Janus-faced season, so intensely colorful at one end and depressingly drab at the other. It’s almost hard to “picture” autumn for this reason. Thanksgiving usually looks very little like Columbus Day! (The dividing line, of course, is usually the Abscission Wind!)

The Pacific Coast.
Of the quartet of books, this is the only one that explores Northern California, Oregon, and Washington, and it’s clear the Teales glory in these travels. About a third of the book focuses on this leg of the trip. (Here's a photo from the book--the Teales are seeing a group of sea otters, which were then just beginning to come back along the Pacific Coast.)

They’re easterners, writing for an audience that viewed the West Coast as a spectacular vacation destination. So if you like places like Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada, Monterey Bay, the Redwoods, Mount Ranier, the Olympic Peninsula, tidepooling and skirting the coast all down the length of Oregon . . . you will love where this book goes.

End of the Trip

Teale really wraps it up nicely; their autumn travels began in late August, with them standing on Cape Cod, staring eastward across the Atlantic, watching the tide rise to its fullest point and then start to go out—and they complete their journey facing west across the Pacific, on a windy crag at Point Reyes, watching the tide ebb on Winter’s Eve, the shortest day of the year. (Here is a photo from the book, of the lighthouse at Point Reyes, taken that day.)

They return the next day to watch the hands move on Teale’s wristwatch as the minutes slip away from autumn: “The sun, shining from farthest south in the heavens, ‘stood still’ before beginning its long, slow climb to the zenith of June. One instant it was autumn, the next it was winter. In this moment in the sunshine, between breaths, fall had slipped away” (p. 363).

I have to admit, I got a little choked up as I read aloud the final passages of the book. At some point, you just feel like you’re traveling along with Edwin and Nellie, and when their epic adventure—their incredible, once-in-a-lifetime autumn trip across America—draws to a close, you can’t help but feel a pang.

I don’t know if I mentioned it, but Sue and I have been reading these books together, aloud, in the evenings, or when we have some driving to do. We react to it, comment on it, discuss it. It’s very pleasant to share a book this way, and I heartily recommend it.

So now there’s just one more of Teale’s American Seasons books: Wandering through Winter, based on travels that took place during the winter of 1961–1962, and published in 1965. (That’s the year I was born—how about that! This is also the book where Teale visits Jefferson City!) Wandering through Winter was the book that earned Teale the Pulitzer Prize, when Teale was sixty-six and had some thirty books to his credit.

Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve read Wandering through Winter, so stay tuned for the final installment—I’ll probably be blogging about it about three months from now!

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