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Wednesday, 31 January 2007 00:00

Recounting natural history

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For me, no pursuit is truly worthwhile unless it has an associated body of literature one can consult from time to time for insights, inspiration, or just to pass the time.

 

Can you imagine a trout fisherman without his finely bound gilt-edged volumes or his paid-up subscriptions to the latest piscatorial magazines? What gardener would sally forth without his or her garden encyclopedias, current periodical literature, and choice catalogs from “Johnny’s” or “Park’s” or all the other seed producers who specialize in whetting their enthusiast’s winter hearts?

Those of us interested in general natural history depend on a variety of books keep us informed, amused, or inspired. These range from vascular plant manuals to field guides and popular accounts of firsthand experiences in the woods.

This time of year, one of my favorite pastimes is turning the pages of the various books in my collection that provide natural history accounts of a year’s duration based on either monthly or seasonal descriptions. The seasonal cycle covering spring, summer, fall, and winter is, of course, the structure most often utilized in natural history books for the obvious reasons that it is at once both the easiest and one of the most sensible.

Here then, are a few excerpts pertaining to the winter season that I chanced upon during my most recent page-turning bout. I trust that the specific observations the selected writers pass along will be of interest; and moreover, I hope that you will find a new writer or two to follow up on and make a part of your library.

• Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days (first published in 1882, reissued in the Signet Classic paperback series) is a collection of the famous poet’s prose writings and musings presented in a journal format that covers his observations from the time of the Civil War until the early 1880s. I prefer Specimen Days to his monumental (and, in places, bombastic) Leaves of Grass because of its quiet prose and the clear love of the commonplace evidenced therein.

On Feb. 13, 1880, for instance, while crossing the Delaware River, Whitman noted a flock of wild geese “ranged in V-shape in relief against the noon clouds of light smoke-color” that caused him to have “thoughts melted into me” of “these creatures cleaving the sky — the spacious airy realm — the rapid flight of the birds flashing me such a hint of the whole spread of Nature, with the eternal unsophisticated freshness, her never-visited recesses of sea, sky, shore — and then disappearing in the distance.”

• Richard Headstrom’s Nature in Miniature (1968) is an account of things best observed with a magnifying lens. In his February chapter, Headstrom considered such topics as leaves, twigs and seeds, as well as winter insects like snow flies and Mayflies. The reader is advised that one of the Mayfly aquatic nymphs can be observed to have “bladelike feet, which are admirably adapted for burrowing, and a pair of enormous mandibular tusks that projects forward from beneath the head. Sometimes a sloping bank will be mined with hundreds of (these nymphs): their tails may often be seen in the openings of their burrows. If one is pulled out and placed on the mud, it will burrow in again with astonishing speed.”

• John Hanson Mitchell’s A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard (1985) is a down-to-earth commentary on things to look for not only in the yard but inside your home as well. In the section devoted to late winter, Mitchell described the jumping spider, “a small, harmless spider that may also appear in your window frame during sunny days in late February.” They are remarkable jumpers “capable of greater leaps comparatively, than gazelles or kangaroos, and they seem to be able to go sideways, backwards, or forwards with equal ability.”

• Josephine Johnson’s The Inland Island (1969) is a brooding unsentimental account of one woman’s attempt to come to terms with the farm landscape she found herself sequestered in during the darkest days of the Vietnam War. The February chapter contains Johnson’s account of the various ongoing plant and animal lives she detected in the fields, meadows, and streams on the farm. But, as we all have, she frustratingly senses a life beyond her own that she can’t quite decipher with observations or words. “Mink, fox, weasel, possum, mice — all have left their messages that I can’t read. The tracks are not like the tracks in books. Every beast has retracted his toenails. These little blurry blobs aren’t like the precise five toes in the books. It’s another language.” As is the instance with all who look closely at the natural world and come away mystified, Johnson finds herself both attracted to and disorientated by “all this unknown creature-life that passes and re-passes here ... It is the seed of fairy tales, the seeking of lost valleys. Timeless pockets in the world of time. Either I should not ever leave, or I should not return again.”

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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