This post is the beginning of a new series in which I'll share some of my treasured books. As you will see, my favorite books from a sort of interrelated web of ideas. Given the change of seasons, an appropriate place to start is with An Almanac for Moderns, by Donald Culross Peattie. Born in Chicago in 1898, Peattie studied poetry at the University of Chicago and then botany at Harvard.
In 1935, he published An Almanac for Moderns. I was first introduced to this book by one of my favorite essayists, Clifton Fadiman (more on Clifton later) in his excellent "Reading I've Liked." Here's what Mr. Fadiman had to say about Peattie's Almanac:
"Though not of their stature, Mr. Peattie has in him the spirit of Thoreau and Huxley. He makes tadpole and ants exciting, celebrates the charms of springhouses, pays judicious tributes to the great naturalists who preceded him, comments upon the fact that Edward Lear at twenty was the perfect painter of parrots, ascends to poetry in his comparisons ("the warning cries of herons, like the drop of an old chain on its own coils"), and yet, with all this warmth, never departs from "the scientific frame of mind which does not humanize or sweeten what it must report."
Fadiman continues, " I recommend this book for your spring reading, and, for that matter, for summer, autumn and winter. An eye that, without losing its sense for the human and the transitory, trains itself on such constants as the nuclei of our cells, the death of stars, and the silent multiplication of bacteria can never record observations that are merely seasonable. It reveals, in this case, the very poetry of biology."
"An Almanac for Moderns" is one of the books which I keep always at hand, and no matter how many copies I have at any given time, I always search used bookstore shelves for another to be given as a special gift. It's not a book that needs to be read through in one or two sittings, although I have done many times with great pleasure. But my preferred method is to follow Peattie through the subtle changes in the seasons by reading only one passage per day, enjoying Peattie's elaborations on chitin, or slime mold or Aristotle. It makes me more alert and conscious of the passage of time, and to the world's rhythms.
A passage from the "Almanac for Moderns":
The keynote of spring is growth amongst the plants, reproduction amongst the animals. In summer, it is the reverse; it is the plants that reproduce, the animals that grow. But autumn is the time of fattening. Now the beech nuts ripen their oily kernels; the walnut swells its rich meat through black wooden labyrinths; the wild rice stands high in the marshes, and the woods are filled with their jolly harvest of berries, blue buckthorn, and scarlet bittersweet, black catbrier, holly and mistletoe and honeysuckle. The great green cannonballs of the osage orange drop from the prickly hedges with a thud; under the hawthorns a perfect windfall of scarlet pomes lies drifted, and in the sun the bitter little wild crabs reach their one instant of winy, tangy, astringent perfection.
"This is the moment of abundance for all our brother animals. The harvest mouse is now a wealthy little miser; squirrels can afford the bad investments they make. Opossums paw over persimmons and pawpaws, picking only the tastiest, and like a cloud the cowbirds and grackles and bobolinks wing southward over the wild rice fields, so fat and lazy that the fowler makes an easy harvest of them. Everywhere, on frail bird bones, under the hides of chipmunk and skunk and all four-footed things, fat, the animal's own larder and reserve, is stored away against the bitter months, against lean hunger and long sleep."
|Autumn, the season for fattening, indeed!|
This fellow is (obviously) a frequent visitor to our feeder, well prepared for the winter.