Homage to the Month of June

The author with two of his children examining an eastern spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata ). Copyright: Melissa Telford, 2015

The author with two of his children examining an eastern spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata ). Copyright: Melissa Telford, 2015

By Richard Telford

Last month, I noted how long-time New York Times natural history columnist Hal Borland once wrote of June, “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere […] The world is hushed and waiting.”  Several weeks ago, plowing through piles of end-of-semester literary analysis papers, I was reminded of Borland’s words when “June Hymn” by the Decembrists spilled from a random YouTube playlist.  In it, Colin Meloy writes, “Here’s a hymn to welcome in the day/Heralding a summer’s early sway/And all the bulbs all coming in,/To begin.”  As a teacher, June ushers in a time of spiritual and intellectual renewal for me, just as the natural world renews itself in patterns formed over millennia—bud to leaf, bulb to flower, egg to fledgling, life emerging from death and rushing toward it again.  Working in my carrel on that early June day, I paused to jot the torpid fragments of early summer brewing in me, the near apparitions of possibility and rebirth.  Borland was right.  June is a time of new beginnings.

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) at rest at the edge of the author's yard. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

A Twelve-Spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) at rest at the edge of the author’s yard. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

Each year, June for me seems first to be defined by the sudden emergence in one form or another of visible and vigorous life from its latent, hidden state. This year, it was the explosion of dragonflies sweeping the cut yard of our 1770 farmhouse that brought June fully to life. Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) and Twelve-spotted Skimmers (Libellula pulchella) rippled the air, alighting only momentarily to bask in the sun.  I have written previously of my passion for photographing dragonflies, but, on this particular day, I did not reach for the camera, as these specimens, fresh from emergence and their teneral state, hurtled unrelentingly in concentric circles, voraciously shoveling prey from the air.  Our yard became a complex, irregular, predatory clockworks ticking down the two- to six-week spans of these short, magnificent lives.   Several days later, after a late outdoor supper, I brought my two older children, ages three and six, to the edge of our yard, where a shock of dense grape arbor lines a Colonial-era stonewall. There, a Twelve-spotted Skimmer hung vertically by its six spike-laden legs in slumber, having transformed from a gilled creature of the nearby pond to a dominant aerial hunter in the span of a day. June is a time of unrelenting growth hurtling toward an unseen end.

A Red-spotted Admiral (Limenitis arthemis) photographed by the author in early June of 2015. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

A Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) photographed by the author in early June of 2015. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

The following morning, I was up at 4:30 am, out at daybreak to see if the sleeping Twelve-Spotted skimmer remained, and it did. Enduring a swarm of mosquitoes rising in the damp dawn air, I set my camera on its tripod and shot a series of images. A host of work-related stressors lingered in the near atmosphere of my mind, the brightening of the day leading inexorably to my departure to face them, but, with my knees in the wet grass and my eye to the viewfinder, I turned away from them and, for a moment, shed them. Pressed for time, I crossed the short span of our yard, my steps arrested by a Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) that landed in my path. Once again I knelt down to photograph it for a few minutes, a second, finite shedding of the world’s concerns, a much-needed renewal. June is a time to ground ourselves in what matters, a time for us to grow by sloughing off the inconsequential.

An Eastern Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) rescued from the center of his road. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

An Eastern Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) rescued from the author’s road. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

Later that week, driving to a Conservation Commission meeting, I came upon a male rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) in the center of the opposing lane, one wing splayed to keep itself upright, a few downy feathers plastered to the moist edge of its stout beak. It made no attempt to flee as I approached, nor as I lifted it into my hat. I promptly detoured home, placed the still-stunned grosbeak in a small, open box and, in turn, placed the box in a screened portable crib on our front porch, likewise open-topped. The portable crib on our raised porch, I reasoned, would give adequate protection from predators while allowing the grosbeak an easy exit if it was simply stunned and recovered prior to my return. Before leaving, I gathered my children to examine the grosbeak. My sons and daughter gazed at the white patches mottling the deep blue-black back, the rich scarlet triangle emblazoning its breast, the pale ochre of its angular beak—tones and textures that no high-definition screen image can truly capture. Just as June is a month to explore and to feel wonder for the emergent life around us, it is likewise a month of rescue as that life emerges in the complex maze of human encroachment. We often spend our early summer days moving wildlife across the road—Hyla peepers, American toads (Bufo americanus), eastern spotted and snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), to name a few. In these acts, we teach our children and remind ourselves of the reverence we can and must feel for the complex and wondrous systems in which we are privileged to reside. By our advancement we have carved out too deep and detrimental a place for ourselves in those systems, and we must teach and, more importantly, model a better way at all scales. June is a time to praise life, to protect and preserve it.

