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.

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.

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.

Preserving Land and Legacy

Teale at his Desk

Edwin Way Teale in his study at Trail Wood. Copyright, the Estate of Edwin Way Teale. Used with permission.

By Richard Telford

When I first walked the trails of the 168-acre Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, I was struck at once both by the site’s natural beauty and by the instant connection that a reader of Teale’s writing cannot help but feel when navigating the trails that Edwin made famous in his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, and later in his 1978 book A Walk Through the Year.  By the late 1960s, Teale had won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing, and he had already served as the president of the Brooklyn and New York Entomological Societies respectively, as well as the Thoreau Society.  In 1961, Current Biography noted that critics had already “ranked him with John Bartram and Audubon and with contemporary naturalists Roger Tory Peterson and William Beebe.”  In 1962, Leonard Dubkin, writing for the New York Times, characterized Teale as “probably the greatest living naturalist in America.”  By the late 1960s, he received approximately 1,000 letters annually from around the world, setting aside one day per week to answer all of them individually.  He refused to use form letters.  Despite Teale’s stature in his lifetime, his legacy, for reasons that would require several more posts to start to delineate, has largely waned. Just prior to his death in 1980, he and his wife Nellie agreed to gift Trail Wood, the name they gave to their private sanctuary of 21 years, to the Connecticut Audubon Society to be opened to the public.

Hughes' Monument 2013-12-14 alt

Hughes’ Monument, atop Monument Pasture in the Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2013, Richard Telford

On my first day at Trail Wood, however, I was thinking little about Teale’s declined legacy.  I had just finished reading A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, and Teale’s characterizations of Trail Wood and his tremendous insights on the natural processes unfolding there reverberated through my mind both with clarity and feeling. Here I could ascend the short path up to Monument Pasture, named for a monument erected by an early twentieth century handyman on the farm to himself.  I could walk the edge of the Starfield to its highest elevation, which the Teales named Nighthawk Hill after they witnessed a group of sixty or more nighthawks flying there in a funnel formation during the start of their August migration, “like an apparition of beauty in the sky, […] gray, slim-winged, with silvery-white patches that shone in tinted rays of the sunset—turning without a sound.”  It is not hyperbole to say that I find myself unable to accurately characterize the emotional reaction I had that day, a reaction I will long remember.  Only in the weeks that followed did I begin to reflect on the degree to which Edwin and Nellie were almost entirely absent from the site for anyone who had not read the aforementioned books.  The trails bore the names the Teales had given them but lacked context.  Edwin’s documentation of the site, rich with natural history and insight into the human condition, was largely absent from the present sanctuary. This realization led me to the door of the Connecticut Audubon Society several months later.

Starfield View 1 2013-12-14

Looking up the Starfield toward Nighthawk Hill in the Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2013, Richard Telford

In February of 2012, during the first year of my graduate work in Environmental Studies at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, I wrote to Sarah Heminway, Director of Northeast Programs for CAS, who oversees Trail Wood.  I sent her some rough notes on an early thesis proposal related to Teale.  In it, I had written, “I would argue that Teale’s admonition to go back to the land itself to find inner peace and meaningful existence is even more pertinent than it was when he was writing.”  Thus began our work together at Trail Wood to revitalize both the sanctuary itself and the legacy of Edwin Way Teale, which, though largely waned, is worthy of re-examination.  The simultaneous preservation of land and legacy presents both challenges and opportunities, but the latter, I believe, outweigh the former.

There are a number of notable sanctuary sites that are inextricably linked to the prominent authors who occupied them.  John Burroughs’ Slabsides and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden immediately come to mind.  The present-day Walden Pond State Reservation reflects one of the challenges of preserving land and legacy in tandem; even 166 years after Thoreau occupied his cabin at Walden Pond, visitor traffic is so heavy that the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation enforces a limit of 1,000 visitors per day in order to “ensure a positive visitor experience and to maintain the integrity of the resources.”  It is hard to dispute the effect of Thoreau’s legacy in this case.

