Can We Save the Botany Degree?

Fall ferns at the Trail Wood Sanctuary in Hampton, CT, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Fall ferns at the Trail Wood Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

By Richard Telford

On October 17, 1959, less than six months after moving to Trail Wood, the beloved private nature sanctuary where he would spend the rest of his life, American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale wrote the following entry in his private journal:

We are presented with life memberships in the Baldwin Bird Club and   given a fine vasculum for collecting plants. So we round out our long association with this nature group—over a period of more than 20 years.  Now we ‘have other lives to live.’  We watched them go with thankfulness in our hearts that we could stay.

I first read this passage two summers ago while researching Teale’s early days at Trail Wood with the generous support of the University of Connecticut, where Teale’s papers are permanently housed in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. At the time, I was examining the extraordinary transformation that occurred in the lives of Edwin and his wife and collaborator Nellie with their move to Trail Wood, a site Edwin would subsequently declare to be “our Promised Land” (September 8, 1959). Teale chronicled this transformation in The Hampton Journal, 1959-1961, the first of four 500-page unpublished observation journals he kept at Trail Wood over a period of twenty-one years.

The vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959, celebrating the Teales' arrival to Trail Wood. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959, celebrating the Teales’ arrival to Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Before moving to the next entry in the journal, I completed a quick Google search for “vasculum,” a word with which I was wholly unfamiliar. In this context, I found, it referred to a tin box used to collect plant specimens. A quick image search yielded two predominant groups of vascula: those of a utilitarian kind, painted in various shades of olive drab; and those of a decidedly aesthetic bent, identical in construction but tole-painted with intricate designs or featuring scenes of nature or idealized Victorian children engaged in nature study. Most examples appeared dated to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period when the popularity of amateur nature study was at its apex.  Quick searches of eBay and Amazon yielded a handful of antique vascula for sale but no new examples. Even the Carolina Biological Supply Company yielded a dead end. This surprised me. How, I wondered at the time, could the need for some kind of specimen case for botanical collecting have simply evaporated? The question lingered, but, pressed for time to complete my reading of The Hampton Journal, I abandoned this research side trail and returned to the Teales’ early life at Trail Wood.

Shelf fungi on a mature hickory along The Lane at Trail wood, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. In the background two problematic invasive species are visible, oriental bittersweet and burning bush. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Shelf fungi on a mature hickory along The Lane at Trail wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. In the background two problematic invasive species are visible, oriental bittersweet and burning bush. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Recently, however, I felt compelled to revisit this side trail after reading a slew of articles about the precipitous decline of formal botany study at the collegiate level. Allie Bidwell, writing for U.S. News and World Report, for example, cites a study completed by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Botanic Gardens Conservation International, which found that, in 1988, “[…] nearly three-quarters of the nation’s top 50 most funded universities offered advanced degree programs in botany. But by 2009, more than half of those universities eliminated their botany programs.” The study further found that the number of undergraduate and graduate botany degrees conferred during that time declined by 50% and 41% respectively. An article published by Great Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society in its magazine, The Garden, declared in a January 2012 headline, “Death knell sounds for botany degrees.” The article’s author, Sally Nex, noted the planned closing of the botany degree program at the University of Bristol in 2013, the last program of its kind in Great Britain. Has the study of botany nearly vanished from university campuses? Not exactly. It has, however, largely been shifted to a place under the degree umbrella of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and such a shift necessarily dilutes the study of any highly specialized field to a handful of elective courses at best.

The writing cabin of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, located on the one-acre pond below the main house at Trail Wood, the private sanctuary where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The writing cabin of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, located on the one-acre pond below the main house at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the private sanctuary  where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

This past summer, while I was orienting a visiting artist to Trail Wood as part of the Edwin Way Teale Artists in Residence Program, I entered Teale’s writing cabin, which was built on the edge of the one-acre Hidden Pond the Teales had drilled in 1959 not long after their arrival. The writing cabin, built to match the dimensions of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden, provided Edwin a place to isolate himself from the stream of visitors, often uninvited, and the telephone. The Connecticut Audubon Society completed a restoration of the cabin last summer so that visiting artists could, as Edwin had, have a place for quiet study and contemplation. As I entered the cabin, I spied an olive drab, semi-cylindrical metal case with a steel strap loop at either end. I knew immediately what I was looking at, and a set of pressed plastic labels on the lid of the case confirmed my suspicion. They read: Edwin and Nellie Teale/The Baldwin Bird Club/1959. It was a deeply moving moment for me, the kind I so often have when reading Teale’s private journals; in this case, the entry I had read the previous summer seemed to materialize before my eyes, and I stood silent for some time.

A close-up shot of the label of the vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959. The presentation celebrated the arrival of the Teales to Trail Wood, their private sanctuary in Hampton, CT. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

A close-up shot of the label of the vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959. The presentation celebrated the arrival of the Teales to Trail Wood, their private sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Seeing the Teales’ vasculum that midsummer afternoon, I thought back to my research side trail of the previous summer; to the absence of new vascula for sale; to the decline of botany; and finally to Edwin Way Teale’s declined legacy, which I have written a good deal about over the last two years. All of these phenomena, and a host of others, are linked by a common thread: our epidemic disengagement from the natural world, and our immersion in a virtual and often vacuous and unsatisfying one. While the decline in collegiate botany study may in part be explained by the greater financial earning power of other specializations, a factor cited in some articles on the decline, this answer simply is not adequate. A study completed by Kathleen Wallace of Washington and Lee University found that, during the same period that botany study precipitously declined, the number of students declaring philosophy and religious studies majors increased by 153%, exceeded notably by declared visual and performing arts majors, a group which increased by 293%. These latter fields are hardly seen as having high earning potential, yet they have experienced significant growth. Thus, the financial argument against botany study, with its high earning potential in the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, among others, seems dubious.

The view from naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale's cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, CT, the private sanctuary where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The view from naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale’s cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the private sanctuary where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

I am convinced, instead, that we have largely lost the capacity to appreciate exhaustive hours of patient observation, to find wonder in complex and always-evolving taxonomical systems and the larger contexts they inhabit, to see ourselves as just one component in a marvelously complex system of life, and to understand that our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of that system as a whole, with no part of that whole being insignificant. It is to these lost capacities, in my view, that botany study is succumbing, as the field of natural history did before it, only the pace seems accelerated, just as the pace of the world around us, speaking societally, likewise does. In his 1948 book Days Without Time, Edwin Way Teale writes, “The centrifugal force of civilized life draws us out thin, stretches us to the ultimate of our resiliency. Days out-of-doors give us release. They permit us to contract back to the center of life.” More and more we feel drawn thin, but do we, societally, still have the capacity to seek out that “center of life,” or even to realize how desperately we need to do so?

For a variety of reasons, the loss of botany study, and, for that matter, the loss of any area of specialized scientific study, should ring alarm bells for us. In practical terms, botany study, in light of the accelerated pace of anthropogenic climate change, grows more critical daily, as we seek, for example, to address food scarcity while trying to mitigate the environmental impact of industrial agriculture. Botanical knowledge is likewise an essential component of land and resource conservation, as well as ecological restoration. Mapping botanical changes in the coming years will help us to understand and, hopefully, respond effectively to climate change, but who will be equipped to do this if the current trend continues? Finally, the pharmacological applications of botanical sources, even in the present time, are staggering in scope and number, and their collective effect on public health cannot be fully quantified here. We must consider, as well, that the sheer volume of these applications is likely exceeded by those we have not yet discovered, but, if the pipeline of future botanists is slowed to a trickle, who will make these discoveries? Who will suffer in their absence?

A corner of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale's study at Trail Wood, in Hampton, CT, the sanctuary where he spent the last 21 years of his life. Atop the shelf sits a stack of pressed botanical specimens believed to have been collected at the site. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

A corner of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale’s study at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the sanctuary where he spent the last 21 years of his life. Atop the shelf sits a stack of pressed botanical specimens believed to have been collected at the site. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

As part of the bequeathal of Trail Wood to the Connecticut Audubon Society, Nellie Teale, who outlived Edwin by thirteen years, requested that Edwin’s study in the main house be preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death in 1980, and CAS has honored this request. In a corner of the study, at the intersection of two bookshelves, there is a large, bound stack of plant pressings done by the Teales, presumably at Trail Wood. These have not been examined, out of concern over their fragility and the fear that poor handling could destroy a wealth of botanical knowledge of the site. Still, in ten to twenty years, who will have the training to handle these specimens or the knowledge to understand their significance? Amplify the concerns for the long-term preservation and use of this small, site-specific collection to the challenges faced by large-scale, institutional herbaria, and it further highlights the dire implications of a wide-scale loss of formal botanical study. It is a crisis on many levels, but it is not an irreversible one.

The single most critical step needed to avert the full demise of botany as a specialized branch of study at the collegiate level is the incorporation of more substantive botany curricula from the earliest days of primary schooling through the final days of secondary schooling. This curricula should follow best practices in environmental education, many of which revolve around direct engagement of the learner with the study subject. Children need to get outside, loupe and field notebook in hand. It is not enough, however, to simply drop them into a lush botanical landscape. Instead, they must be immersed in age-appropriate field work that connects them to their subject. As children grow older, this field work can and should be aimed at identifying problems and positing solutions. It might involve ecological restoration or the completion of a flora survey with a specific goal. It must, at all levels and in all tasks, contextualize the study subject to the greater whole of the natural world and to the individual learner as well.

