Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Edwin Way Teale’s Journey into Summer

Four months ago I wrote a post glowing about the prize-winning midcentury natural history writer Edwin Way Teale, who seems unfairly overlooked these days. True, much of Teale’s work seems “dated”; science has explained or reinterpreted some of the wonders Teale wrote about, photography has improved, the places he described have changed—sometimes—and environmental problems have shifted.

But the cycles of nature repeat each year. And of the changes that have occurred over the past fifty years or so, I’m intrigued by Teale’s observations of people, places, and events—in part because they are so “dated.” It’s American history—Americana, nostalgia—and it’s natural history history.

As I told you in that earlier post, I decided that this year I will reread all four of Edwin Way Teale’s “American Seasons” books, in the appropriate seasons. In April, I reread North with the Spring, the first of the quartet that Teale wrote. (Seriously, read that previous post, because here I’m gonna just sketch the background stuff for you.)

The American Seasons Project

Each of the four volumes describes a three-month-long, cross-country trip celebrating an entire season. At the beginning of each trip, Teale and his wife, Nellie, pack their car with binoculars, cameras and film, outdoor gear, notebooks, road and topo maps, “tramping shoes,” raincoats, and field guides. They lock up their house, get in the car, and begin a zigzagging route across America for an entire season, witnessing hundreds of seasonal natural events; hiking, birding, canoeing, riding in planes, and more; meeting naturalists, scientists, and others connected to the natural world; and taking oodles of notes.

Why do I admire these books so much? There are many reasons—some of them quite personal. They represent America as it was about the time I entered the world, a world quite different from today’s; a world where travelers ate at local cafés, and they stayed at motor courts where air conditioning was a bonus but pretty little window boxes with flowers were routine.

And these books celebrate the constancy of nature, which changes little, even though human fashions change. I take great comfort in that.

The Teales are like gentle, reflective, knowledgeable grandparents (indeed, they remind me of the adults of my early childhood). Teale, like me, was an inveterate journaler and note-taker. He wrote a lot! (I do too—usually, too much!) Teale simply takes his time, and he finishes thoughts. He reflects on what he sees; he reflects on humanity. The Teales poke along America’s back roads, stopping often to take pictures and absorb what they see, which is something that Sue and I love to do.

So, on the first day of summer, June 21, 2011, I began reading Journey into Summer, fifty-four years after Edwin and Nellie Teale stood on a bridge north of Franconia Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, watching the sun rise on the first day of their new adventures through a season. (Which is the exact same spot where they had watched the sun set ten years before, at the end of their journey north with the spring!)

Why Did “Autumn” Come before “Summer”?

Although it’s not apparent when you read the books, the Teales did their autumn project years before the summer one. I have often wondered why they didn’t take their four seasonal trips in the order of the seasons themselves. Here is when the books came out (note the lag time between the travel dates and the publishing dates—Teale had to collect tons of background information before he could compose satisfying essays about their adventures; and then the books had to go through the publishing process):

North with the Spring: traveled 1947, published 1951
Autumn across America: traveled 1952, published 1956
Journey into Summer: traveled 1957, published 1960
Wandering through Winter: traveled 1961–1962, published 1965

I think I’ve figured out why the “autumn” project came between the spring and summer ones. Granted, I haven’t scrutinized the Teale Papers at the University of Connecticut, which might shed more light on the question, but here’s what I speculate.

First, it’s not clear to me when the Teales decided this could or would be a four-volume series (it’s a massive undertaking). As far as I can tell, the first project was envisioned simply as a single, long spring: By traveling northward, surfing on the wave of springtime’s progress, the Teales—who were in need of a good, long springtime—could shake off some of the sadness of the 1940s war years.

Even if Teale had early pondered the possibilities of doing all four seasons, he must have been too prudent to announce it right away. Experienced authors and publishers know not to trumpet about a “forthcoming multivolume series” without a guarantee that more than just the first volume will ever actually come out—which means, without the completed manuscripts in-hand.