While Thoreau’s legacy creates a heightened visitorship at Walden, the converse is true at Trail Wood.  During a full summer of field observations at Trail Wood in 2012, I could count on one hand the number of days on which my car was not the only one parked in Mulberry Meadow, the site’s sole parking area.  It is hard to dispute the effect of Teale’s waning legacy in this case.  Nonetheless, I believe that it is Teale’s revitalized legacy that can likewise revitalize interest in Trail Wood itself.  Further, increased public interest in the physical site, contextualized with infrastructure that facilitates a re-examination of its literary legacy, can help to rebuild and perpetuate that legacy for present and future generations.  Doing so can likewise up the long-term sustainability of the physical site through increased public support.  Thus, while the simultaneous preservation of land and legacy poses challenges, it can, if done through a deliberate process, achieve a significantly greater and longer-lasting result.  It is precisely this kind of result we hope to achieve at Trail Wood, and there are compelling reasons to believe 1) that it is possible to do so and 2) that this is a critical moment in which to do so.

Hampton Brook 1 2013-12-14

Hampton Brook, near Edwin Way Teale’s observation blind at Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2013, Richard Telford

In the May-June “Best of New England” issue of Yankee Magazine, Trail Wood was chosen as one of the two best nature sanctuaries in Connecticut, a testament to the site’s rich ecological character.  In the summer of 2013, the Connecticut Audubon Society hosted its first group of resident artists for week-long residencies, the culmination of the inaugural season of the Edwin Way Teale Artists-in-Residence Program at Trail Wood.  This program resulted from a year of intensive planning and implementation efforts, and it attracted applicants from as far off as Kansas and Wyoming.  This spring I will submit my final thesis both to Green Mountain College and CAS, a comprehensive revitalization plan for the sanctuary.  In it, I argue that the long-term preservation and meaningful utilization of Trail Wood are inextricably linked to the preservation of the site’s literary legacy.  Proposed efforts include a revitalization of the site’s infrastructure, including the installation of a comprehensive trail kiosk system and visitor center, with materials divided evenly between the site’s natural history and literary legacy.

I recently learned from Melissa Watterworth Batt, the curator of the extensive Teale archive at the University of Connecticut, that Teale’s two most famous books, Dune Boy (1943) and A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974), have again gone out of print after a short-lived reissuance under the Bibliopola imprint.  Thus, work to preserve Edwin Way Teale’s literary legacy is more urgently needed than ever.  With the support of the Connecticut Audubon Society, the University of Connecticut, and a dedicated group of Teale advocates, both the land and the legacy of “Two who loved this earth and loved each other,” as Nellie Teale directed their shared gravestone to be etched, can be preserved.  Such an achievement, effected through a synergistic approach, can serve both to foster long-term conservation-mindedness in generations to come and to avert the lost legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most important naturalist writers.

Edwin Way Teale: Scientist, Artist, Interpreter

The Ecotone Exchange

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…

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In Defense of Vultures

Turkey Vulture Sketch

A sketch from my field journal of a car-struck turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), July 17, 2012.

By Richard Telford

Author’s Note: This is the first in what I anticipate being a long series of posts on the natural history and conservation of vultures. While these posts will likely not follow a rigid order, I hope to eventually meld them into a longer, more substantive work titled In Defense of Vultures.

Epilogue

A light, easterly breeze bent the slender stalks of Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod that had emerged in early summer from the patchwork quilt of little barley and fescue, overtaking red clover and thistle long past their blooming. Just as the breeze undulated the complex fabric of disturbance obligate plants, so too did life itself undulate there, in short, complex cycles in which plant overtook plant, each bringing an equally complex host of pollinators, predators, migrants, and breeders, all quickly mortal in the short-lived life-burst of the summer pasture.

Such were the observations I recorded on July 22, 2012 as I sat on Lois Cole’s small memorial bench nestled among the trees in Monument Pasture in the Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut. By 1:30 the temperature had reached 80 degrees, and I sat adding species to a master site list while the raucous pasture music in all its forms reached its daily crescendo. Ten minutes later, a shadow at the periphery of my downward gaze drew it upward, first to the brightly lit mass of an old eastern white pine at the pasture’s southeast edge, then across the pasture itself, finally up to the azure sky marked by a scattering of cumulus clouds.