Two of the author's children sitting on the steps into naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale's writing cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, CT, where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Two of the author’s children sitting on the steps into naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale’s writing cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

We can likewise engage our own children in botany study, filling the inevitable gaps of a public education system burdened with manifold demands from as many parties. Should we consciously drive them toward careers in botany? Not necessarily. However, we can and must instill in them the value, the wonder, and the joy of close study of natural phenomena. We must aim to show them, firsthand, the interconnectedness and the interdependency of the complex life system of which we are only a small, though disproportionately influential, part. Though the potential demise of formal botany study has garnered much recent attention, it is only a symptom of a larger ailment rooted in a set of societal norms that value speed over deliberateness, gratification over patience, answers over inquiry.  It seems inevitable that other fields of study are following or will follow a similar trajectory, driven by like forces. However, we can change that trajectory through the actions outlined above and others. Doing so will require a significant shift in thinking, but that shift can be driven by the realities of anthropogenic climate change that demand it. That shift, while helping to address those harsh realities, can also reawaken in us the joy and wonder that we so easily lose in the flurry of our days. And thus we win on two counts, neither of which can we afford to lose.

The author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.  The author likewise wishes to thank the staff of the Northeast Programs office of the Connecticut Audubon Society for providing full access to Edwin Way Teale’s home and writing cabin.

Reviving John Burroughs’ “Silent Throngs”

The dawn light illuminates the surface of Hampton Brook where it runs through Trail Wood in Hampton Connecticut. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015

The dawn light illuminates the surface of Hampton Brook where it runs through Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut, near the site of Edwin Way Teale’s long-time observation blind. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015

By Richard Telford

The cover image for Hal Borland's 1979 book Hal Borland's Twelve Moons of the Year.  From the author's collection.

The cover image for Hal Borland’s 1979 book Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year. From the author’s collection.

At a recent library sale held at my daughter’s school, I bought a discarded copy of Hal Borland’s Twelve Moons of the Year.  The 1979 book, a posthumously published selection of Borland’s natural history editorials printed in the Sunday New York Times from 1941 until his death in 1978, brims with keen observations rendered in concise, poetic language.  Twelve Moons is organized in almanac format, with 365 dated entries that follow the course of one year.  It is reminiscent of Donald Culross Peattie’s An Almanac for Moderns (1935) and Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year (1978).  On January 1st, Borland writes of “The glint and glitter of frost crystals in the air, dancing like motes of diamond dust in the sunlight.”  On June 1st, he tells us how “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere, in the dew-wet grass, in the breeze-shaken leaves, in the shimmering spider web and the night-washed faces of buttercup and wild geranium.”  He adds, “The world is hushed and waiting.”  The start of September, Borland confides, “is August ended, October inevitable, summer’s ripeness and richness fulfilled […].”  When the year ends on December 31st, Borland notes that “the seasons overlap the arbitrary divisions we make, and year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a part of the infinite whole.”  The relegation of this poignant volume to the discard table reminded me that authors, too, have their seasons.

John Burroughs, in his 1902 book Literary Values and Other Papers, offers a moving assessment of the effects of time’s passage on the authors of any generation:

The day inevitably comes to every writer when he must take his place amid the silent throngs of the past, when no new work from his pen can call attention to him afresh, when the partiality of his friends no longer counts, when his friends and admirers are themselves gathered to the same silent throng, and the spirit of the day in which he wrote has given place to the spirit of another and a different day. How, oh, how will it fare with him then? […]. The new times will have new soul maladies and need other soul doctors. The fashions of this world pass away—fashions in thought, in style, in humor, in morals, as well as in anything else.

Holding Borland’s book in my hands on that early May morning, I thought of this passage by Burroughs.  It is a passage I have often reflected upon while researching and writing about the life of Edwin Way Teale, who, like Borland, has passed largely into obscurity.  When Burroughs published the passage above, he was a national figure whose circle of friends included Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.  Still, it seems impossible that one who could pen the lines above could believe that he himself might avoid his own passage into the “silent throngs of the past.”  I have reflected regularly on this inevitable passage during the last several years, both in the context of my research on Teale and in my reading of other time-shrunken giants of natural history writing: Sally Carragher, Loren Eiseley, Donald Culross Peattie, and Franklin Russell, to name a few.  I have thought less on how or why these authors and others have faded, agreeing with Burroughs that it is inevitable, and have instead considered whether some of these individuals might, even in a limited way, be revived in the public consciousness.

The title page for Donald Culross Peattie's 1935 book An Almanac for Moderns.  From the author's collection.

The title page for Donald Culross Peattie’s 1935 book An Almanac for Moderns. From the author’s collection.

The greatest natural history writers of any generation teach us the power of observation, the capacity to look outside of ourselves before looking inward, to see that, in the context of a complex and extraordinary world, we are very small.  It is this awareness, I believe, that allows us to turn inward and truly see ourselves.  All of us, writers or not, will pass into “the silent throngs of the past.”  Framing their observations in geologic time, natural history writers often see this more keenly than most, and they help us both to see and to contextualize it as well.  They do so not to devalue the lives we live as insignificant but to encourage us to see those lives in the greater context of the natural world, thus deepening our appreciation for the life we are given and the life that surrounds us.  They encourage us to be keen observers of the natural world, to be teachers of an environmental ethic, to be stewards of the Earth that we can come to love so deeply.  We are, however, especially challenged to be observers in a time when our gaze, both by obligation and by choice, is largely transfixed on a variety of electronic screens, a time when our collective quest for an illusory self-worth blurs our ethical standards and undermines our stewardship, a time when our children experience the natural world firsthand less than any previous generation did. There is still a place for Hal Borland in our daily lives, as there is for Edwin Way Teale or Donald Culross Peattie, but can they fill that role once more?  Can we revive them in the public consciousness?  Can we bring them back from Burroughs’ “silent throngs”?

The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that Trinity University Press in San Antonio, Texas has undertaken efforts to “advanc[e] a Peattie revival” by reissuing nine of his books.  The available titles, many of which have been out of print for decades, can be viewed here.  Edwin Way Teale is likewise the subject of similar revival efforts.  I have previously written about Connecticut Audubon Society’s efforts to revitalize Teale’s long-time Connecticut home and private sanctuary, Trail Wood.  This summer, CAS will welcome five accomplished writers and visual artists to Trail Wood for week-long residencies through the Edwin Way Teale Artists-in-Residence at Trail Wood program.  These efforts to revitalize the important legacies of both Peattie and Teale are significant. They are born, I think, of the realization that, despite the legitimate gains we have made through ongoing modernization, we have likewise lost a great deal.  These efforts, and others like them, represent an acknowledgment that many writers relegated to “the silent throngs of the past” still have much to teach us.

A copy of Edwin Way Teale's A Walk Through the Year inscribed by Teale to his doctor, Jack Woodworth.  At the time of the inscription, Teale had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  From the collection of the author.

The endpaper of a copy of Edwin Way Teale’s A Walk Through the Year inscribed by Teale to his doctor and friend, Jack Woodworth. At the time of the inscription, Teale had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. From the collection of the author.

Borland, Peattie, Teale, and many other twentieth-century natural history writers forged their careers during the Great Depression and, subsequently, the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe during World War II.  Teale lost his only child, David, to a U.S. Army reconnaissance mission along the Moselle River in Germany in 1945. This was a period that poet W.H. Auden famously termed The Age of Anxiety in his book-length poem of that title.  The natural history writers of that age found respite from the weight of that anxiety through immersion in the natural world.  Perhaps now, fifteen years into the twenty-first century, we might characterize ours as an “age of distraction.”  Borland, Peattie, Teale, and others were terribly distracted as well, given the world events during their formative years as writers, but therein lies the difference—a malady in need of cure.  Largely, our distraction lies with ourselves.  We have turned inward, not in self-reflection but to shape ourselves to meet an external and often arbitrary set of expectations defined largely by social media in its various forms.  We construct an illusory life to combat our inner emptiness, but doing so inevitably fails, both individually and societally.  The great natural history writers of preceding generations likewise turned inward and encouraged their readers to do the same, but, in that inner place anchored by outward observation of the natural world, they shaped themselves in the context of its complex and wondrous order, an order of which they felt a part.  We need such a connection now more than ever if we wish to preserve both ourselves and the natural world itself.  Reviving voices from the “silent throngs” can help us forge that connection

True Leisure and the Flight of the Dragonette: Innovating for Sustainability

A chapter illustration by Edward Shenton for Edwin Way Teale's Dune Boy, in which Teale chronicles his flight of a homemade biplane glider, the Dragonette.

A chapter illustration by Edward Shenton for chapter 17 of Edwin Way Teale’s Dune Boy, in which Teale chronicles his flight of a homemade biplane glider, the Dragonette.

