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Donald Culross Peattie: revival time for a once-beloved naturalist?

Nine books by Donald Culross Peattie, once one of America's most popular naturalists, are being reissued.

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Fifty years ago this month, on Nov. 16, 1964, Donald Culross Peattie died, ending the career of a man who, in his heyday, was one of America’s most popular naturalists. A botanist by training, Peattie eventually turned to writing full-time, authoring dozens of books, his work frequently appearing in The New York Times, Saturday Evening Post, and other national publications.

But soon after his death, Peattie’s writing faded from public view. These days, few people know about him. His style, sometimes self-consciously poetic and a little florid, can seem faintly antiquarian to the contemporary ear.

“There is always a quality in Peattie’s prose that it might be tempting to call formality,” Verlyn Klinkenbourg, one of today’s best commentators on the natural world, observed not long ago. “Really, it is a kind of honorific poetry, a sense of rising to his subject.... We do not write like this any longer.”

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 But more recent writers have learned from Peattie’s deeply attentive vision of nature. Michael Pollan and Bill McKibben count him as an influence. “Peattie,” said Robert Hass, “is one of the classic American nature writers of the mid-twentieth century.”

Now, Trinity University Press is advancing a Peattie revival, reissuing nine of his books in beautiful softcovers. Among the reprints are “A Book of Hours,” “An Almanac for Moderns,” “The Road of a Naturalist,” and his masterpiece, “A Natural History of North American Trees.”

Here, to mark a half century since Peattie’s passing, are 10 classic Peattie quotes:

1) “The business of the naturalist is not simply discovery of the obviously new; neither is it merely census-taking; his concern is with the great flow and ebb of the primarily motivating forces. He is observed by the complexity of life, and it is not his business, as those who profess the mathematical sciences have sometimes thought, to reduce all phenomena to a few simply explanations.”

2) “For life is anywhere a beginning, as a circle is. Only the human race, with its high anticipations, chooses in the mass to step forth on the treadmill at the brace hour of seven o’clock.”

3) “What is the news that will not wait until noon for your attention? If there is any such, it will be your private business – your love affair, or a child who has come to you with a precious project, or a sky worth dreaming at out the window.”

4) “A man who loves his work is a man paid twice over. For the less lucky, work is ransom duly rendered.”

5) “The naturalist seems forever to be committing the high crime of playing on Monday morning.”

6) “Curiosity, even idle curiosity, is a fleck of divinity in the eye of he beast. When it is not idle, when the strength of an arduous life is in it, it is of itself a great reverence.”

7) “And the most scientific virtue in the naturalist’s curiosity is that it is not a reduction to mathematical terms. It sees true because, like an ant’s eye, it multiplies the images.”

8) “Country noons are prodigal of time and economical of shadow. They invite to the sort of contemplating that is done with the head between the knees, with a good view of a single ant, and in the hearing of a brook.”

9) “It is a mere point of view, whether you consider that the enormous candle power of the heavenly bodies should make man humble and afraid, or whether, perhaps, the small and lonely light burning in the brain of the thinker is worth the whole of insensate cosmos.”

10) “Every tolerant mind is heroic. All strenuous thinking is heroism...."

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."

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