Posted by: Eric Hammond, Adams County Extension
A Natural History of North American Trees. This is an abridged volume which combines two other works; A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America and A Natural History of Western Trees both of which were originally published in the 1950’s
Donald Culross Peattie
Peattie was a well know nature writer in the mid-1900’s who had a particular passion for forestry and silviculture.
When described in the abstract, this book does not sound terribly exciting. It is a collection of profiles of North American trees. For each species the scientific and common names are given followed by a description of the species natural range and then of the plant itself and its uses. There are any number of other books which are written in a similar way, and unless you are very interested in forestry or a serious tree geek, most of them are a good way to start a nap. This is what sets Peattie’s book apart. His descriptions are vivid and he brings in pieces of history and the trees places in it that expand the potential audience to horticulturalists, casual gardeners and even history buffs. It’s still not the kind of book you pick up and read cover to cover but the descriptions taken on their own or in small groups really are interesting.
Peattie litters these descriptions with fascinating bits of information and short stories. For example, he describes how integral the both Utah and single seed junipers (Juniperus osteosperma and J. monosperma respectively) were in the lives of the some of the Native American tribes of the southwest. He relates how children of some tribes were swaddled in juniper bark “rubbed soft” and placed in cradles made of juniper. When weaned, they would be fed juniper berries in the fall and winter and warmed by juniper wood burned as fuel. It was used in many of rites and ceremonies of their lives and its branches were used to sweep away the footprints from around their graves. Later he relates the story of the famous pioneer botanist David Douglas’s first awkward encounter with sugar pine in the Columbia River Valley. Sometimes these really are short tidbits as in this single sentence describing why honeyshucks and honey locust were among the common name given to Gleditsia triacanthos the names were “…very appropriate on account of the sweet pods eagerly eaten by cattle and sometimes by nibbling country boys”. It might just be me but, this made me really curious how the pods taste. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the stories but if you are interested in trees or history they are certainly interesting.
Peattie’s writing is often beautiful and sometimes, at least from my 21st century perspective, over the top. To illustrate, here is his opening paragraph on Utah juniper:
On the very edge of the opened book of the Grand Canyon – page upon page of red stone tablets receding away into the purple shadows of a billion years of time gone by – perches the Utah Juniper. Now erect of stem, with crown symmetrically intact, now aslant over the awesome chasm, now storm-torn, broken head, and stem contorted as by the whirl of the winds themselves or lightning-riven and stripped to the white bones of half its bark – this indomitable tree dares the south rim of the cannon for miles. And when you step gingerly to the edge and look down into the vast emptiness, you see this Juniper far below you, dotting the bridle trail, clinging to perilous ledges, springing out of crevices in the rock, sprinkling the giddy slopes of talus, a symbol of undefeated life in an abyss of death. From this only silence wells up to you, a silence as of outer and infinite space, where interplanetary gales could blow and make no sound. But when you stand by a rim Juniper you hear whistling of the wind in its sharp-angled foliage, a high thin vibration of an elemental harp, and it is a comforting sound; it is sort of a message for green life, in all this dead geology. Yet in its way the living tree, the older and craggier it grows seems the most constant of possible trees in this, the most stupendous site in all the world.
Oh my, that is a lot of descriptors…. This is typical for the book. They are vivid and express an infectious passion for the natural world but at times are just too much for my tastes. I found that after reading through a couple they started to run together and so I would only read them in small chunks. It’s also worth pointing out that from the perspective of a gardener or horticulturalist there is not a lot of information related to these fields in such descriptions.
|The book is filled with charming woodcut illustrations like this one of Utah juniper by Paul Landacre|
So should you read this book? If you are interested in trees and the history of our interaction with the natural world I would guess you will find Pattie’s work interesting and compelling. If you are looking to read something that will increase your knowledge of horticulture or are partial to precise and concise use of the English language this may not be for you.