By Richard Telford

On December 28, 1959, Life Magazine released a special bonus issue to usher in a new decade, titling it “The Good Life.”  Life’s editors declared, “The new leisure is here.  For the first time a civilization has reached a point where most people are no longer preoccupied exclusively with providing food and shelter,” adding, “there was a time when only the rich had leisure [….],” but “Then came mass production and automation—and suddenly what used to be the small leisured classes became the big leisured masses.”  I learned of this special issue last summer while reading The Hampton Journal, one of four 500-page journals kept by naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale from 1959 until his death in 1980, while he lived with his wife, Nellie, at Trail Wood, the Teales’ private nature sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut.  I thought of this special issue once again, and of Teale in his boyhood days, when I read last week of Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, two Swiss aviators attempting the first trans-global, solar-powered flight. The two are piloting Solar Impulse, which their team characterizes as “the only airplane of perpetual endurance, able to fly day and night on solar power, without a drop of fuel.” Though the subjects above might seem disparate, their strong connections offer important lessons in a time when our present mass production and automation strip us of true leisure and replace it with an illusory leisure defined largely by material goods and social media. Though seemingly paradoxical, the loss of true leisure undercuts exploration, inquiry, and innovation, and, as a byproduct of these losses, it likewise undercuts long-term sustainability across all scales and dynamics, ranging from personal wellbeing to the survival of much of the world’s biodiversity. To understand this sequence of loss multiplying loss, we must begin in the Indiana dune country of Edwin Way Teale’s boyhood.

A later printing of Edwin Way Teale's The Book of Gliders, first published in 1930 by Dutton.  From the collection of the author.

A later printing of Edwin Way Teale’s The Book of Gliders, first published in 1930 by Dutton. From the collection of the author.

Edwin Way Teale in his 1943 memoir of his childhood summers, Dune Boy, writes, “And so it came about, when I was ten years old, that I determined to fly.”  Six years after the Kitty Hawk flight of the Wright brothers, the first public air show, or air-meet, occurred in 1909 in Rheims, France, and it was quickly followed by hundreds of others in a short span of time. Teale notes in his first published book, The Book of Gliders (1930), that by 1914 he “had built a hundred models and four gliders—two monoplanes and two biplanes.  The first ended a brief career with a nose-dive from the chicken coop.  The fourth, a huge biplane that ran along on wheels, was pulled kitewise several times across the lower meadow, with my grandfather galloping ahead, shouting encouragement to old ‘Dolly,’ the family carriage horse, that furnished power.” Teale documents the construction and flight of the latter biplane glider, The Dragonette, in chapters sixteen and seventeen of Dune Boy, and these chapters serve to illustrate the critical value of true leisure, which I define for my purposes here as the opportunity to do what we want or need without the demand to do what others insist we must.

True leisure allows us to explore, observe, and inquire.  True leisure allows us to think, to hypothesize, to rethink, and, ultimately, to grow.  While these processes are most critical in childhood, and their effects potentially most long-lasting, it is a mistake to accept as a given that we shed them in adulthood.  For at least a decade, a dedicated contingent within our society has sounded the alarm over the dwindling sense of connection children feel to the natural world, or to any world beyond the confines of LCD screens and over-programmed lives.  We have, as a society, stripped our children’s lives and our own of true leisure, in great part due to the meteoric rise of mass production and automation which, according to the editors of Life, held such promise fifty-five years ago.  How many of us feel a part of “the big leisured masses” in 2015?  How many of us can proclaim without reservation that we are living “the good life” these days?

Edwin Way Teale, in his December 26, 1959 entry of The Hampton Journal, notes the arrival of Life’s “The Good Life” issue largely with disdain.  He is especially appalled by a three-page fold-out spread advertising Swift’s Premium meats.  He copies the text of the ad in his journal: “Can you imagine any better expression of The Good Life than rare and juicy roast beef labeled—Swift’s Premium.”  To this, he adds the following commentary:

When life is really mirrored by Life, the highest good that people will be able to imagine will no doubt be a slice of roast beef.  Thus words are degraded, language erodes.  The good life of the holy man, the good life of Thoreau’s simple ways are replaced [by a] world of materialism.

To be fair to the then-editors of Life Magazine, the December 1959 special issue does not exclusively focus on the material gains for the “leisured masses.” An unsigned editorial on page 62, for example, notes that “it will be necessary, and probably inevitable, that Americans discover the internal quest for happiness, which is the highest use to which leisure can be put.”  Still, this kind of reflection is largely overshadowed by the issue’s dominant focus on the external quest for happiness through material accumulation.

The aircraft Solar Impulse, which is currently being piloted by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg in an attempt to complete the first trans-global flight in a solar-powered aircraft.  Courtesy of www.solarimpulse.com.

The aircraft Solar Impulse, which is currently being piloted by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg in an attempt to complete the first trans-global flight in a solar-powered aircraft. Courtesy of http://www.solarimpulse.com.

So, when I recently read about Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg and their endeavor to pilot Solar Impulse around the globe, I could not help but think of the thirteen-year-old Edwin Way Teale gliding for several glorious seconds over the Indiana dunes, the whistling of warm air mingling with Grampa Way’s encouraging shouts and Dolly’s hooves thundering against the taut tow rope. I imagine Piccard and Borschberg to have had leisure time, true leisure time, as young boys—time to imagine, to observe, to wonder, to fail, and to succeed. What is striking about their work and that of their larger team is that it represents innovation rooted in simplification, in taking less from the earth and from future generations. Throughout Life’s “The Good Life” issue, one advertisement after the next extols the value of newly cheaper goods that promise a better life: RCA color televisions made $500 cheaper by automated production, Chevrolet Guide-Matic auto-dimming car headlights, Creslan acrylic fiber…“born of a magic molecule.”  In that version of “The Good Life,” everything is easier, cheaper, and more plentiful.  But then, and now, having more often leaves us with less—a reality that so often seems to elude us.  Still, the aimed-for trans-global flight of Solar Impulse offers hope.  It offers a different model for progress, rooted in sustainability-based innovation, and it is one of many such models taking shape today.

Perhaps it is the growing realization that our material goods, no matter their sophistication and abundance, cannot themselves yield happiness.  Perhaps it is a greater cognizance of our overflowing waste stream.  Perhaps it is the increasingly unavoidable reality that anthropogenic climate change is yielding a cascade of deleterious effects.  Perhaps it is the growing awareness of catastrophic and often irreversible biodiversity losses.  Whatever the reasons, we seem poised at the dawn of an era that will be marked by real gains in innovation aimed toward sustainability. In that sense, the flight of Solar Impulse, the progress of which an be monitored here, is simply a noteworthy and imagination-capturing example of broader change already underway. Whether or not the gains we make can outpace, and possibly temper, our consumer culture remains to be seen.  Still, reading Life’s “The Good Life” issue, there is the overriding sense that the consumer at the dawn of the 1960s wore a corporate veil that obscured any and all downsides to progress.  Reading those pages, it is hard to reconcile that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was only two years from serial publication.  Thanks to Carson, Teale, and many others, for us the veil has been lifted. It is only a question of what we do with our new and clearer vision.  Realizing that true leisure is a fundamental need, while the latest iteration of smart phone is a want, is a good place to begin.

 

The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.

Nature, Wondrous and Fragile: The Correspondence Of Rachel Carson and Edwin Way Teale Preserved in the Edwin Way Teale Papers

Please follow the link below to a piece written by EE blogger Richard Telford for University of Connecticut:

Nature, Wondrous and Fragile: The Correspondence Of Rachel Carson and Edwin Way Teale Preserved in the Edwin Way Teale Papers.

Stepping Out of the Digital Sphere: Reviving Film, Reviving Ourselves

A fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond in Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

A fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond in Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut, where naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale spent the latter part of his life. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015

By: Richard Telford

A photograph taken during the author's travel through Arizona's Painted Desert in the summer of 1995. Copyright Richard Telford, 1995.

A photograph taken during the author’s travel through Arizona’s Painted Desert in the summer of 1995. Copyright Richard Telford, 1995.

In June of 1995, several days after the last school day of my second year of teaching, I packed the capped bed of my 1988 Toyota 4×4 pickup with clothes, camping gear, books, and other necessities.  I shut off the utilities in my Connecticut apartment, paid all of my bills, made several phone calls, and left for the summer to see my native land and, with a little luck, return feeling renewed.  Using a newly-purchased Rand McNally North American Road Atlas, I set a loose course westward.  I drove along the northern border, out to Anacortes, Washington, then headed south to the Mexican border, eventually returning east along the southern border.  By the time I arrived home again, I had added 8,300 miles to my odometer and a flood of life experience to my twenty-five-year-young consciousness.  During that summer sojourn, I took with me a now-antiquated Nikon 4004s film camera and a pair of zoom lenses, along with a small cooler full of Kodak Kodachrome 64 and Ektachrome 100, two richly saturated slide films. I had no working knowledge of manual camera operation, so I kept the camera in the program mode, shooting nearly 1,000 frames.  To Nikon’s credit, nearly all of them came out well, but I found myself nagged by a slight sense of disconnection; while I had had the vision to see the potential image itself, I hadn’t the faintest notion of how the camera had negotiated the available light to capture it—at best a half victory.

The author as passenger in a Cessna light plane flying over the San Juan Islands, Washington State, in the summer of 1995.

The author as passenger in a Cessna light plane flying over the San Juan Islands, Washington State, in the summer of 1995.

Thus, during the following fall, I searched newspaper ads for a used, fully manual camera sans automation.  While in Michigan, my brother had introduced me to the 1994 McBroom’s Camera Bluebook, and, after dog-earing numerous pages and balancing features with price, I settled on the purchase of a first-generation 35mm Canon F-1n, manufactured from 1971-1981, a simple but nearly indestructible professional camera.  As I have written about elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange, with that purchase I began a photographic journey that has included shooting with nearly all commonly available film formats and camera types, including both 35mm and medium format SLRs and rangefinders, and even several 4×5 inch sheet film view cameras from the 1940s.  I became proficient in hand-developing and printing my own work, had several gallery shows, and even worked a two-year stint as a part-time photojournalist, from 1999 to 2001, when film was giving way to the early digital SLRs—a change which I lamented deeply.  Despite recognizing digital photography’s enormous potential, I mourned the loss of a form that had reached its apex, a feeling that has not altogether left me even now.

