1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Glenview, Illinois
witnessed a subdued homecoming. A couple and their three
young sons returned to the state of their origin after six
years in the south of France. It was early winter, and bleak;
the drought of the Dust Bowl had not yet broken. Glenview
was more rural than suburban. Lacking snow, the northern
Illinois farmlands looked "dingy now and threadbare."
The great old bur oaks of the prairie groves appeared dead.
to Glenview, Illinois, during the Great Depression,
Donald Culross Peattie found the winter landscape
uninspiring. Yet he would later leave a significant
legacy as one of the most popular interpreters of
what is today called the Chicago Wilderness.
were both writers. Their books had found publishers but
not much of an audience. Jobless, the man doubted his own
ability to provide for his family. "Still to put trust
in me, I thought .
. . was to perform more than I ever had yet," he wrote.
For what, he wondered, had they left the warm delights of
was the homecoming of Donald Culross Peattie and Louise
Redfield Peattie. Luckily it would prove to be a turning
point: the beginning of an important second career for Donald.
Within a few years of this strained return, he was a best-selling
author who introduced readers nationwide to the wonders
of the natural world. He would leave a significant legacy
as one of the first popular interpreters of what is today
called the Chicago Wilderness. And it all began in the back
yard of his wifes childhood home.
be precise, it was a big back yard. Louise Redfield grew
up at The Grove, the Glenview homestead that had been settled
in the 1830s by the Kennicott family. The family patriarch,
John, was a widely respected doctor, plant nurseryman, and
farmer. His son Robert was the most prominent of Illinois
early naturalists, and one of the founders of the Chicago
Academy of Sciences; sadly, he died young on a survey trip
was John Kennicotts great-granddaughter. The Glenview
of her childhood was far more rural than wild. The prairie
chickens and bison and passenger pigeons were dim memories,
but the wind still blew through the grasses and the high
oak boughs, and snapping turtles still prowled the sloughs.
Donald Peattie was the son of journalists. His mother reviewed
books for the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Tribune. His
father was in turn on staff for the Daily News and The New
York Times. Born in 1898, Donald learned early on that writing
was a matter of application as much as inspiration.
peck of my mothers typewriter sounded from her sunny
room from early until late," he wrote. "In the
evening my father went down to his work on the paper."
Prairie Grove, by Donald Culross Peattie; American
Acres, by Louise Redfield Peattie ("A romantic,
native, modern novel of an American's deep-rooted love for
an American home"); and A Natural History of Trees,
by Donald Culross Peattie each took inspiration from time
the couple spent at The Grove in Glenview, Illinois.
Peatties lived close to the beach in a big house on a dirt
road some nine miles south of downtown what later
became 7660 South Shore Drive. But back around the turn
of the century it was a hard place to reach. "You had
to drive out from Grand Crossing on the mere trace of a
road, two ruts across the prairie through flowering sloughs
and over deep dune sand," Peattie recalled in The Road
of a Naturalist, his 1941 memoir that served both as autobiography
and as a justification for the value of nature study as
the nation prepared to enter a long war.
that book, too, Peattie recalled how at age 16 he began
to visit The Grove. He became friends with Robert Redfield,
Robert Kennicotts grand-nephew, and had eyes for Roberts
that time The Grove comprised a square mile of fields, "woods,
hidden swamps, and fragments of virgin prairie." It
was "a country kingdom in a bubble of its own,"
Peattie wrote. The teenagers explored the woods and wetlands
and big old barn, watched frogs and warblers and red-winged
this was an idyll that had to end. Donald went to college
at the University of Chicago and Harvard. Though determined
to be a writer, he first began to work fitfully as a botanist,
initially at the Washington, D.C., office of Foreign Seed
and Plant Introduc-tion in the US Department of Agriculture.
That office was charged with finding plants overseas that
could be economically useful in this country (a bit of an
irony, considering the damage that such imports as buckthorn
and garlic mustard are doing today at places like The Grove).
and Louise married in 1923, and a year later he resigned
his job and became a full-time writer. He wrote Cargoes
and Harvests, a book about important introduced plants,
and completed a study of the flora of the Indiana Dunes.
