Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The golden age of nature guides

On a recent warm Saturday afternoon, Tom and I did a six-mile walk in the backcountry of Borderlands State Park. It was a busy day at the park, but we met few people once we got a mile or so away from the parking lot. Again and again our trail crossed brooks that skipped and tumbled down from the granite uplands, awakening spring. The broad green leaves of skunk cabbage clustered near the water. Fiddlehead ferns unrolled their furls, their stalks like croziers or shillelaghs. Here and there a jack-in-the-pulpit expounded a silent sermon. Blue and white violets accompanied the purling waters up and down their banks, each brook a mossy, wet gathering of a thousand trickling tributaries of solar fire.

I thought of a book in my collection of nature guides, Mary Rogers Miller's The Brook Book, published in 1901 by Doubleday, Page & Co. I don't know much about Miller, except that she was a disciple of Henry James Comstock, the great Cornell University entomologist and naturalist, which would put most of Miller's affectionately described brooks in the Finger Lake region of New York.

I prize the nature guides from that era written by women such as Mary Rogers Miller, Mable Osgood Wright, Neltje Blanchan, Mrs. William Starr Dana, and Julia Ellen Rogers. It was assumed at that time, I suppose, that professorial gentlemen would write the epic sorts of nature books grounded in "scientific" research, such as the immensely popular works of J. Henry Fabre, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Henry James Comstock. The women meanwhile cut out a somewhat less grand niche for themselves with more domesticated guides -- bird and wildflower books, and plashing about in the brook sorts of things. I prize them for their poetry, their tender regard for their subjects, and their assumption that everyone should know what is going on in their own backyards. Julia Ellen Rogers could write a book called Trees Every Child Should Know. I can't imagine such a book being published today: a tree is a tree is a tree.

Fabre or Maeterlinck wrote wonderful stuff; they were the Homers of the natural word who could turn the life of a wasp or bee into an entomological Iliad or Odyssey. But grand epics are of little use on a Saturday afternoon ramble in a deep woods riddled by babbling brooks. I'd rather have for my companion someone of Mary Rogers Miller's bent, who without pomposity or pretense will bend to show me the egg cases of the caddis fly or the cast-off armor of a dragonfly nymph.