The front cover of Edwin Way Teale's 1937 book Grassroot Jungles.  From the collection of the author.

The front cover of Edwin Way Teale’s 1937 book Grassroot Jungles. From the collection of the author.

I eventually sold off most of my film equipment and stored the rest, shifting entirely to digital shooting.  Still, my love for film never waned, and, for many years I formulated and reformulated plans to return, at least in part, to film photography.  Recently, once again feeling a strong compulsion to do so, I began to research mail order developing companies that could likewise perform high-quality scans of medium format negatives.  I took my medium format equipment—a trio of 6x6cm Rolleiflex SLRs and three fixed focal length Carl Zeiss lenses out of storage after a nearly ten-year hiatus.  In doing so, I aimed to recapture the sense of wonder inherent in photography that, absent an LCD screen, is rooted in knowledge of the interplay of shutter speed and aperture and film speed, photography for which the shutter release is an act of faith in the latent, unseen image soon to emerge.  I hoped to shed the speed of the world around me, if only a little—to compose, to see, to allow a finite number of film frames to open my creativity in a way that a high-capacity memory card cannot.  For me, there was no better place for this reawakening than the Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, the former private sanctuary of American naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale, which is now owned and managed by the Connecticut Audubon Society.  Teale pioneered insect photography shortly before and during World War II, astonishing the world with his close-up insect images in two books, Grassroot Jungles (1937) and Near Horizons (1943), winning the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing for the latter.  Teale himself had tramped the sanctuary grounds countless times with camera in hand, and, with his wife Nellie, had likewise cut the trails I would walk that morning.  Together, they created numerous names by which to delineate those Trails and their notable features, names that persist to this day.

Arriving to Trail Wood before dawn, I shouldered my tightly-packed bag and tripod and headed up The Lane, the dirt access road that leads to the Teales’ 1805 center-chimney Cape Cod home, which is pictured on the cover of his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm.  The weather report predicted a clear day, and I hoped to position myself to photograph the early sunlight that Robert Frost so aptly characterizes in his famous short poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  I considered as subjects one of the open pastures near the house:  Firefly Meadow or The Starfield or Monument Pasture. I likewise considered heading toward the Upper North Woods to capture the breaking light as it spread its arc across three-acre Beaver Pond, or heading eastward to capture the light rising over the nearly-frozen, south-flowing Hampton Brook. I momentarily chided myself for not having come with more of a plan but as quickly dismissed the feeling.  In our frenetic, technology-driven lives, we feel compelled to over-plan our fragments of “down time” so much that we render ourselves unable to enjoy them.  In our compulsive drive to infuse them with value, we risk devaluing them.  On that brisk morning, as I tromped up The Lane, my ears filled with the steady crunch of rime-coated soil and stones beneath my feet, I was determined not to do so.

The author's Rolleiflex 6006 Model 2, manufactured from 1989 to 1993.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

The author’s Rolleiflex 6006 Model 2, manufactured from 1989 to 1993. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

Shooting 120 roll film, which has remained largely unchanged since Kodak introduced it in 1901, imposes limits that are largely anachronistic to the digital majority of the present time.  Though it might seem ironic, this, I would argue, is its chief strength.  In a 6x6cm camera, a roll of 120 film will produce 12 images.  The finished roll must be removed from the camera, at which point the photographer must fold the paper backing, lick a strip of adhesive-backed paper attached at the roll’s end, and wrap the roll tightly to avoid exposure to stray light until the film can be processed.  To load another roll, the photographer reverses this process, opening the paper backing at the start of a new roll of film, threading the paper onto an empty spool, advancing it first by hand and then with the camera’s mechanism.  These processes form a kind of precursor and postscript to the taking of the images, which is itself a process made more deliberate and more meaningful precisely because of its seeming limitations.  Each frame is carefully composed and recomposed; ambient light is calculated and recalculated; focus and depth of field are checked and rechecked; the final composed shot is assessed; and, in the end, the shutter may or may not be tripped.  On that recent January morning at Trail Wood, I shot only twelve frames in three hours, and most of those were taken within a few short intervals.  I composed and left unrecorded far more shots than I took.

At daybreak, the sun did not, as it had been predicted to do, break through the low cloud cover, leaving the pasture light rather dull and unremarkable, so I took to the woods.  As I headed to the north and east, toward Beaver Pond, the sun did break through the low clouds for several minutes, only a few degrees above the horizon.  It bathed the upper branches of the mature canopy with fiery orange light, and, almost as quickly as I set my camera up and began to compose, I halted the process, immediately aware that I could not capture what I was seeing in the way that I wished.  That image, though not captured on film, will remain in my mind for many days to come.  For me, photographing nature is as much about seeing as it is about recording.  While a 32-gigabyte memory card loaded in a sophisticated digital SLR may enable one to shoot with abandon and hope for the best, film demands a different approach, a different impulse, a different, and to my mind deeper, way of seeing.  This is especially true when shooting with a simple array of fixed focal length lenses, as I was that morning.  Are these limits?  In a way.  Do they limit our vision?  I don’t think so.

Needle ice forming at the edge of Beaver Pond at Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut, where naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale spent the latter part of his life.

Needle ice forming at the edge of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

As I walked alongside the diminutive Hyla Pond—named by the Teales for its breeding population of Hyla crucifer, the spring peeper—a barred owl (Strix varia) crossed the trail before me and roosted in a venerable red oak (Quercus rubra) near the trail’s edge.  Although we frequently hear the calling of barred owls around our old farmhouse, I have seen them only a handful of times, and here again was a photograph of the mind never to be recorded on film, though not lessened by that fact.  Reaching Beaver Pond, I composed numerous images but shot only a few.  Even those did not seem to me to be fully realized.  Some images are final destinations, while others are necessary steps along the way.  Both are equally important.

A second view of the fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

A second view of the fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

Upon my return, not far from where I saw the barred owl, I noticed another venerable red oak, this one toppled by wind or disease.  Its broken form, running parallel to Beaver Pond to the west, cut across the living lines of forest that unfolded in dense succession to the east.  The oak’s exposed red sinews flowed in liquid form, seeming to burst from its deeply furrowed bark.  At the center of the break, splintered points formed jagged fans that followed the arc of the canopy above and of the earth itself.  I spent nearly an hour working my way around the fallen giant, framing one image after another, only rarely tripping the shutter.  I mostly worked along the Beaver Pond side of the trunk, but, upon circling the fragmented root mass to examine the other side, I found the image I wanted.  After composing and recomposing, moving my tripod near and away, raising and lowering its height, I shot my twelfth frame and listened to the hum of the camera’s motor drive as it pulled the last of the paper backing off the starter spool.  Though I had more film with me, I chose not to load another roll.  Three hours and twelve frames later, I veered off from the path I had taken to Beaver Pond and cut through The Starfield to head for home.

My simple in-home darkroom was dismantled long ago, and I have no plans to recreate it. Nor do I plan to walk away from digital photography, as I am deeply grateful for what it offers me in terms of production speed, ease of publication, and the capacity for wide dissemination of my images. It has creative benefits as well.  For example, my digital camera work in macro photography, a technique laden with lighting and exposure challenges, has opened up new worlds for me.  This has been especially true in my photo-documentation and identification of the dragonflies that frequent our property, which I have written about elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange.  No single photographic format or medium has ever been or will ever be ideal for all subjects.  By the latter half of the twentieth century, the 4×5-inch Graflex view camera and the 6×6-centimeter Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, formerly journalistic mainstays, had been largely superseded by a new generation of faster, lighter 35mm cameras, just as the latter have been superseded in kind by their digital counterparts.  This is, perhaps, the trajectory of all technologies that we develop to automate the processes in which we engage, artistic and otherwise.  The inherent danger of this trajectory is that we become more and more alienated from the processes facilitated by those new technologies as more is done for us and less is required of us, both in thought and action.  In many ways, our detachment from the processes that govern our daily lives likewise fosters a corresponding detachment both from the natural world and from our role in it.  Perhaps in choosing to view nature through a simpler lens, both literally and figuratively, we are given a clearer view both of nature and of ourselves, allowing us to value each more fully.

