America’s poet-scientist Peattie brings comfort during winter

Posted Feb. 12, 2011, at 5:03 p.m.

By February my tolerance for the absence of the garden has worn thin. In place of a morning stroll through the garden, I settle for weekend mornings by the fire, catching up on reading deferred during the gardening months, keeping one eye on the bird feeders, the endless parade of chickadees and nuthatches. I long for the voice of the mourning dove at sunrise.

There are occasional surprises at the feeders. In the wake of a recent snowstorm, a single displaced redpoll spent a few days with us, feeding on black-oil sunflower seeds in the porch feeders. We’ve never had redpolls at our feeders and were delighted by this little visitor, saddened by its departure. These chickadee-size, pink-breasted birds have been Marjorie’s favorites since a day many years ago in Wisconsin, when she saw her first redpoll wrapped in the mesh of a bird bander’s net.

There are rewards in the reading. This winter I find myself spending a few minutes each day with a favorite writer, the 20th century naturalist Donald Culross Peattie (1898-1964). Over the years I have collected, read and reread many of Peattie’s books, relying heavily on his “A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America,” first published in 1948, for insight into native tree species that only he can provide. More than once, I have quoted Peattie in this column.

Dubbed “America’s poet-scientist,” Peattie’s carefully chosen words connect the reader with each tree species in its habitat and, for those who know the tree, reconnect us with its essential character. For example, consider the following excerpt from his description of northern balsam, “Abies balsamea”:

“This is the most generally popular of all the trees of the great North Woods. To anyone whose childhood summers were luckily spent there, the delicious spicy fragrance of Balsam needles is the dearest odor in all of Nature. Merely to remember it is to raise before the eyes lake waters, or the soft high swell of the northern Ap-palachians, or the grandeur of the St. Lawrence gulf. It brings back the smell of wild raspberries in the sunlit clearing, the piercing sweetness of the white-throated sparrow’s song, the bird-like flight of the canoe from the gurgling paddle stroke.”

Through Peattie’s words, some of us recall our own experiences with balsam fir. Others, reading this description, might go in search of it.

A brick-size tome, the book is not a field guide. In the author’s words, it is “designed to be neither brief as possible, nor encyclopedic; it is an invitation to explore the woods for yourself.”

My focus this winter is a second reading of Peattie’s “An Almanac for Moderns,” first published in 1935. It is a book to live with for an entire year. Beginning in spring, on March 21, Peattie offers a one-page chapter for each day of the year, an essay on biology in 365 parts.

I started with the entry for the first of February and will follow the book through the year, a ritual to accompany morning coffee. The entry of Feb. 6 struck a chord:

“Winter is a guest that stays beyond its welcome and I am not complaining merely of cold and thaw, thaw and cold. I dislike the loneliness of winter, the flowerlessness of the ground. I miss the birds.

“To those who honestly prefer a titmouse or a junco to mockingbirds and mourning doves, I have nothing to answer save that it raises my spirits mightily to remember that somewhere, throbbing on summery air, there are hummingbirds.”

Peattie died in 1964, leaving behind more than a dozen books that identify him as the pre-eminent naturalist of his day and, in my opinion, one of the best wordsmiths of all time. I know of no other writer that compares to Donald Culross Peattie in connecting the reader with nature.

While all of his books are now out of print, copies can still be found online and on the dusty shelves of used-book stores — the precious few that still endure.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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