Perhaps thirty feet above, the penumbral form of a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) drifted in its rocking, dihedral flight, circling the pasture several times before disappearing beyond the tree line. This dihedral flight, in which vultures utilize thermal columns and expend little energy, allows them to outcompete facultative vertebrate scavengers. This evolutionary adaptation is critical for vultures, the only known terrestrial vertebrate obligate scavengers, and thus vultures serve a concomitantly unique systemic role. Vultures increase the energy cycling of natural systems, moving energy stored in carrion quickly through the trophic levels. They likewise serve a critical sanitation function. Despite historic, cultural maligning of vultures as filthy scavengers that spread disease, they in fact check the spread of carrion-based diseases, aided by a number of evolutionary adaptations.  These include exceptionally caustic stomach acid that can break down bacterially toxic carrion, featherless heads that resist the crusting of putrid flesh while feeding, and, in the case of the turkey vulture, acutely sensitive olfaction that will prompt rejection of the most toxic remains.

These and many other adaptations, some of which will be examined in subsequent posts, confer a unique ecological role upon the turkey vulture in particular and on the other 21 extant vulture species worldwide more broadly. Such niche roles necessarily create a duality for the species that fill them; while these species are especially critical to systemic function, they are also highly prone to extinction when the systems they occupy are disrupted. Such vulnerability is illustrated by precipitous population declines in the Gyps genus group in Asia and Africa, due principally to poisoning from livestock carcasses containing diclofenac, a commonly prescribed veterinary non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug which causes rapid renal failure in exposed Gyps vultures. The Oriental white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), for example, has suffered a staggering 99.9% population decline in India. These potentially catastrophic vulture losses will be examined more closely in a later post.

I focused little on the natural history or conservation of vultures on that warm July day. Instead, in my journal I noted the “low, lumbering flight, riding along warm air currents, still-winged and seemingly motionless.” The vulture was, I felt (and still feel), “an apt metaphor” for life, showing us the importance of “embracing life’s currents; changing direction by slow, deliberate degrees; conforming to the world’s parameters rather than trying to force the world to conform to our desired ones.” I concluded my observations by writing one simple word loaded with complex implications: “Magnificent.” Here was an illustration of the way in which scientific observation and emotional response cannot be fully separated, despite traditional calls for objectivity. In observing natural systems, how can we help but see ourselves, even if only through stark contrasts of what we may have been millennia ago, are at present, and may be in the future? Without such connections, how can we avert what Richard Leakey, Roger Lewin, Niles Eldredge, and others have termed the sixth extinction?

Five days after my initial turkey vulture observation at Monument Pasture, a shadow at the periphery of my gaze once again drew my attention. Driving home on state route 97, having finished a long morning of observations at Monument Pasture, a dark shape in the summer weeds at the road edge drew my gaze. A large wing rose up as I passed, and I could see the distinct, articulated wingtip feathers of a turkey vulture, likely car-struck. I pulled my car to the shoulder and walked heavy-heartedly back towards the vulture, its wings periodically unfurling, cutting the hot, dry air with the sound of delicate paper crumpling. I was distressed by the obvious suffering of an animal that, five days earlier, had evoked in me the deepest awe. I wondered if this could be the very animal that, days earlier, had silently circled Monument Pasture.

Reaching the vulture, I realized it was already dead; its bluish eyelid was drawn tight, a small heart-shaped pool of blood darkened the ground near its beak, its frame neither expanded nor contracted with breath. The light, broad wings that in life had allowed its effortless soaring now caught even the slightest breeze, drawing the splayed bird upward by inches only to drop it again like a downed kite. I quickly rough-sketched the vulture in its entirety, first feeling grief, then wonder, then gratitude. Realizing the gift of observation that this vulture had unwittingly given me through its death, I knelt beside it for another ninety minutes, painstakingly sketching its head, seeing the beauty of its graceful flight mirrored in the complex beauty of its functional adaptations. Gazing at this young vulture’s hooked, tearing beak, its bald head that would resist the caking of putrid flesh as feathers could not, its large, open nostril through which the ground beneath it was visible, it was clear to me why Thoreau, 158 years earlier in Walden, had written, “We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion which disgusts and disheartens us, and deriving health and strength from the repast.” If we wish to avert the sixth extinction, perhaps the beauty of function must be invoked to foster conservation-mindedness as readily as the beauty of form.

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.