Book Review: The Gatekeeper of America’s Seasons: Edwin Way Teale’s four iconic environmental books

Author Edwin Way Teale, a somewhat forgotten naturalist extraordinaire, was a pleasing lyrical writer who followed the seasons across America in cross-country car trips with his wife Nellie four times in his lifetime.   

These coast-to-coast meanderings across America resulted in four signature natural history books:  North With The Spring (1951), Autumn Across America (1956), Journey Into Summer (1960), and the Pulitzer prize-winning Wandering Through Winter (1965).

The nonfiction novels follow the seasons, each travelogue starting on either the west coast or east coast. The Buick they drive each time in an industrial age before economy cars or hybrids, is a metaphor for constant movement through the inexorable changes made by the four seasons as Edwin and Nellie motor across the amazingly diverse American landscape. 

The Teale’s start each trip in an iconic place, and then follow the palette of miraculous perennial renewal or decline — north, south, east, or west across the entire United States. Even the most everyday roadside attractions become natural history oases of discoveries for the wandering pair. 

Teale’s paragraphs are meticulously crafted with poetic prose merged with scientific analysis. In Chapter 27 of Autumn Across America, for example, Teale explains how the earth “moves” during the fall season. In this case, Edwin is inspired by the spectacular Olympic Peninsula in Washington state’s National Park:

“During autumn the earth advances nearly 150,000,000 miles on its elliptical course around the sun. Throughout all the changes of the season its unslackened speed carries it ahead nearly 1,600,000 miles each day, more than 65,000 miles each hour, more than 1000 miles each minute, 8.5 miles each second.  It traveled more than 100,000 miles on this November night while we wandered alone in chill and silence and moonlight in a dead forest with the glacier-clad upper slopes of Mount Rainier far above us gleaming in cold alabaster against the depths of the night.”

John Muir, one of Teale’s literary muses, wondered if the beautiful trees in the Olympic Mountains were safe from a logging massacre, and Teale echoes Muir in his pleadings to the American public to be vigilant in protecting natural resources in our National Parks:

“The wild beauty of America is a national possession.  The preservation of this heritage is everybody’s affair.”

Throughout all the books Henry Thoreau is often quoted. Echoes of the Walden Wood sentiment supports Teale’s early conservation activism. Old   Henry did not appreciate too many loggers haunting his little Paradise back in his day either. Thoreau in his journals was one of the first environmental writers to realize the importance of preserving some virgin woods from the axe, and Teale likes to include the ancient wordsmiths’ clever words about the common man’s battle to preserve forests against blind capitalism, all the way back to the 19th century: 

 “It concerns us all when these proprietors choose to cut down all the woods this winter or not… “If a man walks in the woods for love of them for half his days, he is esteemed a loafer, but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off these woods, he is esteemed industrious, and enterprising-making the earth bald before its time.” 

In each chapter, named for the destination explored in detail, are in-depth discussions of geography, flora/ fauna, insects, meteorology, history, and unending philosophical cosmology. Along the way Teale cites wonderful references and anecdotes about natural history writers that came before. Teale is a well-read literary person, too, and often refers to idyllic nature poetry of Jeffers. Always the scholar, the discoveries of untold, obscure scientists and naturalists of the past are credited with their mysterious findings.

In Autumn Across America, the author starts the journey with his beloved wife Nellie at the exact moment of the autumnal equinox at the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and ends the trip 20,000 miles later at the Pacific Ocean in Point Reyes State Park in California. They arrive there at the beginning of the Winter Solstice on Dec.21.  

Traversing the highways and back roads of America, the Teale’s explore various landforms along the way: mountains, valleys, deserts, and micro habitats. The reader hears about magical places where he or she has never been, and likewise is given new insight into environs that are more familiar.

The books provide seemingly inexhaustible information on the lives of birds, and horticultural analyses of everyday and unusual plants.  Cute little animals with human-like habits are favorites for the exploring couple. They are especially enamored with pikas, prairie dogs, and ocean otters.

Teale’s nature notes about birds are always endearing. And why not? Everywhere he wanders in America, town or country, these ubiquitous winged creatures live. Birds are dear to the Teales, and hardly a page goes by without another sighting of both rare and common birds. Even the songs of the most common birds are loved by the trained ear of the naturalist writer:

     “…. among all the delights of the open world-on a final day on earth, I think I would choose the clear, ethereal song of a white-throated sparrow singing at dawn.”

In Monterey County of Northern California, the Teale’s search for the enigmatic predatory hawk known as the kite. The author relates that by 1927 there were only 52 pairs of white-tailed kites left, due to man’s activities. It was believed that the only survivors were found on this section of the California coast, so he was eager to spot one. Hiking near the mouth of the Salinas River, their binoculars at last focus in on a magnificent kite in flight. Teale could make out the hawk’s white head and white tail, and black colorings at the tip of its wings. Teale was elated that he had sighted the rare black-shouldered kite. He immediately credits another naturalist, W.H. Hudson who had encountered this fascinating hawk on the pampas of Argentina, many years before. Hudson describes the aerial acrobat in quixotic purple prose lexicon of the time:

“It delights to soar during a high wind, and will spend hours in the sport, rising and falling alternately, and at times, seeming to abandon itself to the fury of the gale, is blown away like a thistledown, until, suddenly recovering itself, it shoots back to its original position.”