I think that the autumn volume came second in line because it follows the same kind of progression that spring does: a unidirectional movement from one point to another, from hot to cold, or cold to hot. But summer and winter aren’t like that; they peak in the middle, and a latitudinal voyage “with” those seasons couldn’t work the same way.

Whenever he considered making it a four-volume series, I’ll bet Teale was scratching his head about how to “do” summer and winter; so meanwhile, I think he completed the volume about autumn (it, like spring, is more fun, colorful, and dynamic than summer and winter, anyway). But as he created the spring and autumn volumes, Teale must have been pondering how was he going to approach the summer and winter seasons, conceptually.

At the beginning of Journey into Summer, Teale describes the situation as he (beautifully) characterizes the season:

Spring and autumn are constantly changing, active seasons. Summer is more stable, more predictable. We tend to consider it the high point of the year, with spring moving toward it and autumn retreating from it. In summer life is easier, food and warmth more abundant. Babies born then have a lower infant mortality rate than at any other season of the year. When, some years ago, Columbia University psychologists conducted a survey, they found that, other factors being equal, most persons have the highest level of good feeling, the greatest sense of well-being, in the summertime.

(Now, of course, scientists have identified the opposite, the bad-feeling of wintertime, as Seasonal Affective Disorder.)

To the average person, summer is the friend, winter the enemy. . . . Instinctively summer is accepted as the normal condition of the earth, winter as the abnormal. Summer is “the way it should be.” It is as though our minds subconsciously returned to some tropical beginning, some summer-filled Garden of Eden. . . .

. . . Summer is vacation time, sweet clover time, swing and see-saw time, watermelon time, swimming and picnic and camping and Fourth-of-July time. This is the season of gardens and flowers, of haying and threshing. Summer is the period when birds have fewer feathers and furbearers have fewer hairs in their pelts. Through it runs the singing of insects, the sweetness of ripened fruit, the perfume of unnumbered blooms. It is a time of lambs and colts, kittens and puppies, a time to grow in. It is fishing time, canoeing time, baseball time. It is, for millions of Americans, “the good old summertime.” (2–4)

And here is where Teale explains the overall concept for his summer project (as well as the winter one):

But America has many summers. Its continental span embraces the summer of the shore, the summer of the forest, the summer of the Great Plains, the summer of the mountains. We had chosen our general route to carry us through the greatest variety. We would see the season in vacation spots—along lake shores, on mountain heights, in the cool north woods. But we would also see it 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. (4)

The Route

Thus, instead of tracking the “progress” of a season as it sweeps across the continent, the Teales opted to taste as many different flavors of the American summer as they could, in a 19,000-mile, three-month-long road trip.

As with all the American Seasons volumes, there’s a map in the front endpapers that shows the Teales’ travel route. Their summertime trip in 1957 began in New England and led westward across the northern edge of the United States, tracing along the shores of all the Great Lakes, continuing westward near the Canadian border all the way into Montana. Then the Teales turned south and into the belly of the summertime beast, into the sweltering heat of the Great Plains (the dust bowl days would have been a vivid memory for many of Teale’s readers). The route extended as far south as Oklahoma and into Texas before the Teales finished their trip with a grand tour of Colorado.

The volume ends, as summer ends, at the autumnal equinox, with the Teales watching the sunset from atop Pikes Peak, beside the tracks of the cog railway, east of the summit house. (How many people have taken pictures of their families at this place?)

America’s Many Summers

In addition to their “field glasses” and “tramping shoes,” the Teales brought with them their sense of wonder, their curiosity, their willingness to have adventures. You can tell they were best friends and excellent travel partners. Some of their conversation—even the silly stuff people talk about as the miles drift by—is recorded in the book:

Nellie started it with what seemed a perfectly logical observation that if there is a word “herbaceous” there ought to be a word “shrubaceous.” This was followed by deciding a good name for a combination swamp and bog would be “swog.” And it all ended in hastily changing the subject when I volunteered that if a small lion is called a cub and a small horse is called a colt a small swallow might be called a “sip.” (63)

The Teales’ journey included both the work and the play of summer. They pay special attention to the activities and challenges of timber harvesters, fishermen, ranchers, and farmers, whose livelihoods, and lives, revolve with the seasons.

