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

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Edwin Way Teale: Scientist, Artist, Interpreter

Teale in the Blind

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

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

Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” 1894

By Richard Telford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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