A Place to Live, a Place to Die: Forging Deep Connections to the Land

By: Richard Telford

The quintessentially American poet Walt Whitman, in the 1892 “Deathbed Edition” final revision of his opus 52-section “Song of Myself,” writes the following couplet in the poem’s final section:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

American poet Walt Whitman in a photograph taken by Matthew Brady, circa 1860-1865.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

American poet Walt Whitman in a photograph taken by Matthew Brady, circa 1860-1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It was section 52 of Whitman’s resonant and deeply moving poem that I selected as one of two readings for my father’s funeral more than a decade ago.  In the poem as a whole, Whitman conveys a striking duality—he extols both our individual significance and insignificance.  Whitman opens the poem with his famous declaration, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume […],” but he immediately acknowledges thereafter that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  He ultimately articulates both the connectedness and the democracy of “Nature without check with original energy.”  In the end, Whitman argues, we are deeply connected to the land and to each other, whether or not we fully realize it; we are all “coaxe[d]” to “the vapor and the dusk” and ultimately “depart as air.”  And in this democracy of our return to earth—natural earth, atomic earth, final earth—there is, I believe, likewise a democracy of potential deep connection to the natural world, not just in the profound self-realization of facing our own deaths but in life, minute-by-minute life, from cradle to grave.  That sense of connection often lies latent, largely untapped, obscured by a parade of distractions—a truth not just for our era but all eras, though each manifests it in new ways as well as old—but that potential remains.  What is latent can be made vibrant, what is untapped can be tapped, what lies hidden can be made to rise—by our own conscious actions and by fostering such actions in others.  Whitman and so many others who have articulated a deep connection to the land offer us hope.  So too does the natural curiosity of childhood, an in-born impulse to explore which is often whittled away by the societal structures we impose upon it but need not be.  In a time when we face what Richard Leaky, Roger Lewin, Niles Eldredge, and others have termed The Sixth Extinction, the unprecedented anthropogenically-driven loss of biodiversity, the fostering of that impulse to explore, both in our children and in ourselves, is essential.

The author's two-year-old son romping under a sprinkler during the dog days of summer.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The author’s two-year-old son romping under a sprinkler during the dog days of summer. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

During the last two decades, place-based education—championed by Laurie Lane-Zucker, John Elder, David Sobel, and many others—has risen to the forefront of the effort to foster conservation-mindedness and overall wellbeing in the general public, especially children. As Mary Rivkin has written in The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside (1995), “For the long-term conservation of the world, it seems reasonable that children need a strong base of firsthand knowledge.”  It is the absence of such firsthand knowledge that has rightfully sounded alarms over the future of the conservation movement and of the natural world at all scales. The effects of this experiential gap have most famously, and in some circles controversially, been characterized by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods (revised edition 2008) as Nature-Deficit Disorder.  The picture painted by Louv in his many writings, by David Sobel in Beyond Ecophobia and elsewhere, and by many others, is a dire one, as it should be, but I draw hope from the literary record, from the naturalist writers who achieved in life the deepest connections to the land, leaving for subsequent generations an instructive record of those connections.  If many of these writers have themselves faded from the public consciousness, it is, I think, simply one more reflection of the societal shift away from the natural world in deference to one marked by consumption, by largely vacuous electronic communication, by hollowness and unsustainability.  As we consciously work to foster and to forge the latent, ready, critical connection between children and the natural world, naturalist writers can provide us a model, a guide by which we may foster and forge those connections first within ourselves.  How can we otherwise give to future generations what is largely absent in us?

When naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale moved in 1959 to Trail Wood, the 130-acre home and sanctuary where he would spend the remaining twenty-one years of his life, he noted in a newly started journal, “We are more fortunate than Moses—we saw our Promised Land and entered it as well […]; our search was wide but in the end we found our Eden” (September 18, 1959).  Ten days later, in a subsequent entry, he notes:  “Here is place to live in and a place to die in, too.”  Despite having just arrived to the place that he would later document in two books, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974) and A Walk Through the Year (1978), Teale had the vision to see the fulfillment, the sloughing off of the unimportant, that could be had in such a place.  We spend our lives seeking our own Edens, and the short-term targets of that search are often the illusory shadows of success as we are led to see it: material goods, social media adulation, the outward shows of status in all its forms.  What Teale and Whitman, Louv and Sobel, and many others knew and know is that it is through the permanence of the natural world, no matter how we alter it, that we can reconcile our own impermanence.  What better motive can we have for valuing, embracing, and ultimately conserving the natural world?  What better example can we offer to future generations?

In the early spring of 1921, naturalist writer John Burroughs was gravely ill, and he embarked upon a cross-country train trip in hopes of dying amidst his beloved Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.  He died en route, and a March 30 New York Times story reported that passengers aboard the train wept openly as the nationally beloved Burroughs was taken from the train.  Edwin Way Teale, dying of cancer in 1980, produced several rough sketches of a headstone to ostensibly mark his and Nellie Teale’s resting place, and to commemorate their only child, David, who was declared dead one year after going missing in action during heavy fighting along the Moselle River in Germany in 1945.  The following statement appears in penciled script along the top edge of one of Teale’s headstone sketches: “Ashes scattered over The Starfield at Trail Wood.”  Like Whitman, Teale wished to bequeath himself to the land he loved.  For both Burroughs and Teale, their deep connections to the land guided their lives to the end. Their final acts culminated lives deeply connected to the natural world and to the respective places that had profoundly shaped those connections. Such deep connections can be found in the work of living writers, as well;  consider Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Robert Michael Pyle’s The Thunder Tree or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Walt Whitman opens section 6 of “Song of Myself” with the following couplet:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;                   How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

In these lines, Whitman captures the natural, exploratory curiosity of childhood.  He likewise articulates well how comparatively small our understanding of the natural world truly is, rendering us, if we are honest with ourselves, always explorers.  In that sense, perhaps the sum of what we don’t know can drive us to keep the good impulses of childhood that we often shed too readily.  It is these impulses that allow us to make deep connections to the land, both in living life and leaving it.

Featured image: The Starfield, a pasture in Trail Wood, the abandoned farm where naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Teale’s ashes were scattered in The Starfield after his death in 1980. Photograph by Richard Telford, Copyright 2013.

Dragonflies, Humility, and the Conservation of Biodiversity

A female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa).  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa). Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

By:  Richard Telford

In 1970, Roger Tory Peterson wrote, “Entomologists fall into two categories:  those who find insects endlessly fascinating and those who would get rid of them.”  Reflecting the controversy at that time over the indiscriminate use of DDT (for which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would subsequently issue a cancellation order in 1972) and other pesticides, Peterson suggested that the latter group of entomologists might “eventually wind up working for chemical companies, devising more sophisticated techniques of annihilation.”   The dualism that Peterson notes above, though necessarily oversimplified, is nonetheless reflective of a pattern that extends far beyond the world of entomologists.  Insects have a remarkable capacity to evoke in their human observers both fear (largely irrational and unfounded) and wonder (quite rational and well founded).  In his ground-breaking books on the insect world, Grassroot Jungles (1937) and Near Horizons (1942), Edwin Way Teale extolled the immeasurable value of the latter response; it required, he argued, only the willingness to slow the pace of our hectic lives long enough to observe a complex and remarkable world we largely overlook.

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), perched on the author's son's tricycle handlebar, consumes an insect taken on the wing.  Note a discarded appendage in the  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), perched on the author’s son’s tricycle handlebar, consumes an insect taken on the wing. Note a discarded appendage in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Few insects offer a more ready source of wonder than dragonflies, which are grouped with damselflies in the order Odonata.  The name Odonata is derived from the Greek odonto, meaning tooth—a reflection of their powerful, sharp-toothed mandibles and maxillae, the paired upper and lower jaws that facilitate quick, efficient consumption of prey.  Dragonflies, which form the suborder Anisoptera, take prey only in flight, often cupping their six barbed legs in a basket-like shape in order to entrap their target; smaller prey is often consumed without landing.  The maxillae contain a pronged inner piece that James G. Needham described in his classic 1929 A Manual of the Dragonflies of North America as “perfectly shaped for a meat fork, used for holding a captured insect and for turning it as the mandibles cut it up.”  The deftness of this process is readily apparent when observing a perched dragonfly speedily consume its prey.  This is just one of a host of evolutionary adaptions that have shaped the dragonfly into the unrivaled aerial predator of the insect world.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings  can create up to 3,000 isolated "cells" in the membrane of each individual wing,  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Dragonflies possess four wings, each of which can move independently of the others and can rotate on a forward and backward axis, yielding a supremely dynamic capacity for flight.  Dragonflies can fly in all geometric planes.  Helicopter-like, they can fly straight up and down or hover in place.  They can fly backward and forward, turn abruptly at acute angles, and repeatedly flip their bodies.  Harvard Biochemist Stacey Combes, leading a team of researchers who have studied dragonfly flight in a specially built enclosure at the Combes Laboratory in Bedford, Massachusetts, has noted that dragonflies can perform hundreds of such flips while hunting, seemingly without significant exertion.  Her team has also documented predation success rates as high as 90 percent in some dragonflies—a truly astonishing figure.  Equally astonishing is the speed with which dragonflies engage in these aerial acrobatics.  Dragonflies routinely fly at speeds of 15 to 30 miles per hour, with some species flying considerably faster.  Credible speed estimates for the Green Darner (Anax junius), for example, range between 35 and 55 miles per hour during straightaway flight.  This prompted Edwin Way Teale, in Grassroots Jungle, to title his dragonfly chapter “Winged Bullets.”

A close-up view of the compound eyes of a female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).  The ommatidia, or individual lenses,  are plainly visible.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A close-up view of the compound eyes of a female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). The ommatidia, or individual lenses, are plainly visible. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

One other adaption deserving special note is the dragonfly’s pair of bulbous compound eyes, each of which can contain up to 30,000 ommatidia, or individual lenses, each with its own cornea.  The extraordinary perceptive sensitivity of such a structure, in conjunction with the size and placement of the dragonfly’s compound eyes, yields a nearly 360-degree field of vision—a critical adaption that facilitates the flight patterns and the predation success rate outlined above.  The dragonfly’s acuity of sight likewise provides a critical defense against predation.  Furthermore, while the human eye contains three opsins, or light-sensing proteins, dragonfly eyes can possess up to five.  So, while we effectively perceive color through the RGB scale (Red, Blue, Green,) dragonflies can additionally perceive ultraviolet light invisible to humans as well as plane-polarized, or reflected, light.  This latter capacity is clearly valuable to a creature that begins its life in water and is destined to return there; both the female and the male return to the water, the former to lay eggs and the latter to protect her during that vulnerable process.