Many of the places the Teales visit would classify as high points of any Great American Summer Vacation of 1957. For instance, like thousands of other tourists, they see Niagara Falls.

But watching it with naturalists’ eyes, they particularly enjoy watching the ducks and other fowl that drift so perilously close to the edge, then gracefully take flight just before the plunging abyss.

The Teales visit all the Great Lakes (what is billed today as “America’s North Coast”). In northern Ohio, they visit Kelley’s Island and its ancient glacial grooves. Near Sandusky, they also visit the famous Cedar Point amusement park and comment on the thrill rides, “the salt-water-taffy stands, the booths where ‘Presto Pups’—small frankfurters on a stick—were toasting” (40).

Teale, however, was much more interested in the miraculously abundant, annual swarms of mayflies that were coating the “green, glowing neon sign” of the Breakers Hotel! (And just about everything else!)

They enjoy the North Woods country of Michigan and Minnesota, a landscape dominated by vacation cabins on lakes, of hunting and boating and fishing. Generations of Americans have traveled there to escape the heat of summer and the pressures of modern life.

Pikes Peak, where they end the journey, is also, of course, one of the great American family-vacation spots.

In Nebraska, they see Scott’s Bluff and Chimney Rock. In Michigan, they see Miner’s Castle.

At Devil’s Tower, in Wyoming, they spend an entire day viewing a large prairie dog town protected by its proximity to the National Monument. This was before the park service started seriously nixing the feeding of cheez doodles, hot dogs, and Juicy Fruit gum to the wildlife, and back when everyone indulged in the pleasure of rewarding a critter’s begging behavior. Even the Teales shared some of their Fig Newtons with the rodents.

(Remember when feeding the animals was okay?)

Along the same lines, the Teales describe a visit to a garbage dump at Copper Harbor, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There, motorists could watch wildlife by simply parking at the town dump before the onset of twilight and waiting for the hungry bears to appear and start pawing through the trash. (I think Teale’s observations of his fellow bear-watchers are almost as interesting as his notes on the behavior of the bears!)

The Nature of the Season

Teale was a natural historian, so of course, that’s what this book is really about. If there was any doubt about it, then the second chapter clears it up: On the very second day of summer, Edwin and Nellie get off to a roaring start by donning their “rubber-soled sneakers that would cling to rocks” and spending the whole day leisurely walking down “the wild Sunday River” near the New Hampshire–Maine border. (It is now a huge ski and golf resort, apparently. Sigh.)

As they follow the river, they watch the birds and the butterflies; they note the little river’s various gurgles and splooshes, the small plunging waterfalls, and the quiet pools: “Half a mile or so downstream, I remember, we sat for a long time beside a diminutive waterfall only a foot or two high, delighting in the low music that filled the air. The water gurgled and hissed, lisped and murmured. Never before had we appreciated quite so clearly how many rushing, bubbling, liquid sounds combine to form the music of falling water” (8).

Doesn’t that sound lovely? Their vacation was off to a fantastic start!

Later, they spend another entire day observing interactions between a pair of nesting woodpeckers and a pair of nesting starlings. On another day, they experience a bona fide dust storm in northwest Nebraska, which provides Teale the opportunity to teach the reader something about windblown loess and Great Plains agriculture.

In Florissant, Colorado, the Teales visit “the valley of the fossil insects,” where more than a thousand different species of fossil insects had been discovered, preserved in perfect detail. (Teale loved insects as much as he loved birds!) In 1969, the area became the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.

At Rocky Mountain National Park, the Teales drive the famous Trail Ridge Road and discover blooming specimens of Pedicularis groenlandica, a “fairyland flower”; “the Alpine bloom we wanted most to see” (307). The common name of this plant is “elephant’s head” because the arrangement of its pink petals looks amazingly like a tiny elephant head. (I read this part with special interest, as I had searched for this same crazy plant on my first visit to RMNP, and I had felt the same delight upon finding it!)