Teale does not hesitate to condemn the mindless “gunners” responsible for the kite’s endangered status. The bird hunts by hovering above its prey, scanning the landscape, thus becoming an easy target. Local hunters were their own worst enemy, hunting this hawk who was beneficial to the farming communities. The kite’s main diet consists of agricultural pests like rats, gophers, and copious amounts of field mice.  Making matters worse, mercenary nature collectors of the time hoarded the eggs of the kite, cherished for their beautiful color.

In virtually every state visited, the Teale’s are mesmerized by avian songs. One of their favorites is the bobolink, which they encountered in Cape Cod just as the little vagabonds were beginning their migration to South America. Teale remembers a humorous anecdote about the bobolink that appears in one of Thoreau’s journals, when the young Henry overhears an exchange between a mother and her precocious young son:

“What makes him sing so sweet, Mother, do he eat flowers?”

A mentor to the young Rachel Carson, Teale encouraged the pioneering woman scientist to write the books that exposed the environmental crimes perpetrated by foolish use of the DDT pesticide in the woods. Teale mourns the extinction of species, and cites outrageous incidents of plant and animal mismanagement all over the United States in all four of the books. He retells the story of the passenger pigeon, a dove-like bird that is gone forever, due to despicable human behavior. American tycoons building the railroads hired goons to shoot the birds along the line by the thousands, considering them nuisances. The remainder of the innocent birds were hunted for meat consumption. The author is not shy in describing incidents of plant and animal ecological mismanagement. Teale’s early environmental advocacy way back in the 1950’s and 60’s very much foreshadowed the strengthening of the modern Sierra Club.  Edwin Way Teale earned the moniker, “Thoreau of the twentieth Century.” 

Both the Teale’s and Concord’s Thoreau often walked along railroad right of ways in search of plants.  Even the lowly ragweed, “ambrosia trifada,” is described in detail by the author:

“Here along the railroad line was the hobo jungle where tramps camped all summer long.  Here, below the right-of-way, giant ragweed rose shoulder to shoulder in rank stands 8 and even 10 feet high.”

Also known in these times as “railroad weed,” Teale proceeds to discuss the plant’s physiology, habitat, and strange history, as he does for every living thing he encountered. This plant is known by a myriad of other names: bitterweed, richweed, Norse cane, buffalo weed, and wild hemp. Thoreau refers to this same wild hemp growing along the railroad tracks that he often walked 0n his way to town, and was enamored by its intoxicating scent. The smaller species of ragweed known by the old-country name “wormwood,” Teale humorously relates, is ironically the noxious weed that the hopeful gardener Henry Thoreau was constantly hoeing out of his Walden bean patch.

A true lover of plants, Teale asks us to consider the beauty of the common Sunflower, a favorite of the everyday gardener, who is gifted year after year with new spring volunteer plants growing back because of the prolific seed output. Dr. Teale observes that Helianthus, the Latin name for the hearty plant, forms its own “solar system.”  Within the powerful yellow sun in the middle, the sunflower mandala consists of many star-shaped florets formed in perfect symmetry, like spiral dancers encased within the bloom a bright retina. Teale observed that sunflowers are actually a “community of plants” species (Compositae). The sunflower family consists of 13,000 species, blossoms clustering together in groups to attract the necessary pollinators. This increases fertilization rates. A hydraulic-like water displacement in the plant’s stalk supplies the energy for the prolific sunflower to track the sun’s path during the growing season by “moving” in real time. It is the naturalists’ tidbits like this about plant life, that make the books a delight to read for nature lovers. Again, he quotes the native son Thoreau in North With The Spring. The Teale’s, like Thoreau. were delighted by the chance to experience the seasons in the out-of-doors:  

“One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in.”

In the end, these are hopeful books. Edwin and Nellie find such joy in nature. Having lost their only son David in World War 2, the companions dedicate their joyful travels to him, always finding beauty in the world to honor his memory. One can spend a lifetime exploring the natural wonders in the United States, without ever reaching the end of Eden. True patriots want to take care of our wild places and creatures. Edwin Teale called his ramblings with his spouse across our panoramic continent “the great days of our lives.”  He and Nellie were pursuing all that is good in America. These novels of days gone by so long ago still resonate with environmentalists. As Thoreau so eloquently states in the last line of Walden, “the sun is but a morning star.” 

North With The Spring,
By Edwin Way Teale,
Dodd, Mead, and Company, New York, 1951,

Autumn Across America,
By Edwin Way Teale,
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1956,
ISBN 0-312-O4455-0

Journey Into Summer,
By Edwin Way Teale,
Dodd, Mead, and Company, New York, 1960,
Library of Congress:  60-11923

Wandering Through Winter,
By Edwin Way Teale,
Dodd, Mead, and Company, New York, 1957, 1965,
ISBN 0-396-07959-8 (pbk.) AACR2

Ron Halvorson is a freelance writer from Brookings, Oregon who writes about nature, sports. and entertainment. He has been previously published in Mother Jones, Earth Island Journal, and Twin Bill.
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