Our book today is a sweetly contemplative 1947 nature classic, Speaking of Animals by Alan Devoe, who for many years in the mid-20th century wrote his charming “Down to Earth” column for the old American Mercury and eventually bought a cute little estate in upstate New York called Phudd Hill, where he soon came to know every tree, every little dell, every mood of weather, and especially all the wild creatures who made their homes in what he always referred to as “the woods-world.” Phudd Hill generated two other Devoe classics, Phudd Hill (about which no less a figure than John Cowper Powys wrote “I regard it as second to hardly any ‘nature studies’ ever written”) and Lives Around Us, which was praised by such hard-to-please book critics (now entirely forgotten, of course) as Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Lewis Gannett.
Speaking of Animals is likewise among the best natures studies ever written, although Devoe is likewise now entirely forgotten. In this book’s thirty chapters, virtually all the archetypal Northeastern American animals get their loving examinations, from the great blue heron to the naked-faced possum to the oblivious beaver to the humble meadow mouse. In all these pieces, Devoe’s signature emapthy is on full display, as in “Inside Chipmunkdom”:
In the quiet earth-darkness, blind and tiny, the baby chipmunk stirs and frets a little, and knows what he must know. He raises his infant muzzle, kneading and nuzzling the furry warmth that is the belly of his mother. He seizes upon a small teat, and sucks a drop of chipmunk milk, and now an enormous peace, a quiet fulfillment, possess him utterly. He lies wholly tranquil now. There is warmth, there is darkness, there is the smell of an enwombing earth, there is the taste of milk. He falls asleep.
This is the texture of the chipmunk’s infancy, in the warm security of the grass-lined nest.
Like virtually everybody who’s come to know a patch of northeastern woods and scrubland well, Devoe has had his share of raccoon encounters, and he’s done his share of coon-watching, which is always just inordinately fun – and evocative, since raccoons seem to bring that out in their human observers:
Bear-footed, slow, he lumbers along the brook-banks and the marsh-edges. It is in his coon blood to love darkness, and the damp exhalation of sedgy places and the sound of flowing water. Slowly, placidly, he investigates the shallow pools. His forepaws are as agile and dexterous as little hands, and very gently he explores with them in the dark water, feeling for the touch of the cool body of a frog or crawfish or even a darting minnow. His clutch, when he has touched prey, is quick and clever, and it improves with practice.
And no ‘nature study’ would ever be quite complete without the occasional digression into philosophical inquiry. In this as in all other things, Devoe keeps his wilder flights under solid control, and the results are more impressive for it, as in his fantastic, thought-provoking chapter “When Animals Die”:
The human world has many tombstoned graveyards. The evidence of our dead is persistingly visible. In the woods-world the dead vanish quickly. Vultures take them. Foxes take them. The spotted-winded burying-beetles, scenting death, come scuttling quickly to inter them as food for their burying-beetle maggots. There is no memorializing of death in the woods-world. No memorializing but the blossoming flowers, growing out of death-rich soil … the soaring birds and eager animals, whose aliveness is made possible only by the deaths that have gone before … the green and flowering and fecund tumult, populous and glad with breath, that is earth-life’s testimony to the endless cycles of a kind of immorality.
It’d be nice if some version of that “kind of immortality” applied to books as well, somehow keeping charming little gems like Speaking of Animals from disappearing completely. But then again, that magic might just very well be book-blogging, right?