And it’s not all biology—there’s a wonderful chapter about the annual, mid-August Perseid meteor shower. You can’t write a book about the wonders of summertime without talking about the Perseids!

The Teales planned their trip so that they could be in Kiowa County, Kansas, at the Kimberley farm, which (at that time at least) was known as the “Kansas Meteorite Farm.” It was here, in the late 1800s, where a farmwife named Eliza Kimberley recognized that the strange, heavy rocks that were strewn all over her family’s property were meteorites from outer space. Once she could get someone to listen to what she was saying, her smarts, and sales of the space rocks, provided a comfortable income for her family!

The place is still there, even though the Kimberleys/Kimberlys are not.

Teale tells her story while also describing his meeting with the Kimberley descendants, and then describes his and Nellie’s memorable, magic time spent watching the shooting stars under the black midnight skies of Kansas.

Green and Golden Waves

Teale couldn’t write a book about summer without taking note of all the varieties of agriculture that our nation is blessed with.

Here are some of his impressions upon entering Iowa in midsummer:

Poets generally have sung of wildflowers and landscapes arranged by nature. It is the beauty of the unplanted and the untamed, of mountains and streams and forests and shore, that stirs us most deeply. But everywhere we went these summer days, Nellie and I appreciated, too, another kind of beauty in the out-of-doors, the beauty of cultivated fields and agricultural crops. By now we could close our eyes and conjure up their forms and colors—the red and green of blooming clover spangled with fluttering butterflies; rows of potatoes, all in bloom, extending for miles across the black loam of upper Minnesota; the North Dakota flax stretching away in a sea of blue; vineyards running in parallel lines up and down the Michigan hills; the great wheat fields, rippling, golden, cloud-dappled, restless as water in the wind. But none of the scenes that returned before our inward eye brought more delight than the remembrance of green corn, row on row, with banner leaves all flowing in the wind. This greater grass, the corn or maize, has a fluid, graceful, impressive beauty of its own.

All through Iowa . . . we were surrounded by corn, rarely out of sight of corn. Mile on mile, the rows went by, the great parade of corn, all drawn up in review. We saw the leaves shining as though waxed or varnished in morning sunshine. We saw them powdered with gray dust along the secondary roads. We saw the rows running up and over the hills, following the long straight lines laid down by the planters in spring. (230–31)

Oh, my friends, I could go on and on, because there’s so much more! I really hope you’ll consider finding yourself a copy of Journey into Summer, a true classic of American natural history writing. I mean, even if you can’t personally take a nice, three-month-long vacation traversing a majority of the United States this summer, you can easily share the fun and adventures the Teales had in 1957.

A Few Notes about the Pictures in This Post

First, I've copied the route map and some black and white photos from Teale's Journey into Summer. I don't have permission, but then Teale is dead, his publisher is defunct, and this is basically a review.

There are some photos here that my Mom and Dad took back in the 1970s on some of our family vacations (the cog railway at Pikes Peak; the distance view of Pikes Peak; and my brother and myself at Miner's Castle on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan).

Some other family photos are ones from my Grandma S's cousin Marguerite and her husband Ralph (Aunt Minnie, Grandma, and Ralph at Niagara Falls; view of Niagara Falls; and a fishing boat at Gunn Lake in Minnesota). Marguerite and Ralph left behind a trove of nifty travel slides from the sixties and seventies. I could do a whole blog just about their slides.

The rest of the photos are either mine or Sue's. From the top: A section of trail at Gans Creek, south of Columbia; sunbathers at Nickelplate Beach, Huron, Ohio; a little girl playing in the sand at Huron's Lake Park; a canoe on the Current River; peaches in our backyard; corn growing by the Katy Trail north of Jefferson City; view of Cedar Point amusement park, taken from a ride in a 1929 Ford Tri-Motor (which would have been retro even to Teale!); mayflies on a light pole on Kelleys Island, Ohio; a babbling spring along the Current River; a paragraph and pressed "elephant head" leaf from one of my journals; a vineyard on North Bass Island, Ohio; a cornfield near Berlin Heights, Ohio.


