Saturday, January 4, 2014

Donald Peattie: Naturalist Writer

I grew up with books about farming, natural history, and conservation biography. I can recall many loud and boisterous family gatherings from which I would quietly slip away with a favorite book to immerse myself in the topic and the writing. A nature writer for whom I credit with my appreciation for the power and beauty of nature prose is Donald Peattie.

I often think that the within the larger thicket of our personal environment and societal times, our paths are hewn by facing our troubles head on and in doing so, we discover our gifts. Such was the story of Don Peattie who, like many writers of the early 1900s, moved to Europe to discover his muse, but returned to the States penniless and disillusioned smack in the middle of the Great Depression.

Trying to support a family with bit jobs writing brochures, he began to keep a nature observation journal to keep his spirits up day-to-day. Through his journaling he found his calling and a great passion for nature writing. An Almanac for Moderns was the published collection of short essays based upon this journal and it was the first book of Peattie's that I picked up at the tender age of ten. It was already dog-eared and worn, chosen from my mother's bookshelf during one especially loud Christmas visit. I crawled under her desk and began to read. All the dinner clamor and noise seemed to melt away with "Beauty is excrescence, superabundance, random ebullience, and sheer delightful waste to be enjoyed in its own right." What? I remember thinking. People are allowed to write like this? About nature? In a their journal?

After reading An Almanac for Moderns I began to carry my nature journal with me everywhere,
even if the journal itself was bulky and heavy. Most got wet, torn, singed
stained, smudged, or damaged, and that too is part of the tale.
Nature Journal 2002.
Peattie was a meticulous naturalist and botanist. But he knew that science only generated more questions than it could answer. Through his natural history writing and his many, many books, he used prose to blend natural mysteries with the fascinating information that science had discovered about our natural world. In his monumental works on the natural history of trees he pours out his love for the American woods and imbibes every essay, written for each species, with scientific fact, history, and humor. His status as one of the most influential naturalists of his day is not lost on today's reader, for he continues to inspire and motivate us to have direct experiences with all aspects of nature and to reflect deeply about these experiences.

Peattie spent many years in the Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian regions, working as a botanist for the USDA and then working as a long-running nature columnist for the Washington Star. He explored the mountains, rivers, fields, farms, and parks throughout the region, making careful observations about all aspects of nature, especially the trees. He was especially attracted to the area's colonial history and blended much of his nature writing with the history of Mid-Atlantic landscapes and human interactions with nature based on colonial industry, trades, and farming. He thought George Washington too much an Englishman, but Tom Jefferson suited him just fine. Studying Jefferson's writing revealed a deep love for the American landscape and passion for progressive farming. Peattie defined Jefferson as the ideal American naturalist and arborist.

For this post I thought it would be fitting to share some of my favorite tree portraits accompanied by Peattie's eloquent and humorous descriptions for them as found in the Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America:

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginana)
"They eject their shiny, hard, black seeds with violence; the tree which seldom grows more than twenty feet high, can send its seeds much further...thus the wintery-blooming Witch Hazel, of ancient geologic lineage, is still today well able to maintain itself."

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)
"A name is only an open door to knowledge; beyond lie the green ways of growing and too, all that makes a tree most interesting and important to man. Nowhere else in the world have trees so profoundly influenced the migrations, the destinies and the lives of human beings."

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
"No matter how we humans improve the breed, or cook the fruit, the persimmon will never mean to us what it does to the lives of the wild animals. It is eaten by birds, notably the popular bobwhite, by the half-wild hogs that rule the Ozarks, by flying squirrels and foxes, by raccoons and skunks and white-tailed deer, and above all by the opossum."

Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
"So easy was [red cedar] to split with the frow and to smooth with the plane that it could be worked even by people as woefully ill-prepared for wilderness life as the theologian-tradesmen and overdressed gold hunters who first sought our shores."

Peattie, Donald C. (1966) A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.

Peattie, Donald C. (1935) An Almanac for Moderns. (2013) Trinity University Press.

Chicago Wilderness Magazine maintains an online archive of the works of Donald Peattie and his wife Louise Redfield, also a writer.

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