A Conscious Stillness!

Our book today is A Conscious Stillness, a beautiful and gently sad little masterpiece of natural history from 1982, written by Ann Zwinger and Edwin Way Teale and chronicling their separate and shared trekking over the riverways and wilderness first chronicled in 1849 by Henry David Thoreau. A Conscious Stillness began in 1976 as the slimmest of ideas and grew gradually over the years as Zwinger, a naturalist from Colorado, and Teale, by then a legendary and universally revered natural history writer with a string of bestsellers to his credit, realized not only that they were entirely alike in their happy reverence for the natural world but, more importantly, that if they were confined to the same canoe for any length of time, they wouldn’t end up killing each other (a very important matter, that). Through correspondence and personal visits, they brought to fruition a simple idea: to replicate the trip Henry Thoreau made along the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in 1849 with his brother John. The book that resulted from that trip, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, is by a wide margin Thoreau’s most bearable, a controlled exposition of wonder without any of the excessive mannerisms that so often mar his other books.

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers is a pretty thing built on a silting of sadness: Thoreau wrote it in memory of his brother, who died (of tetanus, treatable now with a quick injection in any hospital in the world) before he could read the finished product. A Conscious Stillness is likewise an undercurrent-sad thing, since Edwin Teale died before he could read the finished product. And yet, both books are essentially happy – filled with that peculiar happiness that is only achieved after hours of contented paddling-time with a friend on quiet waterways. Thoreau and his brother knew their full share of that happiness (as have I, sometimes when canoeing these same Sudbury, Assabet, Concord, and especially Merrimack currents), and by a pleasant miracle, Zwinger and Teale came to know it too. Teale was a boyish, bouncy soul (and a passionate preacher of the novels of Anthony Trollope) who was open to fascination at all times, and in these pages Zwinger has the same gift. Her portraits of the two of them lost in rapture are unfailingly charming:

One summer’s day, Edwin and I lean on the bridge railing, tree branches arching above us, woven together like tiercerons, leaves flickering as the water flickers below. Basketball-sized boulders piled up in the stream for riprap create tiny waterfalls, and we stand hypnotized, watching the water froth and pour in the shadowed reach or out in midstream, where it pillows up and falls lacy with bubbles, constantly changing, constantly moving, constantly spellbinding. It is obvious why this was the site of an early mill. Water velocity is good, the steep banks high enough for safe building. The earliest corn mill was built here by Oliver War in the winter of 1724.

There are many passages in A Conscious Stillness that quietly sound with Teale’s characteristic prose-tone, and it’s bittersweet to read them knowing there will be no more. His odd, off-point rhythms are products of long experience, longer than Zwinger’s and wider, although the most amazing thing about the book is the ultimate compatibility of their voices:

The Assabet is a rock river, often rushing and noisy as it plows through obstacles, often a difficult river. The Sudbury is Emerson and Thoreau, afternoon tea, the Concord Social Circle and erudite conversation, canoeing on a summer evening. The Assabet is the industrial towns of Maynard and Hudson, Matthew Boone’s bloody ambush, the roaring filth of an iron smelter, Brown’s farmlands covered by Damon’s mill complex, plain names and undistinguished people and too many dams and too many wastewater treatment problems. But with, nevertheless, moments of brightness and beauty to gladden anyone who takes the time to find them.

Neither Penguin nor the Library of America nor Harper Collins has seen fit to bring out the writings of Edwin Teale in the pretty, permanent edition they deserve, nor has anybody thought to keep A Conscious Stillness in print for a new generation of river- and marsh-lovers to discover. Everything either of these authors wrote is worth searching out, as is this gorgeous, quiet book they finally wrote together. And we’ll always have Thoreau, downloadable at a moment’s notice.

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