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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