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Wednesday, 02 September 2009 14:28

A natural passion for history

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Naturalist, photographer and writer Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980) was born in Joliet, Ill.

American nature writing in descriptive prose inevitably flows from Henry David Thoreau, that insistent observer of the commonplace. John Burroughs, his 19th century follower, was the first professional nature writer in America, and he remains one of the most pleasurable to read. Then there is that forgotten gem of outdoor ruminations, Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. By the end of the century, John Muir had introduced a sense of urgency concerning the need for preservation. Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edwin Way Teale, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, Annie Dillard and a few others extended that major tradition of American nature writing into the twentieth century.

Somewhat overlooked in recent years in favor of those writers whose primary interest lies in rendering their psychological reactions, Teale was one of the most gifted and influential nature writers of his era. Always methodical in regard to preparation, he was consistently able to locate significant interactions as they were occurring in the natural world and record what he was seeing in his notebooks. In his books, these events were set forth in an unvarnished yet memorable style that appealed to the common reader and the specialist alike. He intuited that experiencing nature either firsthand or via the written word was essential — that it filled “a deep need of the human heart.”

The son of a railroad mechanic and a school teacher who had emigrated from England, Teale dated his interest in nature to summer vacations at his maternal grandfather’s farm, “Lone Oak,” in the dune country of northern Indiana. In 1918, he entered Earlham College, a Quaker institution in Richmond, Ind., and studied English literature. After graduating in 1922, he married an Earlham classmate, Nellie Donovan, who became his constant companion as they crisscrossed the United States and Great Britain.

Near Horizons won the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing in 1943. His memoirs Dune Boy: The Early Years of a Naturalist (1943); The Lost Woods (1945), Days without Time (1948) and A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974) have become natural history classics. Springtime in Britain (1970) is an absorbing account of his travels with Nellie through England, Scotland and Wales that covered 11,000 miles to places associated with the great figures in English nature writing: Gilbert White, William Cobbett, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, W.H. Hudson, Richard Jefferies, and others.

Teale’s most famous books consist of a quartet on the four seasons that he and Nellie traveled throughout the United States for nearly 20 years to research: North With Spring: A Naturalist’s Record of a 17,000 Mile Journey with the North American Spring (1951); Autumn Across America: A Naturalist’s Record of a 20,000-Mile Journey Through the North American Autumn (1956); Journey Into Summer: A Naturalist’s Record of a 19,000 Mile Journey Through the North American Summer (1960) and Wandering Through Winter: A Naturalist’s Record of a 20,000 Mile Journey Through the North American Winter (1965).

Wandering Through Winter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1966 — but, in reality, the award recognized the literary accomplishment the entire series represented.

The spring journey from the Everglades to Maine took place in 1948. It carried the Teales through Western North Carolina from Pearson’s Falls Glen near Tryon to Highlands and up into the Great Smokies to Silers Bald and Mt. LeConte. Teale explained in the opening pages that they had been planning such a journey — “seeing, firsthand, the long upward northward flow of the season” — for many years:

“But obligations and responsibilities pushed the dream unrealized before us. Season followed season and year followed year. And while we waited, the world changed and we changed with it. The spring trip was something we looked forward to during the terrible years of World War II, during the strain and grief of losing David, our only son, in battle. [All of the books in the quartet are ‘Dedicated to / DAVID / who traveled with / Us in Our Hearts.’] When we talked over our plans with friends we discovered that our dream was a universal dream. They, too, had beguiled themselves, on days when winter seemed invincible, with thoughts of lifting anchor and, leaving everyday responsibilities behind, drifting north with the spring.”

Anyone interested in this region’s natural history will want to read North With Spring.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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