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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.