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!