He wrote a nature column for the Washington Evening Star
about the quotidian nature of the suburbs. "It was
an everyday world that I had to write of . . . transient
as any newspaper work . . . but they were pages of life
as I lived it."
both young Peatties hungered for a more cosmopolitan life,
for a place "where art is native and deep-rooted."
In 1928, like so many other writers of the time, they moved
to France. Both wrote novels. All but forgotten today, these
early works earned them only a hardscrabble living. It proved
a tough way to raise their three sons, and Donald found
that he longed for what in retrospect seemed so sweet about
America: its nature.
wanted safety in blue distance, illimitable, uninhabited.
I wanted . . . the grandeur of free solitude. I wanted to
smell Wisconsin north woods again."
couple had to borrow money for ship fare, and had no job
prospects in Chicago. But they settled at The Grove, living
in Redfield House, and Donald found freelance work writing
a brochure about trees. Louise worked on a big novel about
settlers at the old homestead.
were hard. Louise was in poor health. The last of the novels
Donald had written in France was published and soon forgotten.
He was glad of but unsatisfied with the hack work he found.
But out of the Depression, and out of his own doubts about
writing for a living, he found a purpose.
began with a journal.
are some excerpts from his unpublished notes about The Grove:
9, 1936. This morning was the most beautiful of all, the
early morning hours with long light in shafts between
the trees, a black ground mist above the horizon, hovering
over the earth that at this season always seems to breathe
soft fertility, the air smelling moist and soft yet adventure-tanged.
One longs for the days of the old biota, when the great
beasts at this season were in heat and bellowing, the
Indians were celebrating their harvests, the turkeys were
fat and the wild pigeons going over, obese with the mast
26, 1935. The frogs are still heard! Midges still dancing,
and a few butterflies yellow clovers and cabbage
whites still on the wing. A phoebe is calling.
Grackles go spattering through the trees, just as ready
to leave now as they pretended to be in the last of August.
introduced trees are still holding their leaves, but most
of the natives are naked except oaks of the subgenus Lepidobalanus,
some of which are still brilliant. Elms are most irregular,
some holding astonishingly.
12, 1935. The transition to winter is I suppose complete,
but there was gentleness in this day. In the northwest
hung a trailing sheet of storm, and the prairie prospect
in that direction was hazed with a black ground mist.
The white-topped cottonwoods against it looked pale and
awed, but lofty. The downy woodpecker now calls his winter
song of k-pick or pink! Tree sparrows are here in flocks,
singing softly a jumbled warble: tweedle, tweeyuddle.
They also call with a tiny lisping tseep. Starlings
in an affected, mincing, mocking whistle call tswee-you
and emit a cat-like mewing.
woods are steely black and silver, the prairies
tawny and tough, like the wind-blown hide of a dead wildcat,
and the sun, low in the south, is watery. Everything subdued,
meek; all Nature so cowed that you feel it will put up
no fight against the coming lash of snows."
found the key to his future success in those journal entries.
In them he developed his hallmark technique: moving
from well-grounded and precise observations of the natural
world into larger philosophical observations. While at The
Grove he worked journal entries and much of his earlier
botanical research into An Almanac for Moderns,
a daybook of musings a paragraph or two for each
day of the year. Some of the entries are pure natural history;
some historical excursions into the lives and work of the
pioneer naturalists whose work Peattie was wont to praise;
some are pure
the spring migration of birds prompts Peattie to ponder
whether human lives are steered by destiny or conscious
decision; finding a mouse in the woodpile results in an
excursus on the fragility and tenacity of all life.
the entries are grounded on The Groves particular
acreage. In an article Peattie later wrote for Natural
History magazine he mused, "I learned also the
value of knowing some one thing, at last, with a certain
degree of thoroughness, be it only my one square mile. I
even began to welcome the very limitations of my problem,
as a sonnet writer his fourteen lines . . . I have learned,
however, that three years is utterly insufficient to make
me a master of a reasonable amount of wood-wisdom concerning
one square mile of Illinois land."
