Donald Culross Peattie On Trees

Many years ago I was idly browsing the science and natural history section of a used-book store. I think the store was in Brattleboro, Vermont. I came across a blue hardback, a thick volume bearing the name A Natural History of Trees. The author was a writer I’d never heard of, Donald Culross Peattie. I paged through the book and noticed that it was liberally illustrated with well executed and evocative pen-and-ink drawings.

I figured that for fifty cents I couldn’t go wrong. I bought the book, and in the succeeding years it became one of my favorite collections of natural history essays.

The title page, photographed on my kitchen counter:

Each chapter in the book is devoted to a single species of a native tree which grows in the Eastern and Midwestern United States. Many of the chapters, if not all, were originally published in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, Natural History, and Scientific American. The compilation volume was first published in 1948, so I’m guessing the bulk of the essays were written in the 1930s and 1940s.

Donald Culross Peattie begins his essays with a “just the facts, ma’am” approach: physical characteristics, range, and appearance of a particular tree. He briefly summarizes the commercial uses of the tree being discussed. But then Peattie begins to wax lyrical and writes some beautiful and and poetic personal impressions of the species which seem to have been distilled from his own encounters with particular trees and landscapes. An example, from the chapter on Malus ioensis, the Iowa Crab, a small tree which lingers on to this day in fence-rows and roadsides, perennially afflicted with the Cedar Apple rust; a relic of another era:

The Iowa Crab blooms at the same time as the cultivated Apple tree, but no Apple that grows has such beautiful blossoms, the warmest pink in the bud, nearly white in full maturity, and a blood-pink as they fade. The odor alone would justify the frequent cultivation of this lovely wildling, under the name of Bechtel Crab as the nursery men like to call a particularly deep-colored variety. Indescribable, the odor is yet incomparable — not a drugging odor or a honeyed, but innocent and pervading, flung on the spring air in invisible swirling ribbons of scent that draw you upwind to the odor, as the bees are drawn, to find the shining source of this mysterious fragrance. Perhaps it will never be captured in alcohol and corked up in a bottle — one hopes, indeed, that it will not — but if it were, the perfume would probably disappoint us, for like most things in Nature, it is bound up with its setting and association. With the cool, sequestered sound of mourning doves, with the finding of white violets by the slough, with the aching blue of the sky bent in a faultless arc, and the bubbling cricket-like din of spring peepers in the pond.

Paul Landacre drew the many fine drawings in the book; here’s his rendition of the Iowa Crab:

Here’s an excerpt from the Shagbark Hickory chapter:

But about the first week in April the inner bud scales begin to open, arching out and twisting at the same time but with their tips at first still adhering in a pointed arch. Shiny and downy on the inner surface, and yellow-green richly-tinged with red, they look like petals of some great Tulip or Magnolia as finally they part and curl back. The young leaves and catkins are then seen standing up in a twist, like a skein of green wool. The catkins now rush into growth simultaneously with but more swiftly than the delicate, pale, and lustrous young leaves.

Dark, heavy, and aromatic is the foliage all summer but if the season is a dry one the leaves may begin to turn a dull brown even in August and drop, leaving the tree prematurely naked. Yet if they last through, they join modestly in the autumn splendor of our Middle Western woods, with a soft, dull gold, not without its luminous beauty when the sun of Indian summer shines through them. To all who know the Shagbark, such memories are linked with visions of the violet smoke of asters curling low through the drying grasses, with peeled October skies, with crow calls which signal your presence through the woods, and the shining of red haws, like little apples, on the thorn trees.

Peattie’s prose is rather old-fashioned by current standards, with long sentences meandering past commas and semicolons like creek-water flowing around rocks in a streambed. His style is more late 19th-Century than 20th-Century, and here we are in the 21st. Personally I like the older prose styles — to me they are a welcome alternative now and then from current modes of writing. But that’s just me.

The pen-and-ink drawings in this book were masterfully drawn by Paul Landacre. The pen-and-ink medium is particularly well-suited for depictions of trees and plants, as there is no distracting background. Landacre’s drawings are botanically accurate but his skill in composition gives the drawings an aesthetically-pleasing quality which is more difficult to achieve with photography.

Here are a few more of Landacre’s drawings:

The Paw Paw, (Asimina triloba)

The Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana):

One last example of Paul Landacre’s artistry, a drawing of one of my favorite trees, the Basswood (Tilia americana):

I’ve been lucky; I’ve loaned my tattered copy of this book to people and it always has been returned!




