Book: Autumn Across America: A Naturalist’s Record of a 20,000 Mile Journey through the North American Autumn (1956) by Edwin Way Teale
Way back in 2010, Kerry Dexter and I launched a road trip across America, writing each week about a different state–starting in New England, and ending in Hawaii. As I was asking people for recommendations for different books representing the states, one reader suggested that I should read the four books by Edwin Way Teale about that naturalists’ journeys across the United States in four different seasons. So far I have only read his autumn road trip book, but it is an enticement to seek out the rest. He is a skillful writer and a delightful guide to nature.
The books, North With the Spring, Journey Into Summer, Autumn Across America, and Wandering Through Winter were originally published between 1951 and 1965 and were republished in 1990, but are now out of print. You can still find used copies on the Internet, or in used book stores. The bonus of used books is that they sometimes bear some marks of their former owners. I love the inscription in the early paperback edition I bought:
For Dad, I hope that you and Mom will enjoy this book together–you’ve shared many autumns together, in many places just as these two do in this book. With all my love,________
I found Autumn Across America in a used book store, and plopped it on my shelf with dozens of other “read when I get around to it” books. Because it is not about one individual state, it did not fit into the format of our Great American Road Trip, but I knew I’d want to talk about it some time. It seems following Kerry’s Monday post about music for Autumn is a perfect time to think about an Autumn road trip. And since you have Kerry’s post about autumn music, we are, in a sense, bringing back our 2010-2011 road trip partnership!
On their leisurely, 20,000-mile journey that took them to twenty-six states, they observed nature changing gears from summer to winter. The colored and falling leaves of the northeast and the migrating birds, butterflies and even beetles, the mysteries of hibernation, the geology, the human history–nothing escaped their keen curiosity and careful observation. Back home in New England, when the trip was complete, Teale expanded on his observations with research into the why of things.
I found myself mesmerized by such intellectual explorations as the one in Oregon about why salmon return to the same stream in which they hatch. Teale reports on scientific experiments that involved transporting salmon eggs from one place to another before they hatched, transporting fingerlings from one stream to another, and testing salmon’s ability to smell. They inevitably came back to the water that smelled the same as that where they hatched. And every stream has a different chemical makeup because of the different plants that grow in greater or lesser profusion.
Bird watchers will find many pages filled with poetic descriptions and scientific facts about all kinds of birds. Those that are migrating, and those that are settling in. Common or rare, they all are fascinating.
In Indiana he talks about why ragweed is such a bother for the hay-fever prone. and even common dust gets its due. He asks people what scent brings to mind Autumn, and among many choices, he is surprised to find the dust of drying weeds in a vacant lot meant autumn to many people.
“If it were possible to banish dust from the earth, the vote probably would be overwhelmingly in favor of it. Yet subtract dust from the 5,633,000,000,000,000-ton atmosphere that surrounds the globe and you would subtract infinitely more. You would drain blue from the sky and the lake. For fine dust, as well as the molecules of vapor and the air itself, scatters the blue rays and contributes color to the heavens above and reflected color to the waters below….every minute droplet of moisture in fog and cloud forms about a nucleus of dust…You would remove the glory of the sunrise from the world and wipe all the flaming beauty of the sunset form the sky.”
Over and over again, this book reminded me to travel slowing and observantly. Whether he was traversing land I was familiar with (the coasts of Oregon) or land I’d like to get to know (the forests where ferns are harvested), I learned new things.
At one point, he dislodges a pebble that rolls down an incline. He ponders the long history of that pebble and how much life has passed by–glaciers, birds, insects and humans have all been here.
“Yet surely, better a single moment of awareness to enjoy the glory of the senses, a moment of knowing, of feeling, of living intensely, a moment to appreciate the sunshine and the dry smell of autumn and the dust-born clouds above–better a thousand times even a swiftly fading, ephemeral moment of life than the epoch-long unconsciousness of the stone.”
I don’t know a better way to warn a traveler not to become simply a rolling stone.
What does autumn look like, sound like and smell like to you?
Note: I took these photographs around the White Mountains of Arizona in the fall. Please do not reuse without permission. Thanks. The link to Amazon from the cover of the book provides you with one way to purchase the book. When you shop through my links at Amazon, I earn a few cents to pay the rent for A Traveler’s Library. Thanks!