Donald Culross Peattie strode through thousands of miles of American wilderness wearing a green Stetson hat, a coat and a tie. Around his neck hung a pair of binoculars and over his shoulder was a vasculum, the metal cylinder field botanists once used for carrying their plant specimens.
Though that was a good six decades ago (before the invention of plastic and lightweight equipment), even in his day Peattie was a singular sort of scientist — one with a background in poetry, who observed the country’s great ecosystems trail by trail, from the Appalachian Mountains and the Mojave Desert to the Olympic Peninsula. All the while he collected botanical samples and wrote poetic prose about the wilderness, and in particular the trees, around him.
By 1950, Peattie had become one of America’s most widely read naturalists, with numerous books and a column in The Washington Evening Star and Chicago Daily News. He compiled his life’s work into what was to become the definitive popular reference on the natural history of North America’s most important trees, a two-book set that The New Yorker called “a volume for a lifetime.” Houghton Mifflin re-released the 488-page tome this year, hoping to beguile a new generation of green readers. Having changed little from the original edition, the new book is both a relevant natural-history reference and a snapshot of a time when trees weren’t always inanimate.
“Against the Indian summer sky, a tree lifts up its hands and testifies to glory, the glory of a blue October day,” begins Peattie’s essay about sassafras trees. “Yellow or orange, or blood orange, or sometimes softest salmon pink, or blotched with bright vermilion, the leaves of the Sassafras prove that not all autumnal splendor is confined to the northern forests.” Flowery and learned, Peattie’s writing will most likely be manna for poets or anyone aching for the outdoors — but slow torture for the heavily caffeinated or snarky.
In 110 essays, Peattie describes in lyrical detail the natural history, quirky lore, and building properties of as many tree species. From poplars to saguaro cacti, Peattie tells the life story of each tree as though he’s spinning a campfire yarn about great and distant relatives, quietly slipping in technical details about identification. Also retained from the original volumes are Paul Landacre’s scratchboard etchings (a technique for scratching black ink off a white clay base), which illustrate each species in a spidery, august splendor.
While the life cycles of trees haven’t changed since Peattie’s day, the composition and health of our forests have. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture boasted roughly 749 million acres of forest, the same as in Peattie’s day — but that number doesn’t distinguish between old growth and tree plantations, or their biodiversity.
Measured plots with rows of 20, 30 and 40-year-old sugar pines are not the forests Peattie was referring to when he wrote, “A grand old Sugar Pine two or three hundred years old can stretch out its lower limbs high above the heads of many other species — the Incense Cedars, Yellow Pine, and the Firs… Everywhere is a sense of light and space, of hope and time.” But his inspired words can go a long way in stirring us to restore them.
Story by Victoria Schlesinger. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2007. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.