Tuesday, October 04, 2011

`Enough of Remote and Inhospitable Land'

Probably the first naturalist I read was Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980), author of “The American Seasons” series, four volumes that stirred a boyish urge to explore the American continent. With his Mississippi River books, Mark Twain had a similar impact, as did maps from the U.S. Geologic Survey, John Ford’s westerns and, later, Bernard DeVoto’s histories.

Starting in 1947, Teale and his wife drove more than 75,000 miles across North America, tracking the seasons. The result was North with the Spring (1951), Autumn Across America (1956), Journey Into Summer (1960) and Wandering Through Winter (1965). Coincidentally, Kerouac based On the Road on the journey he made across the country between July and October 1947. Fortunately, Teale, unlike Kerouac, could write.

His prose, however, is sometimes overripe, like Whitman in one of his amative moods. I’m rereading Autumn Across America, which begins which a rhapsody on Monomoy Island off Cape Cod: “Where low dunes roll their yellow waves inland from the shore on Monomoy…” In his third paragraph, Teale reveals his true literary pedigree:

“Not many miles from where we stood, Henry Thoreau once faced the Atlantic on an outer beach of Cape Cod and observed that there a man had put all America behind him. For us, rather, all America lay before us.”

Teale refers to the final sentence in Thoreau’s posthumously published Cape Cod (1865): “A man may stand there and put all America behind him.”

In this case, I prefer Teale’s orientation to Thoreau’s, which is typically snippy. I’ve often dreamed of a westbound journey from one coast to the other, and back. I’ve done it, but only incrementally, in chopped-up fashion. Teale notes that only with the coming of the automobile has it become possible to follow a season in a season. Audubon, Bartram and Muir traveled on foot or by horseback or stagecoach. Rare among nature writers, Teale is grateful for the automobile:

“We talked that day, as we stood amid the seaside goldenrod and sparse marram grass on Monomoy, of all the people to whom we were indebted for bringing within our grasp this dreamed-of journey through autumn—the steel worker, the automobile makers, the road menders, the glass-factory technicians, even those old, old innovators, the first men to use fire and employ wheels and devise cloth and leather to keep themselves warm and dry. They all had contributed something to the travels that lay before us and to them all we were profoundly grateful.”

One of the book’s themes is Teale’s democratic-mindedness. He likes people, average American men and women, and doesn’t count himself part of a literary elite. In Ohio, part of what he calls “the Land of the Turning Wheel,” what we now call the Rust Belt, he writes:

“That undercurrent of poetic feeling that runs through the great mass of men was revealing itself everywhere on place-signs and on rural mailboxes. Here, as all across the land, it was finding expression in the names bestowed by farmers on their homestead: The Seven Pines, Hidden Acres, Long Furrow Farm, Willow Bend, Green Pastures, Killdee Farm, Far Hills, Hickory Stick Farm, The Windy Oaks, Meadow Lane Farm.”

To Teale’s list I can add the name of a farm in Galena, Ill., where we spent a week in the summer of 1966: Shetland Acres. Another of Teale’s endearing qualities is his willingness to complain and admit when he’s bored or frightened. Later in the journey, he visits the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and marvels at the presence of three monarch butterflies in this vast alkaline wasteland. He writes:

“We looked back on that land of desolation—the end of the world surrounded by mountains—and thought how long a time it would take to feel at home in all this dry country in the west, so lonely and overwhelming. And in that moment I was aware of a curious mental reaction that, no doubt, a psychologist would find revealing. There swept over me a fierce hunger for books, for libraries, for all the worn favorites on my shelves at home, for the commingled smell of old paper and glue and ink that surrounds the stacks of every public library. I longed for Keats and Shakespeare and Conrad and Thoreau and [W.H.] Hudson. I had, for that day, enough of wilderness, enough of remote and inhospitable land.”

I remembered something David Myers wrote about his visit to Bryce Canyon in southwestern Utah last summer during a cross-country drive with two of his sons:

“I couldn’t imagine human life there. The sheer complexity of the geological history on display swallows up any thought of work or politics, makes humanistic speculation pointless.”

In “To a Portrait of Melville in My Library,” Yvor Winters writes:

“Wisdom and wilderness are here at poise,
Ocean and forest are the mind’s device.”

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