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Wednesday, 13 December 2006 00:00

Journal to remember

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Maintaining a nature journal has been one of my ongoing, albeit intermittent, preoccupations. Keeping such a journal assists me in maintaining a record of my outdoor experiences — and indoor ruminations — many of which would otherwise be lost.

 

This habit also prompts me to pay closer attention to little things that would otherwise be lost to my experience. My favorite English nature writer, W.H. Hudson (1841-1922), once composed a book titled A Traveller in Little Things (1921). It’s one of my favorite books. He provided an explanation for the curious title in his opening chapter.

In an inn at which he was lodging, Hudson encountered a “superior” gentleman from the business world, who explained that he was “a traveller in something very large.” The businessman determined after a summary inspection that Hudson was obviously “a traveller in little things –- in something very small.”

Hudson did not mind that “label” at all; indeed, he found it “something to be grateful for.” He knew that learning to pay attention to little things is, after all, a talent worth cultivating. And he fully agreed with Charles Dickens that a given life is, in the final analysis, “a summation of trifles.” Journal keeping is just that. It’s an endeavor that allows a person to record and retain the loose particles — the detritus — from which a life emerges.

Some of my favorite books are personal nature journals that have been published. Thoreau’s journal entries can be stimulating in small doses, but they are often too acerbic, too opinionated or too grand to suit my needs. More to my liking are those entries informed by quiet observation by observers like Edwin Way Teal (1899-1980), my favorite American nature writer. Here are some December entries culled from his Circle of the Seasons (1953):

• “On a dark December day like this, there is a special pleasure in thumbing through books of botany. They bring back the perfumes and colors of the flowers of spring.”

• “I see one lichen spreading across the surface of a small stone and it reminds me of the amazing relationship between rocks and lichens. Some of these plants, so frail they can be crushed between a thumb and forefinger, are able to dissolve granite. They produce rock-etching acids that eat out tiny pits and depressions in the stone, thus enabling the threads of lichens to strengthen their holds on boulders and cliffs .... It is the crystalline form of these acids, incidentally, that is responsible for the red and orange and silver and yellow hues that make brilliant the most colorful species of the lichens.”

• “The smell of the coming snow is in the air.”

• “The cat sleeps with its ears awake.”

• “William T. Davis (the New York naturalist who wrote Days Afield on Staten Island) once showed me some of the unpublished things he had written. I remember two eloquent sentences that express the whole outlook of his life. ‘There is no need of a faraway fairyland,’ he wrote, ‘for the earth is a mystery before us. The cow paths lead to mysterious fields.’”

• “Last sunset, last twilight, last stars of December. And so this year comes to an end, a year rich in the small, everyday events of the earth, as all years are for those who find a delight in simple things.”

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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