Filed under Books, Natural History

8 responses to “Donald Culross Peattie On Trees

  1. Joan

    I have a theory. If, as you say, nobody writes prose anymore in this poetic style..that they have now resorted to free verse poetry to do so. So many books of the past era are filled with metaphor and ‘flowery’ prose. The following description of the crab tree sounds like a poem. Just needs to be broken up erratically. Which I’m not about to try..this time . (grin)

    So here’s a passage I like. He speaks of the odor of the tree’s blossoms…:
    “flung on the spring air in invisible swirling ribbons of scent”‘ and later
    “like most things in Nature, it is bound up with its setting and association. With the cool, sequestered sound of mourning doves, with the finding of white violets by the slough, with the aching blue of the sky bent in a faultless arc, and the bubbling cricket-like din of spring peepers in the pond.”

    So then. Thanks so much for these lovely excerpts..and I have to say your friends are gems. I may have just ‘forgotten’ to return this book. 🙂

    Now is that basswood the same as your Linden tree?

  2. Yeah, American Basswood and Linden are respectively New World and Old World trees belonging to the genus Tilia. I always thought Tilia would make a nice feminine first name.

    As for free verse being in effect broken-up flowery prose, I think the effect on the reader is to break him or her out of faster skimmy prose-reading habits, which tends to cause the reader to slow down and pay closer attention to the phrasing and metaphors.

  3. Joan

    Apparently free verse has a much longer history than I realized. Going back to Shakespeare and the Bible.. but just for fun I attempted to structure a poem out of Peaties’ prose, praying his ghost does not come back to smite me.

    Iowa Crab Tree Blooms

    Invisible swirling ribbons of scent
    Are flung on the spring air
    Like most things in Nature, it is bound up
    With its setting and association.

    With the cool, sequestered sound
    Of mourning doves, with the finding
    Of white violets
    By the slough,

    With the aching blue of the sky
    Bent in a faultless arc,
    And the bubbling cricket-like
    Din of spring peepers in the pond.

  4. Good job, Joan! I imagine Peattie’s skull down there in his grave is smiling … but wait, all skulls are smiling. Oh, well, I think he’d be flattered that you liked his words and phrases enough to give them another format.

  5. Joan

    All skulls are smiling huh? Unless they have no lower jaw. Let’s hope this was not a jaw dropping event for ol’ Peattie.
    BTW do you think his book is still in circulation? Doubt it but you never know. Also are the bass and Linden two distinct branches, wait, ..uh…offshoots, oh well..of the same basic British tree or are the the same tree…but two different names. You mentioned Latin generic name but I’m confused. Linden sounds so much classier than bass..doesn’t it?

  6. The Linden and the Basswood are two species in the same genus, Tilia. They diverged from a common ancestor, perhaps when the continents were joined, (a long time ago), and when the continental plates shifted the two separated populations of the proto-Tilia evolved independently.

    Peattie’s two books on trees (he wrote a similar book about Western North American trees) have been re-issued several times and I saw at Amazon a combined volume containing both the Eastern and the Western tree books which is still in print.

    Used copies of various editions are no doubt available for little money at on-line used book sites like

    Personally I prefer the name basswood, as “bass” derives from “bast”, a word which refers to the tough and supple inner cambium layer of the tree’s bark. Ancient people thousands of years ago figured out that you can peel long strips of bast from a basswood tree and twist multiple strands into various forms of cordage and rope. The American Indians did this, and no doubt cave-dwelling ancient Europeans did the same with their lindens.

  7. Joan

    So there are Basswood AND Linden trees in the U.S. but the names seem to be used interchangeably? That Linden tree you showed in your photo, leafwise looked the same as my more spindly young one growing in my neighbor’s yard. Sooo I’m guessing that I have not yet seen a Basswood tree..but only Lindens. Ok I’m tempted here to do a riff on Robert Frost. Two tree’s diverged in a narrow wood…. :).

  8. Remember, the basswood is native to the North American continent; it evolved here lo those many years ago. The Linden evolved in Europe and homebody Lindens still grow there. Nursery people brought the Linden to North America; perhaps it does better in fume-laden cities. Perhaps some people prefer the smaller leaves — I don’t know what the original motivation might have been. The Linden is an immigrant here, just like we are.

    To complicate matters further country folk often call the wild basswood “Linn”, an appellation most likely passed down from immigrant ancestors, and in the process, over the generations, the “den” ending of Linden was dropped. Perhaps the country name should be spelled “Lin’.

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