John Lucas said...

A great review!! I need to find this book. I have linked to your blog on my kinda querky but fun web site 'The Mayflies of Lake Erie - Official Site (if you can get official about Mayflies). www.mayflynews.net. Thanks! John

Julianna Schroeder said...

Why, thank you, John! I really do appreciate Teale's writings; in Journey into Summer, he is struck by the juxtaposition of the ancient glacial grooves with the presence of the (literal) ephemeroptera. By the way, I'm quite positive that he wrote much more about mayflies than in this particular book--he wrote several books just about insects!

We were in northern Ohio for the Fourth of July this year, and I noticed that a few weekends before, Put-In-Bay had had some kind of Mayfly Festival--with Nat'l Park Service biologists there to talk about mayflies, etc. Sounds like a lot of fun, and I'm sorry we missed it. Perhaps it's an annual event!

And while we're on the subject of swarming insects, have you ever experienced a periodical cicada emergence? It's breathtaking: http://opulentopossum.blogspot.com/2011/06/periodical-cicadas-big-nature.html

Thank you again for your comment, and I love your page about the mayflies!

Nan said...

I just found you after doing a search for the book cover of this book. I'm thrilled! I am doing the same thing, a summer later! I plan to write about it on the last day of this summer. I'll be back to read your whole entry at that time, and will link it in my blog post.
I also want to read them all in the proper season. The only other Teale book I've read is Springtime in Britain.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thanks, Nan! I remember reading your post about "Springtime in Britain," and mentally putting that volume "on my list." Next in line, though, is "A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm."

Geez, there are so many good books to read! I'm taking some time off from reading Teale--this year, I've read Marjory Stoneman Douglas's classic "Everglades: River of Grass" and (on a very different note) several books about Hinduism, including (naturally) another reading of the Bhagavad Gita.

I hope you'll keep in touch with me if you decide to travel in the Teales', um, wheel tracks! I see you're in New England: Have you been to see the Teale papers at the University of Connecticut? Before making any attempt to retrace the Teales' path, you'd have to consult those. I'm fairly certain his annotated maps and travel notes are therein! Of course, the U.S. highway system has changed a lot since their travels, so you'd have to figure out where they actually were.

Thanks again--I was hoping someday a true Teale fan would find my American Seasons posts! You've made a wish come true!


Anonymous said...

I grew up the youngest child of a botanist and we had these books on the shelf. I read them at an early age and have since purchased vintage copies. When speaking with William Least-Heat Moon (author of Blue Highways) I asked if he had read Edwin Way Teale's... He jumped in with "the four seasons books! They have a special place on my bookshelves!"

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thank you for your comment. I'm sorry to be responding to it so late.

You were so lucky to have these books to read at a young age. I didn't purchase any Teale books until I was in college and was starting to form my ideas about having a career in natural history publishing. By the time I was in grad school, I was buying up all kinds of natural history books in used bookstores. It actually took me a while to read the Teale volumes. I have to admit that his "wordiness" required more patience of me that I had available at the time, so they sat on my shelves for several years before I calmed down and read them.

Teale's books do have a special place on my bookshelves--and I do have many shelves of natural history books, field guides, biology texts, and so on. Teale is on the same shelf as Annie Dillard, Joseph Wood Krutch, John Muir, John Alcock, and Gary Paul Nabhan, all of which clinched my decision to become an editor--to work with books like those.

I am well acquainted with William Least-Heat Moon--not only because I'm a native of Columbia, Missouri, and he's sort of a local celebrity, but also because he worked hard (and made a substantial monetary contribution) to keep the University of Missouri Press from being shut down a few years ago. I'm extremely grateful for his outspokenness and activism at that time.

Thank you again for your comment!