Today, one day after the June Solstice, small pears and apples hang from our trees, still months away from harvesting. A dense patch of Eastern Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) flanks my small woodworking shop, and the sun’s early rise is cadenced by the raucous orchestra of calling birds of all sorts. The road-struck grosbeak flew from its box later that evening several weeks ago, first to a porch ceiling joist, and then into the dark. I like to think its call is among those I hear at daybreak now. In our woods, the Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) has emerged from the dark, compost-rich soil. Barred owl calls that carried for miles in winter are muted by the swelling canopy. My children’s lives are loosely governed by an open agenda of what the weather brings, and I, when I submit my final grades in the morning, will be free to join them. September, for a short time, perhaps the lifespan of a summer dragonfly, will seem far off. While we can, we will ward off the societal drive to over-program the lives of our children, a drive that has whittled away the unfettered and aimless summers that taught our generation and previous ones so much about the world, so much about ourselves. June is a time of promise, and, in the rich, recurrent rhythms of life, countless promises are made, fulfilled, broken, and made again. June is a time of new beginnings; a time to ground oneself; a time to praise and protect and preserve; a time to rescue; a time to explore; and a time to wonder. Let us begin anew, and end, and begin again.

Sustaining the Ocean that Sustains You: More than Celebrating National Oceans Month and World Oceans Day, Things We Can Do

Sunrise and sunset are always inspiration times to have a quiet moment on the coast. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Sunrise and sunset are always inspirational times to have a quiet moment on the coast. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Regardless of where you live, land locked or ocean side, each day you touch, use and take in water that is part of a large planetary cycle. This cycle connects you to the weather, watersheds on land and ultimately the oceans.

As the world took time to celebrate World Oceans Day on Monday, June 8 and a United States Presidential Proclamation declared the month of June to be National Oceans Month, we have the opportunity to use these events as a timely reminder that the ocean affects each of us, where we live and the resources we all depend on. It is the perfect time to explore the ocean’s impressive influence and employ some easy, yet powerful, choices that ultimately invest in the ocean’s long-term health and functioning.

We rely on the ocean and the services of its water more than one might expect. For example, it is connected to fresh water resources, food supplies and weather, in ways which may not be evident.

The Earth’s oceans account for about 70 per cent of the planet’s overall surface. Of the water on our planet, only about 2-2.5 per cent is considered fresh water, with less than about 1 per cent  available for us to actually consume. Remarkably, our bodies are also made of a significant amount of water, about 60-70 per cent, so our dependence on fresh water is undeniable—and ultimately this comes to us from the ocean.

The ocean serves as the major weather and climate regulator of the planet. Its currents and temperatures affect the trade winds, as well as the cycles of El Nino (characterized by warm, wet winters on the North American continent) and La Nina (characterized by cold, dry winters on the North American continent). The cycling of temperatures and currents in the ocean play a critical role in the weather patterns experienced in locales around the world.

Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where seasonal variation plays a critical role in California's water supply. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

Snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where seasonal variation plays a critical role in California’s water supply. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky.

Weather plays a critical role in the supply of fresh water on the landscape during a season, translating into snow pack, rainfall and fresh water availability. Water availability directly affects human usage: agriculture, water storage, hydroelectricity generation and much more. In addition, water availability affects ecosystem health, with an overabundance leading to flooding or saturation issues and a deficit leading to drought and scarcity.

The ocean also has a huge influence on where people live and on food sources. Much of the human population lives along coastlines and the ocean provides one of the most important protein sources worldwide.

Even in landlocked areas, people are still intimately connected to the ocean via the weather and watershed functioning, which then affects food supplies such as agriculture. Most rivers flow to lakes or tributaries that eventually make their way to the oceans; thus, activities upstream have a direct effect on aquatic ecosystems. If a river makes it all the way to the ocean, it will affect the ocean ecosystem itself. Thus, people living inland also have a direct effect on water quality and ocean health.

Sea otters are a celebrated sighting on the coast of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

Sea otters are a celebrated sighting on the coast of California. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

It is true that the ocean is facing significant pressures and our dependence on them for regulating weather, climate and supplying food cannot be undervalued. The media is constantly relating stories of oil spills, crashing fish populations, pollution issues and much more. So with such dire stories, what is working? Where is the inspiration to make things better or sustain healthy systems?

Right here. These are some great examples of what is working and choices you can make to create a cascade of positive change:

Seafood Watch: Knowing that the number one source of protein on the planet comes from the ocean should inspire people to make good choices to maintain the world’s fish stocks. Understanding sustainable fishing methods and which fish are good choices in the market place seems daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to research the natural history of fish and where it comes from to make a great choice for your next seafood dinner—the work has been done for you and that makes choosing sustainable seafood easy.

