Edwin Way Teale: Scientist, Artist, Interpreter

Teale in the Blind

Edwin Way Teale at work in the blind he constructed near Hampton Brook in his beloved home sanctuary, Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright, the estate of Edwin Way Teale, managed by the University of Connecticut Library System.  Used with permission.

When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.

Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” 1894

By Richard Telford

During the summer of 2012, I was fortunate to be enrolled in a field journaling course with Dr. Laird Christensen of Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, during which time I kept meticulous field notes for a period of six weeks while conducting observations in Monument Pasture, a site within the 168-acre Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut.  Teale, though largely forgotten by the reading public today, was one of the foremost living American naturalist writers by the time his Wandering Through Winter, the fourth in his four-book American Seasons chronicle, won the Pulitzer prize for nonfiction in 1966.

Teale’s lyrical passages had brought me to the home sanctuary he occupied with his wife Nellie, also an avid naturalist, from 1959 until Edwin’s death in 1980.  After Nellie’s death in 1993, Trail Wood, as the Teales had named it, was bequeathed to the Connecticut Audubon Society, as she and Edwin had agreed before his death.  Nineteen years later, nestled beneath the canopy of a mature eastern red cedar and a blighted black cherry, their branches long ago merged, I observed the workings of the former cow pasture that Teale had described in 1974 as having the appearance, in an aerial photograph, “of a circular piece of corduroy,” with “parallel lines [that] curve[d] around the slopes of the hill—the cowpaths left by the feet of generations of cattle.”

In the summer of 2012, red maple and pin cherry encroached upon the former pastureland on all sides.  Rough-stemmed and lance-leaved goldenrod blanketed the radiating slopes, interspersed with Deptford pink, Queen Anne’s lace, daisy fleabane, red clover, hyssop-leaved thoroughwort, and numerous other flower species.  Monarch, common wood nymph, and eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies flitted in angular cuts from blossom to blossom. These species and many others I painstakingly identified and documented, working to understand the larger system of the pasture as a whole, and in this process I found a sense of discovery and of worth.

By the end of summer, asked by Dr. Christensen to reflect in essay form upon my journaling experience, I examined more closely the sense of worth I had derived from the process, trying to consider its value in a context beyond my own.  Late in the summer, I had lightheartedly titled my journal Notes of a Generalist.  Now, in my final course essay, I wrote:

In light of my awareness of the limitations of my own knowledge and of the scope of my study, I find myself asking the following question:  Is the knowledge of the generalist any less valuable than that of the specialist?

This question, in part, was driven by my desire to understand why Edwin Way Teale’s writings, so dually rich with natural history observation and deep insight on the human condition, have drifted into general obscurity.  More broadly, beyond Teale, I found myself questioning the existence of space in both the public consciousness and the scientific community for the likes of Edwin Way Teale or Sally Carrighar or Franklin Russell, naturalist writers who inspired their respective generations of readers but now seem largely displaced by a scientific community defined by acute levels of specialization.   As so often happens in the act of writing, my starting premise, a reflection on my own act of journaling, gave way to something unexpected, an essay I titled “In Defense of Generalists.”

During the following spring, in what felt like a minor instance of Jungian synchronicity, I was forced in a period of two days to face the naivety of my view that the generalist-specialist debate was the product of present-day complexities.  I had just acquired a long out-of-print first edition of Edwin Way Teale’s 1942 book Near Horizons: The Story of an Insect Garden.  In Near Horizons, Teale lauds the contributions of French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre, a consummate generalist who pioneered what we now understand as modern entomology:

“What we see is important, but so also is what we feel.  Here oftentimes is the dividing line between the scientist and the artist.  The scientist is intent primarily upon seeing accurately.  There his concern ends.  The artist sees, but he also feels.  Fabre at his best mixes reflection with observation and poetry with experiment.”

Here, Teale could as easily have been writing about himself.

The following day, while browsing one of my favorite old book haunts, the Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut, I found a copy of Donald Culross Peattie’s 1935 book An Almanac for Moderns, previously unknown to me.  I read through it for several minutes, moved deeply by Peattie’s acuity of observation, his melding of science and philosophy, his wrenching emotionality harnessed by a strikingly cold objectivity.  Shortly, I came upon the following passage:

It is my contention that specialization should be left to those who are not mentally gifted at generalization.  The specialist is to be called upon for precise information.  But there is still a place for the all-around naturalist.  His use to the sciences is correlative, his role, elsewhere, an interpreter’s.

It is no wonder that, sixteen years later, Peattie, in a review he wrote of Teale’s North with the Spring, would offer the following characterization:

Mr. Teale, who knows his nature more widely, it is likely, than any other professional photographer, cannot open his shutter without capturing a wealth of truth.

Peattie could see in Edwin Way Teale the scientist and the artist, the observer who could see and feel, just as Teale could see these capacities in Fabre.  While Peattie elevated the generalist above the specialist, Teale likely did not; the fact that he served as president of the New York and Brooklyn Entomological Societies, respectively, and likewise the Thoreau Society, bears this out. Still, Edwin Way Teale’s literary legacy makes a strong case for the critical role of Peattie’s “all-around naturalist” who can serve the role of “interpreter,” a role defined by Peattie and Crane with comparable eloquence.

Just as the three surviving men in Stephen Crane’s seminal short story “The Open Boat” can be interpreters of “the great sea’s voice” only after realizing their own insignificance in the scheme of nature, it is perhaps only the generalist, likewise forced through breadth of observation to face his or her own insignificance, who can foster conservation-mindedness in the broader public, acting not just as an interpreter but also a translator.

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