Summer Leavings: Finding Ourselves in the Turning of the Seasons

A dead eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) left in the nest at the end of summer. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

A dead eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) nestling left in the nest at the end of summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

The eaves along the east side build-out of the author's 1770 farmhouse, where, prior to the installation of fascia boards, American robins built five nests this past summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

The eaves along the east side build-out of the author’s 1770 farmhouse, where, prior to the installation of fascia boards, American robins built five nests this past summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Several years ago I removed the rotten eaves of several sections of our 1770 farmhouse and began to reproduce them with like materials. I extended the rafters, cut and installed soffits, even drilled holes for louvered vents to be installed at the project’s conclusion. During this time, we completed tests for lead paint throughout the house, tests that yielded levels so high that we cleaned and packed all of our belongings, found a temporary apartment, and moved ourselves and our sixteen-month-old daughter out of the house in less than ten days. We would remain out of the house for nearly a year, during which time we undertook a full lead abatement followed by a comprehensive interior restoration. Nonessential projects were put aside, and, in the years that followed, the eaves were left open, waiting for fascia boards to seal them. In the interim, the soffits provided ideal nesting platforms for a host of backyard birds—ironically with no greater use than this summer, just as I had bought the materials to finally finish the project. On the west side of a circa-1850 build-out of the house, American robins (Turdus migratorius) built five nests, none of which was ultimately occupied, while, on the east side of the build-out, eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) built two nests, from one of which two sets of nestlings were fledged by mid-August. The other remained unoccupied.

A yellow-legged meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), a late summer dragonfly in southern New England. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

A yellow-legged meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), also referred to as the autumn meadowhawk, a late summer dragonfly in southern New England. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

When it was clear that the robins had ultimately raised their broods elsewhere (at least one in the rafters of our open garden shed), I cleared the abandoned nests and began cutting, painting, and installing fascia boards on the west side of the build-out. In mid-August, when the phoebe parents had ceased their constant foraging of our backyard, I checked the nests and, finding them empty but for one dead nestling, I cleared them out and finished the eaves there as well. I wrote last month of my children’s deep interest in the lives of our backyard birds. Finding the dead nestling, I did not hesitate to show it to them. In fact, in it I saw an important opportunity. We have worked hard to give our children a deep appreciation for the natural world, and such a deep appreciation must, at least in part, be predicated on understanding what we, as a society, often characterize as the harsh realities of nature’s cycles. To appreciate fully the way in which utterly helpless phoebe nestlings metamorphose into strikingly dexterous and proficient aerial hunters in less than a month, we must understand the short odds of their surviving the fourteen to twenty day nestling period. Without such knowledge, the depth of our appreciation is inherently limited. Thus, it is important that we resist the ready impulse to frame our children’s sense of wonder for the natural world, and also our own, in one-dimensional, incomplete terms.

The remnants of a tent caterpillar nest formed by a silk-wrapped leaf of a scarlet oak tree. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

The remnants of a tent caterpillar nest formed by a silk-wrapped leaf of a scarlet oak tree. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

Several months ago, I wrote for The Ecotone Exchange an “Homage to the Month of June.” In it I reflected on a time when, as long-time New York Times natural history columnist Hal Borland once wrote, “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere […].” Now, in late August, reflecting on the dead phoebe nestling, it seems a time for a different kind of homage, as the husks of once-abundant summer life amass around us: the shed exoskeleton of a dogday harvestfly (Tibicen canicularis); a cinched, gauze-enfolded scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) leaf that formerly housed eastern tent caterpilars (Malacosoma americanum); the brittle, browned-out flower heads of red clover (Trifolium pratense), once vibrant, now melding with the yellowing stalks of upland pastures. Then, too, absences abound, which, like their counterpart abundance emerging in June, amass just as exponentially as summer gives way to autumn, then winter: The midsummer dragonflies, the eastern pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) and twelve-spotted skimmers (Libellula pulchella), no longer hunt the pond and field edges; the summer fledglings that remained and foraged for a time near their nests are gone, too, some to migration, others to predation and starvation; absent, too, are the spicebush swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus), the great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), the American copper (Lycaena phlaeas). In late August, past summer’s prime, we witness the remnants of lives ended, both in evidence and by absence, but we see, too, the foreshadowing of lives yet to be lived. We see clearly how one life must give way to another, how each organism sews the seeds, in one form or another, of its generations to follow. Placing ourselves in this context, it is inevitable that, in the passage of the seasons by which we mark time, we see an analogy for the passage of our lives.

As we do with so many aspects of the natural world, we impose our own hierarchies on the seasons, attach our own meanings to the life processes that define them. British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his 1819 poem “Ode to the West Wind,” paints fall and winter as times of decline and death, writing in the poem’s opening stanza, “[…] thou breath of Autumn’s being,/Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead/Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing […].” By the poem’s end, however, Shelley writes of the hope fostered by the coming spring: “O Wind,/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale likewise saw spring as a time of hope and renewal while he struggled with prostate cancer from 1974 until his death in 1980. In an April 1977 journal entry, he writes with deep gratitude for the news that hormone therapy seems to have momentarily checked the progress of the cancer: “More months to work on my book—more months to enjoy the spring! How hard it would be to receive bad news in the spring!” American poet William Stafford, in his short poem “Fall Wind,” writes, “Pods of summer crowd around the door;/I take them in the autumn of my hands.” Later, the speaker of the poem “shiver[s] twice:/Once for thin walls, once for the sound of time.” As summer winds down, it is hard not to wallow in a sense of decline, but the end-of-summer leavings challenge us to do otherwise. In the fragile husks of life extinguished, life still abides, and we are reminded that in nature change is constant, life is fragile. We are reminded as well to shed our imposed hierarchies and relish both the beauty and the harshness of each season, allowing both to feed our sense of wonder in equal measure.

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.

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