A female Common Whitetail Skimmer (Plathemis lydia) at the day's end.  Unless disturbed, it will remain there until the warmth of the following day revives it.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) at rest behind the author’s compost pile at the day’s end. Unless disturbed, it will remain there until the warmth of the following day revives it. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Early this summer, toward dusk, I walked out to the compost pile located at the edge of our yard.  Just behind the compost pile, in an overgrown former strawberry garden, I spied a dragonfly suspended by its six legs, wings spread, where it would sleep for the night.  Prior to reading Edwin Way Teale’s Journey Into Summer (1960), I had never thought about the sleep of insects.  In his book, Teale on a number of occasions notes finding insects at rest at twilight or by flashlight during the night.  Teale’s observations of this phenomenon, which had persisted in my mind only in abstract form, took shape before my eyes.  The natural world reminds us that there is so much to learn, or at the least so much to which we can pay attention if we choose to do so.  I stood long at our compost pile, swarmed by mosquitoes and mesmerized by the beautiful symmetry of this extraordinary creature, which I would later identify as a female Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia); its stillness at rest contrasted sharply with its swift, deliberate, predatory daytime flight.  I hastily fetched a camera and tripod and, with long exposure times, took several photographs.

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) perched in a group of bearded irises.  Copyright:  Richard Telford, 2014

A female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) perched in a group of bearded irises. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

From that moment, influenced in part by recent time spent reading the correspondence between Rachel Carson and Edwin Way Teale housed at the University of Connecticut’s Dodd Research Center, and in part simply by a sense of wonder and appreciation, I have spent the summer photographing the dragonflies that hunt the cleared half acre of our old farm property.  All of the photographs that accompany this writing are the product of that effort.  As I do summer chores and projects, I keep near at hand a tripod-mounted camera with macro lens affixed.  While I sense that I have seen a greater variety of dragonfly species this summer than I can recall seeing during any of the previous ten summers spent in our 1770 farmhouse, I suspect this is not true.  Instead, this perception may simply result from, in Teale’s words, my choice to “pause like [a] stooping giant to peer down into the grassroot jungle at [my] feet.”

This female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa) repeatedly return to this perch during a long sequence of hunting flights.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

This female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa) repeatedly returned to this perch during a long sequence of hunting flights. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Recently, our local state roads have been lined with advertising signs for a regional Mosquito Squad franchise.  The signs promise, “No Bugs. No Bites. No Kidding.”  It is an unfortunate echo of Roger Tory Peterson’s statement above.  Several years ago, Lynne Peeples, writing for the Huffington Post, reported on mounting criticism that Mosquito Squad’s marketing use of a superhero-like cartoon character, Dread Skeeter, targets children and obfuscates both the human health and environmental risks inherent in spraying neurotoxic chemicals for insect control.  At a time when pollinating insect populations are suffering catastrophic declines, so much so that the White House just today issued a press release outlining the problem and proposing a course of mitigating actions, we must rethink our relationship with the insect world.  A world with no bugs and no bites is likewise a world with no biodiversity, and that is a world in which even the human species cannot survive.  In 1937, Edwin Way Teale wrote, “We cannot ignore the insects; we cannot dismiss them as insignificant.”  In 1970, Roger Tory Peterson wrote, “[…] insects, because of their astronomical numbers, are undeniably important in our lives.  They cannot be ignored.”  Still, more than 50 years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, we struggle to accept the notion that our co-existence with the rest of the natural world cannot be negotiated on our terms alone.  Where Dread Skeeter succeeds, dragonflies, which rely principally on mosquitos and small gnats for survival, will vanish, and each loss of this kind precipitates a cascade of other such losses—another lesson that we have been slow to learn.

A female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) in the obelisk position.  Some dragonflies assume this position to reduce the percentage of body surface area that is exposed to the sun, effectively cooling them.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

A female Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) in the obelisk position. Some dragonflies assume this position to reduce the percentage of body surface area that is exposed to the sun, effectively cooling them. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

Recent research on dragonflies has revealed an extraordinary dimension to their hunting.  Rather than pursuing its prey, a dragonfly intercepts it, meaning that it must calculate the distance, speed, and direction of its target, adjusting its own speed and direction accordingly.  In this context, the predatory success rates of dragonflies documented at the Combes Laboratory are even more impressive. While its superb capacities for flight and vision certainly facilitate this action, it is a complex set of neurological functions that makes such sophisticated targeting possible.  This complexity, much of which we do not yet fully understand, should give us pause.  According to the fossil record, dragonflies have existed for nearly 300 million years, a fact which can perhaps begin to give us insight on this complexity.  Teale argued in 1937 that humans have “lived on earth but a single hour in comparison to the long history of the insects.”  The implicit humility of this statement is critical to the long-term preservation of the insect world and of biodiversity itself.

A male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).  Copyright:  Richard Telford, 2014

A male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

 

Before Rachel Carson

Edwin Way Teale's ground-breaking article published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before Rachel Carson began serializing Silent Spring in The New Yorker in June of 1962.

Edwin Way Teale’s ground-breaking article published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before Rachel Carson began serializing Silent Spring in The New Yorker in June of 1962.

By Richard Telford

When Rachel Carson contemplated the writing of Silent Spring, it was naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale to whom she wrote to see if he thought what she later termed “the poison book” was viable; he encouraged her, and their correspondence would continue throughout the writing of the book that would so profoundly change the landscape of American—and global—conservation. Teale was acutely aware of the need for such a book, as he had written a ground-breaking article on DDT published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before the serialization of Silent Spring would start in The New Yorker in June of 1962. In his article, Teale painted a dire picture of the potentially catastrophic results that indiscriminate DDT use would wreak on the natural world. Even the magazine’s editors dedicated a full page of commentary to Teale’s article, noting, “We commend for serious and mature consideration the leading article in this issue of the magazine. It is, we believe, significant in thought and implication, even beyond the subject it discusses—the new insecticide, DDT.”

In his article, Teale, while acknowledging the critical role of military use of DDT in the European and Pacific Theaters during the Second World War, expressed the fear that “lackwit officials after the war […] will be off with yelps of joy on a crusade against all the insects.” Such a crusade, Teale argued, would produce “effects [that] would be felt for generations to come.” He continued, “A winter stillness would fall over the woods and fields. There would be no katydids, no crickets, no churring grasshoppers or shrilling locusts, no bright-winged and vocal birds. Trout and other gamefish, poisoned by the DDT or starving as the insects disappeared, would die in the lakes and mountain streams. Wildflowers, in all the infinite variety of their forms and shades, would gradually disappear from the openings and the hillsides. The landscape would become drab, clad in grays and greens and browns. […]. No drought, no flood, no hurricane could cause the widespread disaster that would follow in the train of the annihilation of the insects.” The parallels to the opening chapter of Silent Spring, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” are striking.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), one of the "bright-winged and vocal birds" that Edwin Way Teale feared would be silenced by indiscriminate use of DDT.  Rachel Carson likewise feared a "spring without voices." Photo Copyright 2012, Richard Telford.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), one of the “bright-winged and vocal birds” that Edwin Way Teale feared would be silenced by indiscriminate use of DDT. Rachel Carson likewise feared a “spring without voices.” Photo Copyright 2012, Richard Telford.

This is not to suggest that Rachel Carson stole what should have been Edwin Way Teale’s thunder as a prominent crusader against the indiscriminate use of DDT; there is no evidence to suggest that Teale himself ever held that view. On the contrary, their correspondence suggests the opposite. Instead, the object lesson here is that one individual cannot, through his or her own isolated efforts, cause seismic shifts in public thought, policy, and action, environmental or otherwise. Instead, the profound shift in the public’s view of DDT suggests that only a complex bulwark of thought and action, built through the efforts of many “voices in the wilderness,” can allow for one voice to fully articulate, facilitate, and subsequently come to represent such a profound change.  Street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s concept of “the decisive moment” seems aptly applicable here. This does not in any way diminish the work that Rachel Carson did. On the contrary, it illustrates her capacity to capitalize, both consciously and unconsciously, on the opportunity latent in that groundwork laid beforehand. This she did to the great benefit of generations to follow but at great cost to herself personally and, in some circles of thought, to her long-term legacy.

In his 1958 book Darwin’s Century, anthropologist and gifted natural history writer Loren Eiseley argues the presence of just such a pattern in Charles Darwin’s development of his theory of evolution. Eiseley painstakingly elucidates the influence on Darwin of the work of many scientists and great thinkers who preceded him, such as Gregor Mendel, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, James Hutton, Sir Charles Lyell, and others, as well as the work of his contemporaries such as Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace. Essentially, Eiseley argues, many components critical to evolutionary theory were already established at the time Darwin set off on the H.M.S. Beagle. However, none of his predecessors or contemporaries “saw, in such a similar manner, the whole vista of life with such sweeping vision.” Because of this, Eiseley concludes, “Darwin’s shadow will run a long way forward into the future.”