Almanac is a book to be savored slowly, evening
by evening. It is a book whose underlying affirmation of
life is inherent in its first line, in the entry for March
21: "On this chill uncertain spring day, toward twilight,
I have heard the first frog quaver from the marsh."
books 1935 publication brought Peatties first
brush with fame when it received an award from the Limited
Editions Club for the book most likely to become a classic.
It also resulted in further book assignments. He chronicled
the life of Audubon and the Lewis and Clark expedition.
He profiled the lives of past naturalists. He edited a couple
of nature anthologies. He was in demand.
and Louise continued to write quite explicitly about The
Grove. Louises contribution was American Acres,
a 1936 novel that thinly fictionalized the lives of several
Kennicott generations at the homestead. Donalds was
A Prairie Grove, a 1938 book that is something
of a hodgepodge as far as human characters are concerned;
its most vivid character is the land itself, the grove whose
strategic location between the lake and the river to its
west (in real life it is the Des Plaines) sets the stage
for the Illinois, the Jesuits, the land speculators, and
the stalwart settlers.
both books there is no firm line between natural and cultural
history. The big prairie sky and the deep-rooted oak trees
symbols for what both Peatties lionized in America. The
settlers who stayed and stewarded such places became model
Americans. Like the slow-growing big bluestem and bur oaks,
they were stalwart, conservative, unchic but tough.
Grove had launched the Peatties dual career, but it
was not enough. In spite of their deep familial and natural
groundings in the Chicago area, they did not stay. Donald
wrote that they moved to California in order to be able
to study western nature, but perhaps they also were recapitulating
the American history they loved so well moving west
as did John Muir, as had the hopes and dreams of the nation.
settled in Santa Barbara, in a house with a large yard where
Donald could grow exotic plants. There he wrote two books
that form his most enduring contributions to our literature:
A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central
North America, published in 1950, and its companion
A Natural History of Western Trees, completed
three years later.
brick-sized tomes, still in print, are much more than field
guides. Rather, they are detailed portrayals of trees in
which the subjects have all the personality of human characters.
As the contemporary nature writer Robert Finch puts it in
his introduction to the two volumes, each volume is important
"more for its vigorous narrative, sensuous descriptions,
and contagious affection for its subject than as a source
of factual information or as a field guide."
excerpt from the entry about the bur oak (which runs to
about four pages in all, plus a lovely print by Paul Landacre)
proves this to be true:
grand old Bur Oak suggests a house in itself for
it is often broad rather than tall, and its mighty boughs,
starting straight out from the trunk at right angles,
extend horizontally 50, 60, 70 feet, bending with the
weight of their own mass to the very ground, so that within
their circle is a hollow room, its grassy floor littered
with acorns, with the sloughed-off corky bark of the boughs,
with a deep bed of leaves, and the birds nests of
many a summer, and the gold of many a flickers wing.
child who ever played beneath a Bur Oak will forget it."
is a portrait that Donald began writing, in a sense, during
his teenage visits to The Grove. It demonstrates a salient
fact about the influences upon him: like many nature writers,
he was most powerfully affected by the landscapes he experienced
as a child. He was able to continue to write so evocatively
because he took those early impressions with him. He left
the Midwest, but it never left him; its traces linger throughout
his death in 1964, I imagine him still hearing the keening
of mourning doves and the particular way a summer breeze
moves through the leaves of ancient oaks. When I visit The
Grove and study those thick-trunked oaks, I think of Louise
and Donald, teenagers in love with one another and with
their surroundings, learning anew as every generation must
that there is no such thing as human beings separated from
Friederici is the author of The
Suburban Wild (University of Georgia Press, 1999), a
collection of essays about nature in the Chicago suburbs.
He is distantly related to Louise Redfield.
more information about the works of Donald Culross Peattie
and Louise Redfield Peattie, see our list of Peattie
Resources, which includes libraries that have his books
as well as links to Amazon.com for used copies.