Watching the spring migration of birds prompted 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.

 

For more information about the works of Donald Culross Peattie and Louise Redfield Peattie, see our list of Peattie Resources which includes libraries which have his books and links to Amazon.com to purchase used copies.

 

 

 
Fall 2000

Donald Culross Peattie: Remembering an Early Prophet in Chicago Wilderness

by Peter Friederici

In 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.

   

Returning 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.

They 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 the Riviera?

Such 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 wife’s childhood home.

To 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 in Alaska.

Louise was John Kennicott’s 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.

Chicago-born, 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.

"The peck of my mother’s 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."

A 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.


The 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.

In that book, too, Peattie recalled how at age 16 he began to visit The Grove. He became friends with Robert Redfield, Robert Kennicott’s grand-nephew, and had eyes for Robert’s sister Louise.

At 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 blackbirds.

But 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).

Donald 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."

Yet 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.

"I wanted safety in blue distance, illimitable, uninhabited. I wanted . . . the grandeur of free solitude. I wanted to smell Wisconsin north woods again."

The 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.

Times 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.

It began with a journal.

Here are some excerpts from his unpublished notes about The Grove:

"September 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 crop.

"October 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.

"The 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.

"December 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: t’weedle, t’weeyuddle. They also call with a tiny lisping t’seep. Starlings in an affected, mincing, mocking whistle call t’swee-you and emit a cat-like mewing.

"The 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."

Peattie 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 philosophy.

Watching 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.

All the entries are grounded on The Grove’s 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."

The 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."

The book’s 1935 publication brought Peattie’s 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.

He and Louise continued to write quite explicitly about The Grove. Louise’s contribution was American Acres, a 1936 novel that thinly fictionalized the lives of several Kennicott generations at the homestead. Donald’s 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.

In both books there is no firm line between natural and cultural history. The big prairie sky and the deep-rooted oak trees are 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.

The 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.

They 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.

These 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."

An 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:

"A 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 flicker’s wing.

"No child who ever played beneath a Bur Oak will forget it."

This 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 books.

Upon 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 nature.


Peter 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.


For 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.