It is important to note that, aside from Teale, there were other early, prominent critics of the indiscriminate use of DDT, including American essayist E.B. White, as well as Richard Pough who, among his legion accomplishments in land and bird conservation, served as the Nature Conservancy’s first president. White had written passionately against the indiscriminate use of DDT in the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker in May of 1945, citing both Teale and Pough as sources. Carson would later write to E.B. White in 1958, suggesting that he write an article addressing concerns over the proposed spraying of DDT to control gypsy moth populations on Long Island. He declined to do so but suggested that she might write it herself for The New Yorker, setting the stage for the subsequent serialization of Silent Spring in the magazine four years later.

After Rachel Carson’s death in 1964, E.B. White, in a tribute written in “Talk of the Town,” clearly recognized her role in centralizing and giving prominent voice to the mounting concerns over indiscriminate DDT use. He wrote, “She was not a fanatic or a cultist. She was not against chemicals per se. She was against the indiscriminate use of strong, enduring poisons capable of subtle, long-term damage to plants, animals, and man. No contributor to these pages more effectively combined a warm passion for nature’s mysteries with a cool warning that things can easily go wrong.”  Rachel Carson had captured and later came to represent a decisive moment in the twentieth-century conservation movement.

Of great interest is the fact that the work of the early DDT critics may have gone unnoticed by Carson. In a footnote to her 1997 book Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, Linda Lear notes that “there is no indication that Carson knew of White’s 1946 editorial when she wrote her 1958 letter to him.” Similarly, Sidney Landon Plum of the University of Connecticut has noted that there is likewise no clear evidence that Carson read Teale’s 1946 article in Nature Magazine. This may be hard to conceive of in 2014 in our highly digitized, instant-access society, but it is not so hard to believe in an American society preoccupied with the violent rise and costly defeat of the Axis Powers. It is also quite possible that Carson did see one or both pieces, especially given the prominence at that time of their respective authors and publications; the evidence of this, if it ever existed, may simply be lost to time. In the end, though, it hardly matters. The lesson is the same. If we wish to advocate for the environment, and by doing so advocate for ourselves and future generations, we must recognize our potential roles in constructing a bulwark for meaningful change. No contribution to that bulwark is too small.

Like Pough and Teale, and to a lesser degree White (who is now remembered largely for his children’s books and selected essays, and little at all for his environmental advocacy), we must realize that we, as contributors to the larger bulwark, will inevitably fall in the shadow of prominent figures like Thoreau or Darwin or Carson. This, however, does not diminish the importance, even the necessity, of the slow, steady, and often forgotten work that precedes meaningful change. Cartier-Bresson coined his phrase from a statement he attributed to seventeenth-century French Cardinal de Retz: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”  These decisive moments are not flashes of brilliance absent of context.  We can all contribute to them and, to the degree that it is possible, must endeavor to do so.

Reading the Winter Landscape

Intersecting needle ice beneath the footbridge at Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Intersecting needle ice beneath the footbridge at Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

By: Richard Telford

In his 1978 book,  A Walk Through the Year, Edwin Way Teale writes with eloquent simplicity, “Summer diversifies; winter simplifies.”  In mid-January, after a light overnight snow, I spent a full morning walking the southern half of Edwin and Nellie Teale’s Trail Wood, now the 168-acre Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, administered by the Connecticut Audubon Society. I hoped to take advantage of the simplification of the winter landscape in order to better understand natural processes that are often hidden or even absent in the spring, summer, and early fall.  Even in the heart of a particularly cold winter, the landscape teemed with life, with the remnants of ended life, and with the precursors of life to come.

View from the footbridge, Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

View from the footbridge, Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Cutting through Firefly Meadow, due south of the Teales’ former 1805 center-chimney Cape Cod home, I crossed the small footbridge leading westward to Juniper Hill, the site of Edwin’s modest writing cabin, which he modeled after Thoreau’s cabin at Walden. The footbridge spans a spillway the Teales named Stepping Stone Brook; during times of overflow, it drains the one-acre pond the Teales had dug in the summer of 1964.  Standing on the footbridge, my eye was drawn to the striking geometry of ice formations along the pond’s edge, the ice at this end of the pond kept thin by the moving water.  Lines of needle ice ran parallel to one another like tightly packed feather barbs, intersecting at sharp angles with like formations, dendritic ice filling the open angles at these intersections. Polygonal forms etched the near surface—trapezoids, right and scalene and isosceles triangles—geometric expressions of the crystalline structure of ice.

Climbing Juniper Hill, I headed north along Shagbark Hickory Trail.  I had hiked this trail one week earlier with my five-year-old daughter and had been surprised to see what looked like an eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched on a thick hickory branch that crossed the trail roughly twenty feet overhead.  Viewed through 10×50 binoculars, the coloration pattern seemed unmistakable, though the blue was slightly more slate in tone and the feathers were fully puffed out, making it look overly stout.  To my further surprise, I saw two more specimens in neighboring trees. Upon arriving home, I combed through my copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds and could find no obvious alternatives.  Further, Sibley’s illustration of a bright adult female variation seemed a good match.  Subsequently, I found the following passage in the December 23 entry in Teale’s A Walk Through the Year:  “A bluebird of December […] flies above me over the snow-covered fields as I trudge home in the early sunset of this shorter afternoon. […]. Throughout the winter each year a few of these gentle-voiced singers drift about our Hampton region.”   On my return trip to Trail Wood on this winter morning, I hoped I might repeat the previous week’s sighting, but the bluebirds were absent, as were any others with the exception of a lone pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) drumming unseen in the distance.

Needle ice with dendritic formations in a seasonal pool along the Shagbark Hickory Trail, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Needle ice with dendritic formations in a seasonal pool along the Shagbark Hickory Trail, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Continuing north, I found a small pool, roughly three feet in diameter, its shallow bottom lined with a monochromatic bed of white and scarlet oak leaves (Quercus alba and coccinea). Thin ice coated the surface, and here again was the mosaic of needle ice and dendritic formations, a reminder of the symmetry of natural systems. Beneath the ice, leaf litter and other organic detritus, broken down by fungi and various microorganisms, enriched the pool with nutrients.  Algae coating the leaves did so further.  With spring, these pools scattered throughout Trail Wood enlarge with melted snow and spring rains, transforming them into breeding sites for obligate and facultative species such as the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), distinguished by its yellow polka dots,  and the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), often seen in its juvenile land-dwelling red eft stage. These small pools dot Trail Wood’s landscape like earthen kettles, made visible in winter by the leafless understory.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) leaves blow in a light winter breeze, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) leaves blow in a light winter breeze, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Approaching the Old Colonial Road, an east-west trail that is a remnant of Colonial-period horse travel in all its forms, I imagined the travelers who had crossed this way in the course of daily business, travelers who led hard-scrabble lives that likely lent little time for exploration of the kind in which I engaged that brisk morning.  Teale notes in his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm that as of 1959, “The ground was still packed hard from the wheels of wagons and carriages and, some say, stagecoaches that once traveled over this long-abandoned way.”  In fact, one remarkable feature of Trail Wood is the unusual variety of Colonial-period stone walls, many of which reflect not only utility but aesthetic artistry.  These walls now provide extensive habitat, and for the New Englander they feel as much a natural part of the landscape as the mature canopies that have succeeded the once clear-cut fields. Here in my walk I was treated to the soft, baby-rattle sound of the light gold leaves of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), a sound familiar to any winter hiker of broad-leaf deciduous New England forests. The American beech is the only deciduous New England tree that does not drop its dried leaves until the following spring.  Gazing in all directions, I could observe beech trees in all growth stages, their ubiquity reflecting the species’ shade-tolerance; only the winter landscape affords such a view.

The beaver lodge in the Far North Woods of Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

The beaver lodge in the Far North Woods of Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

After a brief traverse east along the Old Colonial Road, I headed north, quickly encountering Hyla Pond, a vernal pool named for its annual breeding population of Hyla crucifer, the spring peeper.  Following Hyla Rill, the small stream that fills the seasonal pond with outflow from the three-acre beaver pond to the north, I reached the latter site after a ten-minute walk.  Here too the winter landscape offered many insights. The double-humped beaver (Castor canadensis) lodge at the pond’s center rose from the stump-laden, snow-dusted ice.  The damn at the pond’s southwestern edge elevated the water’s surface four or more feet above the neighboring ground, an extraordinary feat of engineering.

Tree clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Tree clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Southern ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Southern ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Tree clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum) and southern ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum), commonly referred to as fan clubmoss, sprouted from extensive root networks, forming colonies along the pond’s perimeter.  Both plants, despite their conifer-like appearance, are considered fern-allies according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because, like ferns, they reproduce via spores.  These two clubmosses blanketed the spaces between bigtooth aspen and red maple stumps, many covered with layers of shelf-type fungi; nothing goes to waste in natural systems.

These lopped stumps that yield both food and shelter to the resident beavers in turn become habitat to various saprobes, which, by hastening the decomposition of the dead woody material, replenish soil nutrients, cycling energy for future generations of scores of organisms.

Coyote scat with white-tailed deer fur, bone, and dried cartilage, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Coyote scat with white-tailed deer fur, bone, and dried cartilage, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

The walk south from the beaver pond to Woodcock Pasture, just west of the Teales’ former home, contrasted former life with life to come.  On the trail I found a nearly disintegrated coyote (Canis latrans) scat loaded with dense clumps of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) hair mixed with fragments of bone and dried cartilage, a common site at Trail Wood. Crossing Fern Brook, I noticed a single shoot of skunk cabbage rising from the water, an early sign of spring.  Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) can flower as early as February, in part because it is thermogenic, meaning it can raise its temperature above the ambient temperature.  In findings published in Science in 1974, R.M. Knutson reported that skunk cabbage can maintain an internal temperature up to 15 degrees Celsius in an ambient temperature of -15 degrees Celsius.

