by Richard Telford
Author’s note: Though the product of many hours of research, writing, and revision, this chapter is nevertheless a draft; it will be subject to revision as the larger book in which it will appear takes shape. Still, I believe it begins an important process of bringing renewed attention to natural history writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale. Teale himself frequently published chapters of his books first in the popular journals of his day, such as Natural History, Audubon, Nature, and Coronet. I welcome critical response, either in the comment section here or through direct e-mail. I am grateful to the Archives and Special Collections staff for providing me the opportunity to share this work, and to the Woodstock Academy Board of Trustees for awarding me a sabbatical for the 2016-2017 school year so that this work could be undertaken. Contextual information about the project and manuscript can be found here.
Chapter 9: The Lonely Suffering of the Fallible Heart
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”[i]
Stephen Crane, from “War is Kind,” 1899
Again and again, reason refutes the claims of worry; again and again, the rational mind points out the mathematical odds and the laws of averages—but again and again, the fallible heart returns to its lonely suffering.[ii]
Edwin Way Teale, March 22, 1945
The evening of April 2, 1945 began joyfully for Edwin Way Teale. It was an evening that affirmed his rising stature among the natural history writers of his day and perhaps, too, amongst the former-age titans he revered—Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, W.H. Hudson, and others. Two years earlier, he had accepted the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing for his 1942 publication of Near Horizons: The Story of an Insect Garden. Now, two years later, he had returned to the American Museum of Natural History in Central Park West, New York, to look on as Rutherford Hayes Platt, a fellow Dodd, Mead natural history writer and photographer, received the Burroughs Medal. Platt’s 1943 This Green World was a book that in spirit, intent, structure, and design closely paralleled Grassroot Jungles (1937) and Near Horizons. Just as Edwin had suggested in 1937 that the amateur student of the insect world could be “like the explorer who sets out for faraway jungles” but do so in “the grassroot jungle at our feet,”[iii] Platt argued in 1943 that such wonders in the botanical world “were not rare nor discovered in a remote place, but were here all the time in the immediate surroundings of the everyday world.”[iv] That evening, Edwin noted later, “Platt pays tribute to my help in his acceptance speech.” He also celebrated his own election as “a Director in the John Burroughs Association” and expressed appreciation for the tenor of the evening, which “from beginning to end was in just the right key. I felt happy, enjoying every minute with no sense of impending doom.” It was “perfectly memorable.”[v]
The brief interlude of unrestrained pleasure that unfolded in “the Hall of the Roosevelt Wing”[vi] on that early April evening offered much-needed reprieve. It was a time marked largely by deep foreboding for Edwin and Nellie Teale as their beloved Davy, their only child, fought near the Siegfried Line during the final collapse of Hitler’s Third Reich. This fear had taken root in the elder Teales’ shared consciousness long before David’s August 1943 enlistment in the Army Specialist Training Program at Syracuse University, long before his transfers to Forts Benning and Jackson after the ASTP was disbanded, and long before his deployment as a Private First Class to the European Theater of Operations in the fall of 1944.[vii] Edwin would later characterize this fear as “the dread of seven years—from 1938 to 1945,”[viii] and it was a dread that consumed the collective consciousness of a generation of parents watching their children come of age during the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Italy and Germany—the future course of which became fully evident with the September 1, 1939 German invasion of Poland—and the apogee of Japanese Imperialism, made plain to the American public by the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Teales’ dread is evident in a brief but poignant anecdote near the end of the eighth chapter of Edwin’s 1945 book The Lost Woods, a book that, for Edwin, would become inextricably linked to David’s wartime service and to his death.
In the aforementioned chapter, “On the Trail of Thoreau,” Edwin chronicles the final leg of a 1939 car trip during which he traced the famous river journey undertaken by Henry and John Thoreau exactly 100 years earlier. Henry Thoreau, in his 1849 A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, wrote in great part to memorialize John, who had died in excruciating pain in his brother’s arms three years after the trip, succumbing to tetanus. Edwin too, in The Lost Woods, would later recount a trip he and David took by canoe on Middle Saranac Lake in upstate New York. “The Calm of the Stars” would be the last chapter completed for the book’s first draft, written while David was declared Missing in Action in Germany. It, too, would later serve as a memorial. In “On the Trail of Thoreau,” Edwin noted how, one century after the Thoreaus’ journey, on September 2, 1939, “the Merrimack flowed as placidly as before around the great bend of Horseshoe Interval.”[ix] The world’s waters, however, were turbulent and troubled: “Thoreau’s September day had been one of comparative peace in the world,” while, “a century later, it was a time of fateful decisions, of onrushing war, of the breaking of nations.”[x] The conclusion of Edwin’s 1939 journey came one day after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, one day before declarations by France and Britain of war on Germany, and six days shy of David’s fourteenth birthday.
Pulling into a filling station that evening, Edwin noticed the attendant, “a young man in his early twenties,” who appeared “silent and preoccupied” as he listened to a “radio […] shattering the Sabbath quiet, raucous with direful news.”[xi] Edwin’s description of this young man is telling. It stands in stark contrast with most of the book’s content, which largely lives up to its subtitle, “Adventures of a Naturalist,” and strays only rarely into social commentary or overt emotionality. Edwin wrote:
We spoke but a few sentences that morning. I have never seen him again. I don’t know his name. Yet, often he has been in mind and his face, like a stirring countenance seen under a streetlamp, has returned many times in memory. Under the blare of the radio, that late-summer Sunday, we were drawn together by a common uncertainty, by a common experience. Although we were strangers before and strangers we have remained since, we were, for that tragic moment, standing unforgettably together. I have often wondered about his fate in the years that followed.[xii]