Sunday, March 2, 2014

Journeys Around the Sun: Edwin Way Teale

It’s still early enough in the year to be thinking of the passage of time, as I do at every new year—jeez, it’s hard to believe it’s the year 2014! I suppose part of my pondering might also have something to do with this year’s lengthy onslaught of snow and bitter cold—I can’t help looking for signs the spring is coming.

And it is. Even if we’re getting yet another dump of ice and snow this weekend!

My evidence? Well, haven’t you been hearing cardinals singing outside your windows in the mornings? I have. And it’s a damn good song they’re singing!

I’ve been dipping into some of my favorite books that celebrate the annual cycle. A recent comment on my blog suggested to me a book by the great natural history writer Donald Culross Peattie, An Almanac for Moderns. (Thanks, Tina, I’m going to check it out!) Peattie’s books describing America’s trees are exquisite blends of science, poetics, and philosophy. Peattie educated his reader while ensouling his subjects.

Of course, the famous quartet of books by Edwin Way Teale is a monument to the changing American seasons, and I’ve written about them before.

But Teale’s more compact, and personal celebration of the changing seasons is A Walk Through the Year (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1978). In it, he writes a brief essay for each day of the year, describing some natural event that happened on his farm in Connecticut. He intended it as a companion to A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, which tells about the property he purchased later in life, Trail Wood, which he treasured as a natural area.

A Walk Through the Year is pure Teale. In it, one of his later books, he shares his reflections on his and his wife, Nelly’s observations of nature at Trail Wood. It’s a gentle and pleasant conversation, as if you and the aging Teales were chatting in their living room, sitting around their cozy fireplace on some evening after a blizzard. “Guess what we saw at one of our bird feeders yesterday!” And “I was walking on the lane to the road and saw a red fox—guess what it was doing!”

To show you why I’ve been dipping into this book, and to celebrate the springtime we’re all hungry for, here’s an excerpt from A Walk Through the Year. Because the Teales were nuts about birds, I’ve chosen one about birds—specifically, red-winged blackbirds:

February 28. This is the sound we longed for, dreamed about, looked forward to in the darkest days of winter. Rising and subsiding, becoming a storm of mingled voices, then ebbing away, it comes from the treetops along the brook. It is an excited sound, a festive, holiday sound. Like the torrents of spring, it is a rushing, liquid sound that here antedates the spring. It is the great chorus of the first of the homecoming flocks of the redwings.

“Bare only yesterday, the treetops along the brook today are clothed with blackbirds. A hundred and fifty or more swirled down to alight among the leafless branches before dawn today. All are males. The females will arrive later. We watch the birds, in the richness of their breeding plumage, flying from tree to tree, each alighting with its scarlet epaulets exposed. Their surging energy is contagious. We feel a sense of elation, a wave of optimism. The stolid endurance of the deepest winter drops away.

“We listen to the overlapping chorus of ‘okaleees’ or ‘bob-y-leees’ swell and fade and begin again. The interplay of sounds merges into a rolling, trilling clamor. Standing listening, we catch little dropped notes spilling through the chorus. The ‘okaleeeing’ is replaced by sharp metallic calls as all the birds take off in a cloud of black to sweep in curves, to turn and turn again, and then swirl down once more to the tops of the brookside trees.

“It is usually near the end of this shortest month of the year or in the earliest days of March that the redwings come back to Trail Wood. The intermingled tumult that comes down from the treetops seems compounded of relief at the end of a long journey, of ecstasy in reaching an age-old breeding ground, of health at a peak, and life lived intensely. We are swept along by the excitement pulsing through these hundred and more bodies. This wild musical clamor of the first of the returning redwings reechoes in our minds long after it is left behind. For the birds, the farflung journeys of migration now are a thing of the past. For us, the winter—all but a few short weeks—has run its course.”


And yes: While visiting my parents two weeks ago in Columbia, Sue and I heard our first raucous, cacophonous red-winged blackbird chorus of the spring, and we almost jumped for joy!

Is winter over? Of course not. Look at all this frickin’ ice!

But hey—keep your hopes up! The cardinals are singing, and the redwings have appeared.

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