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Wednesday, 01 May 2013 02:12

A book every naturalist needs on his or her shelf

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Naturalist Donald Culross Peattie (1898-1964) was born in Chicago. In his autobiography The Road of a Naturalist (1941), Peattie recalled his first extended visit to the North Carolina mountains in 1906 as a time when he “saw the world of people fall away, grow small, grow hazy blue, forgotten. In seven months upon that isolated summit of the Appalachians, I began to discover a world older and greater. It is the world now of my established habitation, my working days and holidays, and it lies open to all men, in valleys as on mountains, by any road you choose to enter.”

Tryon didn’t become his permanent “habitation” — but he spent many years there while growing up and as a young man. 

 The Road of a Naturalist is a fine autobiography, well worth reading. And Peattie’s Green Laurels: The Lives and Achievements of the Great Naturalists, is an inspired series of profiles of men and women who have studied natural history, beginning with Aristotle and concluding with Jean-Henri Fabre. But A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central America (1950) is a great book. When it comes to providing accurate botanical information intermingled with lore and vivid description, it has never been equaled. Most of his observations were probably based on species initially encountered in WNC. Here is a sampling: 

Red Cedar

No stone-walled hilltop too bleak, no abandoned field too thin of soil but the dark and resolute figure of the Red Cedar may take its stand there, enduring, with luck, perhaps three centuries.

Yellow Birch 

If the lodgment of a seed is no more than the moss rime on an old rock, the sapling seeds its roots straddling down the boulder until the soil is reached. A favorite forest site is an old log, which is straddled in the same way as the rock and when the log decays, the birch is left on stilts of its own roots.

Tuliptree

This tree of stately beauty and immense practical use has a bewildering handful of folk names … The foresters prefer tuliptree, and with reason, since the name brings to mind the glory of this species in the spring, when its flowers, erect on every bough, hold the sunshine in their cups, setting the giant tree alight.

Fraser Magnolia

In the coves of the southern Appalachians, cooled by the breezes set astir by ever-falling water and fresh with fern and saxifrage, this lovely tree is most at home, its flowers shining forth serenely as water-lilies floating in the forest green.

Table Mountain Pine

Sooner or later he who rides or climbs in the southern Appalachians finds himself on some wind-swept, sun-bitten rocky ledge where a grove of the strange Bur Pine suddenly surrounds him. [This species is now usually referred to as Table Mountain Pine (Pinus pungens).] Its big cones encircle the twigs in dense clusters, each knob of the one armed with a horrendous hooked prickle, as if to guard the harsh fruit through to its slow maturity. For the cones cling on the tree until ripe, yet ripeness may not come for twenty years. And the tree allows no one without an axe to bear off these mace-like trophies; elastic though the branches are, they are unbreakable by human muscle. This intransigent Pine has no business future, nor will it —slow-growing, stingy of shade, without one concession to grace — ever find a role in horticulture. Its place is high on mountain ridges, where it looks down on the soaring buzzards, where the wildcat lives and the rattler suns his coils.

If you are a lover of trees this, is the one book you will want on your bookshelf beside the tree-identification manual of your choice.  The next time you’re trying to find a gift for someone of like mind, give them this book. As I said, there’s nothing else else like it. 

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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