The Seafood Watch program has complied the latest information to make your choices easy as well as effective. Simply go to the website, get the app or download a card for your wallet or refrigerator. It takes the guesswork and research out of making an informed decision for the ocean. There are cards specific to various locations and sushi information as well. You couldn’t be more set up for success for your next seafood dinner date.

Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s): Essentially these areas protect critical habitat in the ocean, giving them special protections, similar to a national park or wilderness area on land. These protections allow biological hotspots to either recover from impacts or be protected from potential pressures. Long-term monitoring of MPA’s has shown that, when these areas are protected, they provide benefits that reach beyond their boundaries, essentially overflowing into surrounding areas. Currently about 1 per cent of the ocean is protected, so there is significant room for growth. Consider supporting MPA’s via your local National Marine Sanctuary or talking with representatives in your area to implement a new MPA and create the space for long-term ecological benefits.

Oiled Wildlife Care Network: The reality of today’s global economy is that oil is not going away any time soon. With economic pressure to keep up the supply and demand of oil, the threat of oil spills will continue to haunt the world’s coastlines. Spills can be truly disastrous. Today, there are networks of wildlife experts who strive to directly and immediately address the needs of wildlife during an oil spill—and you can become a volunteer and learn first-hand, from them, how to make a difference. Working an oil spill is stressful and emotional work, but it is also powerful and rewarding. Washing birds or marine mammals can directly impact their ability to survive such an event. It will also make you look at oil in a completely different way, a change in perspective could ultimately benefit the whole planet.

Banning plastic bags: Many communities have come to grips with the issues surrounding the use of plastic bags. Unfortunately the wide-spread use of plastic bags and their convenience has led to their wide-spread distribution in the environment as trash. Often plastic bags end up in watersheds then find their way into the ocean, and once there, find their way into the mouths of birds, turtles and whales. Luckily, many communities have taken steps to ban plastic bags and educate consumers about their impacts as well as sustainable alternatives. Foregoing the use of plastic bags will help make major strides in protection of watersheds, oceans and the wildlife associated with these ecosystems.

The ocean plays a critical role in all of our lives, whether we live along a coastline are live in an inland community. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

The ocean plays a critical role in all of our lives, whether we live along a coastline or live in an inland community. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler Photography.

As the world celebrates World Oceans Day and the United States acknowledges National Oceans Month, let’s do something more–let’s really value the ocean for the significant role it plays on the planet and its amazing effect on each of us. Then consider what exactly you will do to restore and protect our ocean resources, from protecting fish stocks, eliminating plastic pollution or reducing oil consumption.  What will you do to sustain the ocean that sustains you?

A message of Optimism on World Oceans Day

Another blogger taking the positive approach

Kristen Cheri Weiss

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Today is World Oceans Day—a day to recognize the life-giving resources the ocean provides, and a day for all ocean-related organizations to create a united front on social media to bring attention to ocean issues.

In my last post, I discussed my capricious relationship with social media and its ability to both connect us with pressing global issues and to distract us with fluff and humor. Nonetheless, a large portion of my job involves keeping track of and contributing to social media, and I recognize how useful these venues can be for sharing positive stories of change that may even ignite action, whether it be signing a petition or joining an awareness event.

This week, hundreds of organizations are contributing stories and posts to the web-o-sphere via the #OceanOptimism hashtag to spread messages of hope and solutions in the face of daunting environmental challenges. As I’ve written before…

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In a world of disasters, how do we cultivate hope?

Kristen Cheri Weiss

Oil in wave An oil-filled wave off the coast of Santa Barbara in the wake of this week’s crude oil pipeline burst. (Photo by: Spiritnthesky. Sourced from CrowdAlbum)

My home state of California has been hit with two disasters in one week–a raw sewage spill in Monterey Bay, and the more devastating crude oil spill off the Santa Barbara coastline. These two spills are only the latest examples of the thousands of human-caused disasters that plague our shorelines every year (not counting all of the natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes that add to these impacts).

The combined impact of these acts of negligence to our own health and the health of coastal ecosystems, while only partially known at present, are unquestionably negative and potentially long-lasting as has been shown for the Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf.

Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara oil spill. (Photo: RaeAnn Christiansen. Sourced from CrowdAlbum) Dead fish, kelp and other sea life start to wash ashore in the aftermath…

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Five cents adds up

By Neva Knott

Just this last month, I returned home to Portland, Oregon. I went about my shopping and recycling, having forgotten about the Bottle Bill. Then a friend reminded–those bottles are worth a nickel each. Oops; I’d tossed some coin into the bin.

In 1971, Oregon passed the country’s first bottle refund bill, as a way to curb litter. For each bottled or canned beverage sold, the consumer pays a five cent surcharge. When the bottle is returned to the retailer the consumer gets back the nickel. Statistics from the Oregon.gov website state that road-side litter reduced from 40 percent to six percent when the bill went into effect. Currently, the return rate is 70 percent of all returnable bottles sold.

