Summer’s last true efforts – it’s last firm grips of heat and humidity – have finally faltered here in Boston; the mid-afternoon skies are bright and warm as always, but the mornings now tell a different story: their shadows are longer, and there’s a touch of actual chill in them. Soon the season’s signature languor will begin to fray away; weather reports will become more pressing; windows will close that have been open since late April. It’s a time of year when I always think about Cape Cod, where the end of summer has a particular, almost unbearably sharp beauty to it. But in truth the opening notes of autumn have caught me in many settings in the course of my life (including once at sea, where those notes are unrecognizable), and the binding thread is the urge to go out and walk on shore and hillside. These are the days when summer’s heat no longer threatens to turn those walks into ordeals of ooze and mosquitos – and when winter’s cold hasn’t yet turned those walks into grimly satisfying endurance contests.
Those walks out in fields and forests of course remind me of the countless nature books I’ve read in my life, since the wild world has moved the pens of writers for thousands of years (stop for a minute and think about the sheer amount of nature-writing contained in the Iliad, for instance). I gathered up six good examples to put before you today:
One Day at Teton Marsh by Sally Carrighar – Carrighar, who wrote this classic in 1947, was certainly one of the most passionate and prolific of those nature-spurred writers, and she’s also one of the best. I love the unabashed passion of her prose, so thoroughly caught up in the wonders she’s recounting that she very often foregoes including any mention at all of intrusive humans – and she never seems like one herself. In one nifty passage from this book, she contemplates the bull moose, “a creature who looked like some giant prehistoric beast, rising from the swamp of an ancient epoch”:
He was starting into a world where all other creatures were small and most of the sleek. Grotesque in the twentieth-century wilderness was his huge nose, a thick down-bent column; and grotesque were his ponderous shoulders, his massive hams, belly, and chest, and the string of limp hairy skin, his dangler, that hung from his throat. Among modern animals he would seem an outsider – until his great power struck. When he would rear, and his front hooves would drive down with a weight equalling that of six large men, his body would seem the suitable one and all others insignificant.
I wouldn’t be surprised if all her books were out of print at the moment (actually, that wouldn’t surprise me about any of the authors on this list, alas), but she never wrote a bad one, so I recommend finding them all.
Beyond Your Doorstep by Hal Borland – Borland wrote this book – as much a guidebook as a bestiary – in 1962, one year before his greatest commercial success, the novel When the Legends Die, but to me he always seemed more in his element when writing nonfiction, especially about beautiful patch of Connecticut wilderness where he made his home. Beyond Your Doorstep is intended in part to be a general-purpose introduction to the world of field and stream, but he readily admits all through the book that he’s really just writing about his home, where he’s scrutinized every living thing for years. For instance, he writes about the change in bird-life at this exact time of year:
My Winter birds begin to appear by mid-September. I see a brown creeper or two, a few nuthatches, quite a few whitethroat sparrows, now and then a couple of juncos. Blue jays are more noisy. They were either quite or outvoiced most of the Summer. And the crows talk loudly. They were very noisy a month ago, bringing their young off the nests, screaming at them and at each other; then they were quiet for a bit. Now they are shrill again, talking of days ahead when they will own the valley. Catbirds are quiet, strangely subdued. I see no more kingbirds; they have gone south.
Wild Season by Allan Eckert – This author loved the wild landscapes of his native Midwest, and although he achieved his greatest readership with densely-researched novels of American frontier life (and achieved his single greatest work with his gigantic 1992 biography of Tecumseh), he wrote field and stream books his entire life, including this sweet little volume from 1967 (the old Bantam paperback I own has an uncredited cover illustration I’d swear was by the great Darrell K. Sweet, done before he found fame as a fantasy cover artist)(the internal illustrations are done with considerably less success by Karl Karalus). It focuses on the very specific locale of the author’s beloved Oak Lake, and you can definitely spot the future crafter of many excellent, gory fight scenes in even such a bucolic setting, as when he describes the aftermath of a fight between a shrew and a deer mouse:
Breathing rapidly from his exertions, his heart hammering at the rate of over thirteen hundred beats per minute, the shrew released his hold and spent several minutes cleansing the fresh blood from his breast fur. This finished, he methodically ripped the mouse apart, devouring first her brains and internal organs with phenomenal speed and then starting in on the meat.
