Wednesday, October 26, 2016

D. C. Peattie, on the Sugar Maple

It isn't very original to copy stuff outright, but when it's far better than what you could write yourself, I think it's a virtue to tell others about it.

If you've never heard of Donald Culross Peattie, STOP, do not pass GO, and pick up some copies of his books. If you like plants, trees, anything green and living, and if you appreciate well-crafted language, you will love Peattie (1898-1964), who was a botanist and a poet. (His writing style reflects the expansive compositional tastes of his day, but we can't blame him for that. Reading his work, you may even learn an excellent new word or two.)

The selection below is from A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, first published in 1948. It is an enormous collection of essays, each on a single species of tree, that provide technical, nuts-and-bolts information on growth habit, lumber value, and botanical description yet also poetical descriptions that give you a true feel for the tree. This book, and its companion volume on Western trees, are a monumental achievement for a natural history writer. Hopefully, some recent reissues of his books will help restore his position as one of our country's best-ever natural history writers.

Happy autumn, everyone!

The most magnificent display of color in all the kingdom of plants is the autumnal foliage of the trees of North America. Over them all, over the clear light of the Aspens and Mountain Ash, over the leaping flames of Sumac and the hell-fire flickerings of poison ivy, over the war-paint of the many Oaks, rise the colors of one tree--the Sugar Maple--in the shout of a great army. Clearest yellow, richest crimson, tumultuous scarlet, or brilliant orange--the yellow pigments shining through the over-painting of the red--the foliage of Sugar Maple at once outdoes and unifies the rest. It is like the mighty, marching melody that rides upon the crest of some symphonic weltering sea and, with its crying song, gives meaning to all the calculated dissonance of the orchestra.

There is no properly planted New England village without its Sugar Maples. They march up the hill to the old white meetinghouse and down from the high school, where the youngsters troop home laughing in the golden dusk. The falling glory lights upon the shoulders of the postman, swirls after the children on roller skates, drifts through the windows of a passing bus to drop like largesse in the laps of the passengers. On a street where great Maples arch, letting down their shining benediction, people seem to walk as if they had already gone to glory.

Outside the town, where the cold pure ponds gaze skyward and the white crooked brooks run whispering their sesquipedalian Indian names, the Maple leaves slant drifting down to the water; there they will sink like galleons with painted sails, or spin away and away on voyages of chance that end on some little reef of feldspar and hornblende and winking mica schist. Up in the hills the hunter and his russet setter stride unharmed through these falling tongues of Maple fire, that flicker in the tingling air and leap against the elemental blue of the sky where the wind is tearing crow calls to tatters.

--Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 454.

Photos in this post: Yes, I've taken pictures of pictures. An *abhorrent* practice. The originals are prints that my mom took in the 1990s. You might recognize the Missouri River bluffs overlooking Cedar City along Highway 63. (Remember what it looked like before the sod farm went in, and it was crop fields?) The last picture is of a maple tree growing in my parents' backyard. It's about four times that big today.

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