Before Wednesday, when I read Michael Gilleland’s wry post at Laudator Temporis Acti, I had never heard of Donald Culross Peattie or his book A Natural History of North American Trees. Peattie was a botanist and natural history writer who died in 1964. In April, under the just-mentioned title, Houghton Mifflin published two of Peattie’s books, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (1950) and A Natural History of Western Trees (1953), in one volume. My library has a first edition of the first volume, which tops 600 pages and is illustrated with hundreds of wood engravings by the aptly named Paul Landacre, whose work reminds me of Rockwell Kent’s.
It’s not a book I will likely read cover to cover but I am enjoying looking up favorite trees, especially those familiar to me from having lived most of my life in the North, but that are rare or nonexistent in Houston. For instance, the tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipfera, a name given by Linnaeus. Tulips are memorable for their height and the straightness of their trunks. Peattie rightly singles out the tree’s “stately beauty,” a beauty heightened in the spring when its flowers, yellow or orange at the base and pale green above, are in blossom.
In August, while visiting Cleveland, my home town, I noticed a tuilptree growing in someone’s front yard that was hardly more than a sapling – 30 feet, at most – but I felt a nostalgic tingle of homecoming when I recognized it. Peattie defends the tree’s common name because it “brings to mind the glory of this species in spring, when its flowers, erect on every bough, hold the sunshine in their cups, setting the whole giant tree alight.” In fact, a blooming tuliptree reminds me of the exalted candelabra trees painted by Charles Burchfield, a fellow Ohioan.
As the excerpts I’ve quoted suggest, Peattie writes as both a botanist and a writer with an acute eye for detail. He spares us the prose poetry. The book is organized by family, starting with pines and finishing with ashes. The format of each entry is identical: common and scientific name, folk names, range and description, followed by several pages of narrative that might include folklore, human uses of the trees or citations from other writers. Here’s Peattie again on the tuliptree:
“This is the king of the Magnolia family, the tallest hardwood tree in North America. In the southern Appalachians, where it is the most commercially valuable species, it attains its most superb dimensions, up to 200 feet tall, with a trunk 8 to 10 feet in diameter, clear of branches – in sound, old, forest-grown trees – for the first 80 or 100 feet. Its crown is then (as in its youth) narrowly pyramidal, giving a soldierly pride to the tree and an impression of swift upsurgence in growth.”
I’ve always thought writers – in particular, poets -- ought to know the names of trees, flowers, birds and insects. This is not nature mysticism. Precision of naming is a writer’s obligation. If a fictional character mistakes a linden for a beech, it tells us something, probably unflattering, about that character. The same holds, I think, for nonfictional characters, including writers. Throughout the 14 volumes of his Journal, Thoreau repeatedly agonizes over proper species identification, weighing folk and scientific names. That’s not Thoreau being neurotic but a measure of his devotion to the particulars of creation, and to the rigors of language.
Growing up, we had a pignut tree standing beside the driveway, near the garden. I remember it being 30 or 40 feet tall, and I could look out on it from the window in my second-floor bedroom. Today, it’s a stump sawed off level with the ground, partially covered with dirt. The nuts, wrapped in a soft green husk you peel back with your thumbnail, were smooth and beautifully buff-colored, with a sharp point at the top, and the squirrels cached them in the lawn and garden, and in their nests in the tall elms behind our house. In the fall, the leaves turned a dirty yellow. Peattie calls the pignut by its rightful names – broom hickory, Carya glabra. He writes admiringly of its durable qualities – “incomparably tough, heavy, shock-resistant,” “the most rugged of a hardy breed,” and continues:
“Like backwoods children flourishing, the seedlings can come up through dense shape. So Hickory is a `pushing’ species, able to succeed other hardwoods in the ecological course of events, even to succeed itself, generation after generation, on the same land.”
I grew up thinking the tree was called pignut because the ample crop of nuts were a cheap way to feed swine. Peattie offers no explanation for “pignut” but does explain its more widely used common name:
“The name of Broom Hickory was given it by the early settlers because narrow strips were split from the wood and made into brooms – how, is well told by Doctor Daniel Drake in his memoirs of Pioneer Life in Kentucky.”
Peattie quotes Drake (whom I had never heard of, but who was born in New Jersey in 1785, and became an early campaigner against quack medicine – another inviting digression) at length, then adds: “The Age of Wood was a stouthearted age, and the Hickories, tattered old sentinels yielding reluctantly to the screaming saw and the silent enemies boring from within, stand as its rude but noble symbols.”
In summary form, in the context of a botanical text, Peattie gives a capsule history of the United States in the 19th century without once mentioning Andrew Jackson’s nickname. The book is a treasure, and thanks go to Mike Gilleland for telling us about it.