Thursday, March 20, 2008

North With the Spring - Edwin Way Teale

One day while browsing the shelves of the tiny bookroom at our local nature center, I came upon an intriguing group of books by an author I'd never heard of. That's not surprising; there are a lot of authors out there and while I'd like to think I am well-read, I don't even know what I'm missing. But there was something about these old-looking hardbacks; I had to pick them up. Edwin Way Teale was a naturalist who, with his wife Nellie, traveled throughout the US in the 1950s; he wrote about their adventures in 4 seasonal books: North With the Spring, Journey into Summer, Autumn Across America, and Wandering Through Winter.

North With the Spring
is our current "natural history" reading. I love reading to my family, and they love to listen. Most mornings, after we finish up our catechism and while we are lingering a little too long over breakfast, we read a chapter. We had actually started reading Wandering Through Winter but, spring came too soon and we weren't in the mood for winter writing anymore. That's OK; it's on the shelf for next year.

Reading and listening to beautiful writing is very important for children. It helps them learn to speak well; eventually, perhaps, to write well. My kids have always scored above their "grade level" on the "language expression" and vocabulary portions of the few standardized tests they have taken. (And thank goodness because their grasp of proper punctuation is not so great.) This is just because we have always read to them, and try to read superbly-written books as often as possible.

Nature or natural history writing interests all of us. We love the descriptions of the plants, animals, and geography. Good writing of this type nearly always draws us to the encyclopedia or the internet for more investigation. That is what education is all about, isn't it?

North With the Spring begins:

Bare trees imprinted the black lace of their twigs on a gray and somber sky. Dingy with soot, snowdrifts had melted into slush and were freezing again. Behind us, as we drove south, city pallor was increasing. Tempers were growing short in the dead air of underventilated offices. That quiet desperation, which Thoreau says characterizes the mass of men, was taking on new intensity. February, at once the shortest and the longest month of the twelve, had outstayed its welcome. The year seemed stuck on the ridge of winter.

Starting in the Everglades, the Teales make their way up the Eastern Seaboard to Maine, with a few westward diversions. He writes about the Great Smoky Mountains, Kitty Hawk, Virginia in May, Manhatten, Cape Cod.... At Lake Okeechobee in Florida, they watch flocks of glossy ibises return to their nightly nesting place:

Now the vanguard of returning birds appeared out of the glowing pink of the sunset clouds - a long line of black dots approaching low over the water. The dots grew in size, took shape, became a skein of dark birds. They passed us silently, flowing over the obstruction of the cattail ls and canes as though each bird were a link in a pliant chain. The whole line of birds seemed a unit, an entity, rather than a group of separate individuals. Against the luminous sky each glossy ibis was imprinted sharply. Over the island they curved into a great wheel and poured doward in a spiral to alight in the willow trees.

Teale also wrote Springtime in Britain, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, and many others. A Walk Through the Year has short, daily readings based on his wanderings on his farm.

Some links:

Journey North has a short excerpt from North With the Spring and some observation questions about earthworms. has a bio and bibliography.

Our Land, Our Literature discusses his memoir of his childhood, Dune Boy.

The Teales' farm, Trail Wood, is owned by the Audubon Society of Connecticut. I'd love to visit. Maybe now that we're on the east coast for a while....

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