By Richard Telford
When I first walked the trails of the 168-acre Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, I was struck at once both by the site’s natural beauty and by the instant connection that a reader of Teale’s writing cannot help but feel when navigating the trails that Edwin made famous in his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, and later in his 1978 book A Walk Through the Year. By the late 1960s, Teale had won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing, and he had already served as the president of the Brooklyn and New York Entomological Societies respectively, as well as the Thoreau Society. In 1961, Current Biography noted that critics had already “ranked him with John Bartram and Audubon and with contemporary naturalists Roger Tory Peterson and William Beebe.” In 1962, Leonard Dubkin, writing for the New York Times, characterized Teale as “probably the greatest living naturalist in America.” By the late 1960s, he received approximately 1,000 letters annually from around the world, setting aside one day per week to answer all of them individually. He refused to use form letters. Despite Teale’s stature in his lifetime, his legacy, for reasons that would require several more posts to start to delineate, has largely waned. Just prior to his death in 1980, he and his wife Nellie agreed to gift Trail Wood, the name they gave to their private sanctuary of 21 years, to the Connecticut Audubon Society to be opened to the public.
On my first day at Trail Wood, however, I was thinking little about Teale’s declined legacy. I had just finished reading A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, and Teale’s characterizations of Trail Wood and his tremendous insights on the natural processes unfolding there reverberated through my mind both with clarity and feeling. Here I could ascend the short path up to Monument Pasture, named for a monument erected by an early twentieth century handyman on the farm to himself. I could walk the edge of the Starfield to its highest elevation, which the Teales named Nighthawk Hill after they witnessed a group of sixty or more nighthawks flying there in a funnel formation during the start of their August migration, “like an apparition of beauty in the sky, […] gray, slim-winged, with silvery-white patches that shone in tinted rays of the sunset—turning without a sound.” It is not hyperbole to say that I find myself unable to accurately characterize the emotional reaction I had that day, a reaction I will long remember. Only in the weeks that followed did I begin to reflect on the degree to which Edwin and Nellie were almost entirely absent from the site for anyone who had not read the aforementioned books. The trails bore the names the Teales had given them but lacked context. Edwin’s documentation of the site, rich with natural history and insight into the human condition, was largely absent from the present sanctuary. This realization led me to the door of the Connecticut Audubon Society several months later.
In February of 2012, during the first year of my graduate work in Environmental Studies at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, I wrote to Sarah Heminway, Director of Northeast Programs for CAS, who oversees Trail Wood. I sent her some rough notes on an early thesis proposal related to Teale. In it, I had written, “I would argue that Teale’s admonition to go back to the land itself to find inner peace and meaningful existence is even more pertinent than it was when he was writing.” Thus began our work together at Trail Wood to revitalize both the sanctuary itself and the legacy of Edwin Way Teale, which, though largely waned, is worthy of re-examination. The simultaneous preservation of land and legacy presents both challenges and opportunities, but the latter, I believe, outweigh the former.
There are a number of notable sanctuary sites that are inextricably linked to the prominent authors who occupied them. John Burroughs’ Slabsides and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden immediately come to mind. The present-day Walden Pond State Reservation reflects one of the challenges of preserving land and legacy in tandem; even 166 years after Thoreau occupied his cabin at Walden Pond, visitor traffic is so heavy that the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation enforces a limit of 1,000 visitors per day in order to “ensure a positive visitor experience and to maintain the integrity of the resources.” It is hard to dispute the effect of Thoreau’s legacy in this case.
While Thoreau’s legacy creates a heightened visitorship at Walden, the converse is true at Trail Wood. During a full summer of field observations at Trail Wood in 2012, I could count on one hand the number of days on which my car was not the only one parked in Mulberry Meadow, the site’s sole parking area. It is hard to dispute the effect of Teale’s waning legacy in this case. Nonetheless, I believe that it is Teale’s revitalized legacy that can likewise revitalize interest in Trail Wood itself. Further, increased public interest in the physical site, contextualized with infrastructure that facilitates a re-examination of its literary legacy, can help to rebuild and perpetuate that legacy for present and future generations. Doing so can likewise up the long-term sustainability of the physical site through increased public support. Thus, while the simultaneous preservation of land and legacy poses challenges, it can, if done through a deliberate process, achieve a significantly greater and longer-lasting result. It is precisely this kind of result we hope to achieve at Trail Wood, and there are compelling reasons to believe 1) that it is possible to do so and 2) that this is a critical moment in which to do so.
In the May-June “Best of New England” issue of Yankee Magazine, Trail Wood was chosen as one of the two best nature sanctuaries in Connecticut, a testament to the site’s rich ecological character. In the summer of 2013, the Connecticut Audubon Society hosted its first group of resident artists for week-long residencies, the culmination of the inaugural season of the Edwin Way Teale Artists-in-Residence Program at Trail Wood. This program resulted from a year of intensive planning and implementation efforts, and it attracted applicants from as far off as Kansas and Wyoming. This spring I will submit my final thesis both to Green Mountain College and CAS, a comprehensive revitalization plan for the sanctuary. In it, I argue that the long-term preservation and meaningful utilization of Trail Wood are inextricably linked to the preservation of the site’s literary legacy. Proposed efforts include a revitalization of the site’s infrastructure, including the installation of a comprehensive trail kiosk system and visitor center, with materials divided evenly between the site’s natural history and literary legacy.
I recently learned from Melissa Watterworth Batt, the curator of the extensive Teale archive at the University of Connecticut, that Teale’s two most famous books, Dune Boy (1943) and A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974), have again gone out of print after a short-lived reissuance under the Bibliopola imprint. Thus, work to preserve Edwin Way Teale’s literary legacy is more urgently needed than ever. With the support of the Connecticut Audubon Society, the University of Connecticut, and a dedicated group of Teale advocates, both the land and the legacy of “Two who loved this earth and loved each other,” as Nellie Teale directed their shared gravestone to be etched, can be preserved. Such an achievement, effected through a synergistic approach, can serve both to foster long-term conservation-mindedness in generations to come and to avert the lost legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most important naturalist writers.