A lone skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) shoot rises out of Fern Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A lone skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) shoot rises out of Fern Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Further on, I found a few remnant shards from a white-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) nest tangled in the matted winter pasture grass.  Crossing behind the old Cape Cod home, I walked west to the remnants of Edwin’s former observation blind, crossed Hampton Brook near a Colonial-era spillway, and walked up to Monument Pasture, so named for an early twentieth century rounded fieldstone monument erected by a former field hand named Hughes in honor of himself.  At the eastern edge of the pasture, in an early successional buffer of red maple (Acer rubrum), pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) and black birch (Betula lenta) heavily choked by pervasive oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), I found the rain-rotted and crumbling envelope of a white-faced hornet’s nest.  In summer this nest, enfolded in layer upon layer of snarled vegetation, would have been an unseen phantom, a benefit both to the colony itself and to any unfortunate would-be intruder.  White-faced hornets are wisely feared for their stalwart defense of a wide nest perimeter.  After crawling through dense tangles to photograph the nest, I emerged only to be given one final gift from the winter landscape.  A pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) circled in tandem for a fleeting moment before turning eastward, their distinct profiles finally vanishing along the seemingly barren horizon that was not barren at all.

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flies over Monument Pasture, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flies over Monument Pasture, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Exploring the Near at Hand

An Arrow-shaped Micrathena spider (Micrathena sagittata) backlit in a web it wove between two of our front porch columns.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012

An Arrow-shaped Micrathena spider (Micrathena sagittata) backlit in late day sun in a web spanning two front porch columns of the author’s home. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012

By:  Richard Telford

Living in Baldwin, New York on western Long Island in 1936, American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale lacked wilderness.  At least, to the casual observer it might seem so.  Teale, however, was not the casual observer.  He had for several months searched for a site with sufficiently varied habitat to support the widest possible variety of insect life, finally chancing upon an abandoned apple orchard just fifteen minutes from his home.  As he later noted in his 1942 book Near Horizons, the site included “a line of slender cedars, a weedlot, […] interlacing row[s] of apple trees, [… a] margin of solid ground along the swampedge, […and] a spur of land [that] juts out into the brown water of the swamp stream where slope and swamp meet at […] a great mound of wild-cherry trees [that] lifts its green bulk above the level of the cattails.”

Walking in the footsteps of French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre, whom he admired deeply, Teale rented the old orchard for ten dollars annually and, as Fabre had done at the Harmas de Sérignan in Provence, France beginning in 1879, worked deliberately to convert the site into an insect garden that would provide “the habitat of nearly every kind of insect found in the region.”  In this insect garden, Teale conducted intensive observations for six years while, for most of that time, maintaining his day job as a staff writer and photographer for Popular Science magazine, a job he came to loathe due both to the sense of confinement it imposed upon him and to the capriciously brutal politics of the magazine editorial room.  For Teale, the insect garden was not just a place for observation but a place for escape from the modern world’s “well-grooved path remote from the Enchanted Ponds and Mad Rivers of the open world.”

An Eastern Forktail damselfly photographed in the author's backyard.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2013

An Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura ramburii) photographed in the author’s backyard. Copyright Richard Telford, 2013

In 1937, Teale published Grassroot Jungles, a book that compiled 130 macro photographs of insects, taken mostly at his insect garden, with accompanying text that expounded the life history of many featured specimens.  Teale’s photography was astounding for its day, and the book was featured in a full front-page review in The New York Times Book Review on December 19, 1937.  Reviewer Anita Moffett wrote, “Mr. Teale is well known for his insect photography, and these pictures combine fact with imaginative power in depicting the beauty and goblinlike [sic] grotesqueness of the fascinating and almost unknown world to which the reader is introduced.”  She noted that Teale’s book demonstrated that the study of insects could “be pursued in one’s own backyard as well as at the ends of the earth.”  Here, Moffett simply echoed Teale’s premise in Grassroot Jungles that “At our feet, often unnoticed in the rush of daily events, is the wonder world of insects,” the exploration of which “is a back-yard hobby open to all, […which] can begin a few feet from your own doorstep.”

The egalitarian quality of backyard nature study was not a trivial consideration in 1937 America, still largely in the economic throes of the Great Depression and four years away from a war-driven recovery.  Though the economic landscape has largely changed, the openness to all of backyard nature study is no less significant for a host of reasons that extend far beyond simple economics.  In fact, Teale’s premise is arguably more salient in the present age of widespread habitat fragmentation, rapid development, increasing privatization of large wilderness parcels, the alarming disconnection of so many children from the natural world, and a social media-blitzed society that makes Teale’s “rush of daily events” seem pastoral by comparison.

A male American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author's back door.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A male American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author’s back door. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

In a time when we feel increasingly disconnected not just from the natural world but from ourselves, it is perhaps more important than ever that we “pause like stooping giants to peer down into the grassroot jungle at our feet,” that we re-attune ourselves to the magnificent complexities of the natural world that go largely overlooked in the jumble of our daily lives.

Teale consciously manipulated the environment of his insect garden to maximize habitat, and thus the site’s inhabitant variety.  His manipulations included “an ageing pie-tin holding dabs of honey and syrup to provide a treacle-trough for ants and flies and wild bees” and “bits of decaying meat to bring carrion beetles from afar.”  However, such manipulations are not necessary for the back-yard naturalist.  The fecundity of the insect world, to our senses, seems to know no bounds, even in the smallest of natural landscapes.  Consider the fruit fly explosion that occurs when fruit is left a few days too long on the kitchen countertop.  It is perhaps a dangerous byproduct of that fecundity that we largely overlook the reality that many insects presently face potential extinction.  As of this writing, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, for example, lists nearly 150 insect species as endangered, threatened, or of special concern.  Still, there are abundant insects to be seen on nearly any plot, even the most encroached upon or inhospitable.  This fact was illustrated for me this past summer during a trip to the local building supply store.

Exiting with a cart full of lumber, an odd green shape on the brick-facing of the store caught my attention, a large female praying mantis vertically perched with at least 200 yards of asphalt separating her from any floral retreat.  I went to my car, emptied my lunch cooler, and, as nonchalantly as possible, trapped her, self-conscious of the piqued curiosity of several passersby.  I recalled the story of Edwin Way Teale’s domesticated praying mantis Dinah, whom he brought to the Brooklyn Entomological Society and, during a side trip to the New York Public Library, lost and eventually recovered on Broadway, near Times Square.  While I was tempted to drive the displaced mantis home to unleash her predatory powers in our garden, I worried about her survival of the trip and instead drove her to the far end of the parking lot where a long strip of dense thicket masked a long stretch of highway on the hillside above.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella)landing in the author's default insect garden.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella)landing in the author’s default insect garden. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

The previous summer, largely as a product of neglect, I had made a brief foray into the creation of an insect garden.  It was a busy summer, and with no conscious design I effectively relinquished our small backyard, surrounded by wooded acres, to the natural world. The resultant floral explosion included several species of goldenrod, common burdock, waist-high perennial ryegrass, jewel weed, and many other rapid colonizers.  By far the most prolific of these was daisy fleabane.  With this impromptu insect garden came insects of numerous species, including a host of damselflies and dragonflies attracted by the newly abundant prey stock.  These skilled aerial predators would sweep methodically above the canopy of our own “grassroot jungle” and reap the good living of summer.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella)having landed in the author's default insect garden.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella) having just landed in the author’s default insect garden. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

Interestingly, the dragonfly’s tightly grouped legs, effectively useless for locomotion on the ground, are held in a basket shape in flight, scooping up prey that is largely consumed on the wing. The daisy fleabane explosion had the additional effect of attracting a large cadre of American goldfinches, who rode the bobbing, fragile stalks on even the windiest days, plucking linear white petals by the mouthful, not ten feet from our kitchen windows.  Here, as Teale noted in Near Horizons, we could be “explorer[s] who stayed at home, […] voyager[s] within the near horizons of a hillside.”

Teale’s ten dollars per annum was money well spent.  His insect garden truly altered the course of his life.  The commercial success of Grassroot Jungles afforded him both an income and national recognition, allowing him to quit his job at Popular Science.  In notes he compiled for an autobiography titled The Long Way Home, which was neither finished nor published, Teale writes, “Remember sitting in Insect Garden in evening after hot day and coming to a final decision to quit.”

A female American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author's back door.  Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

A female American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) eating petals of Daisy Fleabane(Erigeron annuus) less than ten feet from the author’s back door. Copyright Richard Telford, 2012.

Thus, the site provided a space both for outward observation as well as introspection.  Jumping time in his notes, he continues, “I pack my books etc.  Leave on chill rainy day.  But my heart was bounding.  I was on my own.”  Teale would go on to publish Near Horizons in 1942, for which he would subsequently win the 1943 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing, a recognition he prized greatly even up until the time of his death in 1980.  For us, too, the rewards of exploring the near at hand are plentiful.  Such exploration affords us opportunities for observation, for contemplation, for renewal of our sense of wonder, for appreciation of the complex world around us, and for humble acceptance of our small place in that world.