Oregonians know the drill–drink, put the bottles in a separate bin, take them to the store, get cash. Back in the day, returned bottles were counted by a cashier at the grocery–most likely the lowliest new-hire teenager.

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Then came the automated return machines. All I have to do is insert each bottle into the machine’s mouth. A scanner reads the label and tallies my count. When I’ve pushed through  all the returnables I came with, I push the green button and the machine gives me a receipt. I present it to a cashier and am given my due.

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Some folks set bags of cans and bottles on the sidewalk to be gathered by homeless people–it’s a Portland kind of social service.

The whole stashing of cans and bottles until there are enough to take back is a bit messy and smelly, but I think it’s worth the effort. Recently I read a complaint that, since we pay for city recycling, we shouldn’t have to do the bottle return shuffle any longer.

Here’s what the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has to say about the bottle bill:

Oregon’s bottle bill helps ensure materials used to manufacture beverage containers are recycled, thus reducing the energy required to produce the containers and reducing greenhouse gases. In 2009, more than one billion beverage containers were recycled under the bottle bill. Recycling those beverage containers saved three trillion BTUs of energy, equivalent to the amount of energy in 24 million gallons of gasoline. That recycling also reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 200,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents – equal to the amount of carbon dioxide produced by 40,000 cars. These savings should increase as the bottle bill’s expansion goes into effect. Beverage container litter has also been substantially reduced under the bottle bill, leaving Oregon’s roadsides, parks and public lands much cleaner.

All these benefits for a nickel.

So, today I made my first trek to Whole Foods, bags of bottles in hand. I got two bucks. Sometimes we pay to play and sometimes it’s just the right thing to do.

White Nose Syndrome: Formidable but Not Undefeatable

Some months ago I shared with readers information about the ecological and economical value bats provide in the widely various ecosystems in which they live. They are particularly valuable in protecting crops from destruction by insects, gobbling up so many bugs that bats are estimated to save farmers up to $53 billion in pest control each year. Bats are also very important for pollination and tropical reforestation. More than 1,331 species of bats have been discovered worldwide. But my favorite fact about bats is that they are the only mammal to evolve true flight. There are other animals that glide but bats are the only mammal that truly have wings and self-propelled flight capabilities. Such marvels!

Bats are now vulnerable to a large and rapidly increasing threat known as white-nose syndrome (WNS), named for the white fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans that appears on the muzzle and other body parts of hibernating bats. WNS is associated with extensive deaths in eastern North America, affecting entire colonies in some cases. WNS invades the nose, mouth and wings of bats during hibernation, when bats’ immune systems are largely shut down. Research indicates that the fungus may lead to dehydration, causing them to wake more frequently and burn precious fat reserves, which leads to starvation. WNS has spread rapidly across the eastern United States and Canada, and has been detected as far west as Oklahoma. WNS has killed more than 5.7 million bats in eastern North America.

According to White-Nose Syndrome.org, at the end of the 2014-2015 hibernating season, bats with WNS were confirmed in the following 26 states and five Canadian provinces: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec. The fungus that causes WNS has also been confirmed in Minnesota and Mississippi.

In this context, it is with cautious jubilance that I share the news that 150 bats that were part of the first field trial were released after having been successfully treated for WNS. Scientists and conservationists that are part of the large network of collaborators combating WNS gathered in the evening of Monday, May 18, 2015 at the historic Mark Twain Cave Complex in Hannibal, MO and released these bats back to the wild.

Sybill Amelon, USDA Forest Service research wildlife biologist.  Credit Katie Gillies, Bat Conservation International.

Sybill Amelon, USDA Forest Service research wildlife biologist.
Credit Katie Gillies, Bat Conservation International.

Beginning in 2012, Dr. Christopher Cornelison and other Georgia State University peers determined that the bacterium, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, can inhibit the growth of some fungi. They found in the lab that Rhodococcus rhodochrous, without even directly touching the Pseudogymnoascus destructans, could strongly inhibit its growth. Dr. Cornelison, U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Dr. Sybill Amelon and research plant pathologist Dr. Daniel Lindner continued to conduct laboratory research on the application of this bacterium, and in the winter of 2014 conducted field trials in Missouri and Kentucky caves, thanks to funding by many organizations including Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Forest Service and the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. 

Multi-agency collaboration has been integral to the search for a treatment for White Nose Syndrome. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers most of the federal funds provided by Congress to fight the disease, and many state wildlife agencies contribute staff and funds of their own in surveying for the fungus as it has traveled throughout their regions. There are also numerous private donors. This elaborate network of scientists and financial backers will continue this management-based research to control the mortality of WNS and, I believe, eventually eradicate its destruction of bats.

Here is a video produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife describing WNS and the importance of bats.

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