A Gentle Mentor on the Road

Edwin Way Teale

When I was a teenager I would go to the local public library and browse the shelves labeled “Nature,” looking for books that would teach me more about natural history and do it in a narrative fashion rather than in the form of a lecture. One of the authors I discovered back then was Edwin Way Teale. His A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm came out in 1974, when I was a freshman in high school. He was in his sixth decade of writing.

Teale was a writer for Popular Science magazine from 1929 to 1942, when he quit to become a free-lance nature writer. In 1945 his son David was killed in action in Germany. In part to deal with their grief, Teale and his wife Nellie began to travel thousands of miles cross-country in a Buick station wagon. In February 1947 they drove to Florida from their home on Long Island, and then turned around and followed spring northward through the eastern states. North With the Spring was published in 1951

“The seasons,” Teale wrote, “like the greater tides, ebb and flow across the continents. Spring advances up the United States at the average rate of fifteen miles a day. It ascends mountainsides at the rate of about a hundred feet a day. It sweeps ahead like a flood of water, racing down the long valleys, creeping up hillsides in a rising tide.”

The Teales recorded the behavior and habitats of animals and plants, described the landscape and the ecosystems, worried over environmental degradation, and occasionally digressed into descriptions of the local vernacular culture. Teale’s authorial voice was avuncular, unhurried, reasonable, and funny in a tweedy kind of way. He conveyed an enormous amount of information without ever wearying the reader with extraneous detail.

North With the Spring (1951)

Although Teale was trained as a journalist he did not absent himself from the narrative like John McPhee does (or used to do). While McPhee lets the experts that he visits do all the talking, Teale himself is the dominant voice in his books. He and Nellie will frequently encounter friends of theirs or nature professionals as they travel, people that they have set up meetings with to learn more about a local phenomenon.

At Orange Lake near Gainesville, Florida, they engage naturalist Don McKay to bring them out among the “floating islands.” These mats of vegetation, torn loose from the shores, support living plants and bird populations as they are pushed around the lake by the winds. Teale describes the Orange Lake islands and then presents a short abstract of the evidence for floating islands through world history.

By April 1947 the Teales reached North Carolina. Descriptions of plants had been brief up till this point. They have been mentioned in passing as part of the landscape. At Pearson’s Falls near Tryon, North Carolina they encountered their first profusion of spring wildflowers. Typical of Teale’s powers of description is his sentence on the foam flower: “The tip of each floret seemed dipped in the wax of a delicate apricot hue.” This line is an anapestic hexameter with a supple rhythm but enough irregularity to keep it from being singsong.

Teale is the master of giving you a number and then a striking fact to make it stick in your mind:

“So powerful are the perfume oils of flowers that 1/120,00th of a grain of the oil of rose is all that is required to affect our sense of smell. That sense, incidentally, can be cultivated. After World War I a number of blinded French veterans were trained by Paris perfumers and became experts at analyzing scents by nose alone.”

Nellie Teal (left) in a photo by her husband.

Reading books like this as a teenager caused me to consider all knowledge to be connected. In Teale’s narratives everything led to everything else. He would jump from biology to chemistry to history to personal reminiscence and then circle back to biology again. He presented every piece of information in the context of its natural habitat in the ecosystem of knowledge.

After North With the Spring was published in 1951 to acclaim, the Teales drove across the continent chasing the fall and published Autumn Across America in 1956. The following year they encountered summer across the continent and issued Journey Into Summer in 1960. In 1961 they began at San Diego, watching gray whales and drove 20,000 miles through winter before ending their travels north of Caribou, Maine on the Canadian border and completed the seasonal cycle with Wandering Through Winter in 1965, eighteen years after their first journey began.

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Daffadowndilly

I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.

From “The American Garden”

Wordsworth’s poem refers to naturalized daffodils growing in drifts on a pastoral landscape. Once planted these bulbs have the tendency to divide rapidly from year to year, spreading from small clumps to rambling sprawls. Some sources claim that the Romans introduced daffodils to Great Britain. Concerted settlement by the Romans began in the first century AD, followed by a long “sub-Roman” period after their withdrawal in the fifth century.

The daffodil was evidently cultivated and admired in classical cultures of the Mediterranean, but not rediscovered as an ornamental by modern Europeans until the 17th century. The genus Narcissus is native to the Mediterranean, especially concentrated in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal), North Africa and the Middle East.

The botanical name is said to derive from the story of Narcissus, who by all accounts was vain enough to fall in love with his own reflection. Many wild forms of Narcissus, do have downward cast flowers and all daffodil care texts urge you to keep them moist, so finding wild daffodils bending over small bodies of water must have been a common occurrence in classical Greece. The folk tales that aged into mythology are often in the form of the “just-so stories” (as later so-called by Rudyard Kipling).

“Narcissus” (1597) by Caravaggio

In the Roman version invented by Ovid in his Metamorphoses Narcissus is paired with Echo, a nymph who can only repeat what others say. She loves Narcissus, but is cruelly rejected by him. His vanity is explained as a lack of self-awareness; he has never seen himself and does not know how attractive he is. Then he accidentally sees his own reflection and is transfixed by its beauty. In all versions of the story he dies there in various ways. The heartbroken Echo fades away until only her voice remains. According to Ovid, it is in memory of her grief that the flower springs up in the spot where Narcissus died.

The flower obviously existed before the story was made up to explain its habit and appearance, so an existing word that was used to name the flower: narke is the Greek verb for “to make numb,” which may refer to the symptoms that arise from over-frequent handling of daffodils. The calcium oxalate crystals in their leaves causes roughening of the skin and itching. The symptoms of lycorine, an alkaloid also found in the plant, are much more dramatic.

Some sources note that the etymology of the genus name is “confused” or that there are “two possibilities” for its origin, the myth or the word. In fact, the flower name is likely from the Greek verb. In the origin story it is pretended that the flower is named for the boy, but in fact the boy was invented to “explain” the flower.

Narcissus poeticus

It seems that the more popular the flower, the more complex and manifold are the explanations for its names. The vernacular English name for some of the larger Narcissus is daffodil. The origins of this name are more tangled than those of the botanical name. Many sources begin with a alteration of Asphodelus, which is a different flower in the order Aspargales (while Narcissus is in the Liliales), but also native to the Mediterranean region, hence its association with the Asphodel Fields of the underworld, where souls with indifferent karmic records reside for eternity. Both Narcissus and Asphodelus are associated with death—Narcissus is supposed to be still gazing at his reflection in the River Styx—in classical cultures, and apparently in William Wordsworth’s mind.

Asphodel became corrupted in the Germanic languages to “affodell,” but there are at least three different explanations available to explain the “d” now affixed to the front of the word. The Wikipedia entry author (without attribution) links it to the Dutch article “de, while others ascribe to the French “d’,” although the French themselves refer to daffodils as jonquilles. (In the American South daffodils may generally be referred to as jonquils, as readers of Tennessee Williams know.)

The most colorful origin story for this flower name, however, comes from Suite101.com: “The old name for daffodil was ‘Affodyle’. The name Affodyle was believed to originate with the Old English ‘Affo dyle’, meaning “that which cometh early.” The ‘D’ in daffodil is believed to be derived from dropping the word ‘bastard’, leaving only the D in polite company, therefore, when spoken it was D Affodyle, which became daffodil.”

While this sounds like something that was made up in a Victorian drawing room after one too many glasses of sherry, it is pretty funny. Although Wordsworth would not have been amused.