I’m actually a big fan of practically everything Eckert wrote and heartily recommend it all – but I think there’s an extra pointedness to his nature writing.
My Wilderness: East to Katahdin by William O. Douglas – This 1961 book by Supreme Court Justice Douglas (with some very fine but poorly-reproduced illustrations by Francis Lee Jaques) is as pointed as they come: Douglas was a life-long outspoken advocate of wild places and an activist for their preservation. East to Katahdin starts in Colorado and ambles over hill and dale all the way to the title mountain in Maine and is as full of doomy portraits of man’s depredation as something you’d read by Peter Matthiessen. But there are also more intimate hiking and kayaking moments that are rendered with the same rat-tat-tat rhetorical style that characterized so many of the judge’s legal decisions – and that, like them, often have a little spur of poetry poking up along the way:
We were halfway down to Anthony Creek when the downpour came. I had been in many a drizzle in the Smokies. This was the first hard rain I had experienced. It picked up momentum and volume until it came in sheets. Tons of water came to Ledbetter Ridge and Anthony Creek in an hour. We had ponchos over our packs. But the rain was in such force and quantity, it formed rivulets that ran down our necks and finally filled our shoes. We were now well off the ridge. So the rain was warm and seemed to sing some of the first sonnets of Spring.
“There is a poetry for me in the talus slopes of Katahdin” Douglas writes, but it’s not only the book’s end destination that evokes that poetry. Like most of the rest of the books on this list – and maybe just a bit more so, considering the place of its author in broader American history – this one really deserves a better literary afterlife than it’s so far received.
The Stream by Robert Murphy (1971) – A better literary afterlife is certainly warranted for this gem of a book, which intersperses sad and penetrating glimpses of ecological degradation with wonderfully evocative descriptions of field and stream. Murphy’s a more anecdotal author than any of the others on this list; his stories are full of hunters and trappers and friends and assorted characters, all dramatized with a fine light touch. The seasons roll by in these pages, and we see Murphy out walking in all weathers, always sensitive to the changing seasons, as in his very good evocation of the subtle shift I mentioned, from summer to autumn:
The air was lighter now, with a cool bright clarity that had not been there when the warmth of summer lay somnolently beneath the trees, and in the mornings the ridge beyond the river to the east was softened by autumn haze. After the coolness of dawn there was a drowsiness about the days that was different from the drowsiness of summer, for now the growing was over and the fruits of the growing were ripe; the world of green things rested and began to prepare for the long still time of winter sleep.
And as good as Murphy’s prose is, his book has a glory to equal it: several black-and-white illustrations by the great nature artist Bob Hines, who could imbue just about any wilderness scene with a clean beauty and puckish humor (he’s so much better than the other artists in these books that I’m using only his pictures in this post). The wonderful folks at Beaver’s Pond Press came out with a very good book about Hines a couple of years ago – Bob Hines, National Wildlife Artist by John Juriga – and it’s well worth your time, although I’d also like a national exhibit one of these days.
The Living World of Nature – no artwork at all in this nifty little 1980 volume from Reader’s Digest, an anthology of several of the better nature-related short pieces they’d run over the decades. There are some wonderful little items here by some great writers, pieces like “Probing the Mysteries of the Galaxies” by Timothy Ferris, or “Man in a Web” by Loren Eisley, or “A Hummingbird’s Magic,” a very moving essay by Norma Lee Browning. And this collection also includes a piece called “Voices of the Surf,” which is a slightly condensed excerpt from Henry Beston’s Cape Cod classic, The Outermost House – and so brings us back to the Cape where we started:
Listen to the surf, really lend it your ears and you will hear in it a world of sounds: hollow boomings and heavy roarings, great watery tumblings and tramplings, long hissing seethes, sharp rifle-shot reports, splashes, whispers, the grinding undertone of stones, and sometimes vocal sounds that might be the half-heard talk of the people of the sea.
It’s not just the sea – out walking on long, gorgeous mid-September afternoons (especially when those walks are very slow! If you’re shepherding along a sweet old dog, you have the leisure to look at everything around you), you can almost fancy you hear the half-heard talk of the people of field and stream as well, busily chattering away about the oncoming winter. That winter will have its own beauties, of course, but still: days like today are exceptionally sweet.