Edwin Way Teale, (1899-1980), was a naturalist, writer, and photographer who captured the imaginations and hearts of Americans in his many books about nature. He is ranked with John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and John Burroughs as one of the best and most influential nature writers in America.
Teale was born in Joliet, Illinois. As he grew up, he spent his summers at his grandparents’ farm in Indiana. There he had many experiences with nature which trained his skills of observation and developed his sensitivity to all aspects of the natural world. In his book, Near Horizons, Teale describes a typical childhood adventure. Between his grandfather’s farm and the Indiana dunes grew a field of rye. One summer afternoon, when he was six or seven, Edwin crawled into the dense stalks on his hands and knees. He hollowed out a cave in the rye and lay very still. All day he watched the activities of the creatures around him–ants, beetles, flies, toads, and snakes. He used his imagination to picture life as it appeared to them. He discovered a whole new world, a world unnoticed by most people. He wrote, “Returning home that evening was like landing from a distant voyage of discovery” (42).
Edwin Way Teale became one of America’s best-loved naturalists because he was able, through his writing, to take others along on his distant voyages of discovery into worlds which are as close as their own backyards. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that each community in America ought to have a position called the Town Naturalist. Teale was for many people, America’s Naturalist.
Teale began his writing career after graduating from Columbia University. He worked for many years as a magazine assignment writer and editor in New York. All through those days, he and his wife Nellie dreamed of breaking away into a life of fulltime travel and nature writing. He left his New York career in October 1941 to fulfill that dream.
Edwin Way Teale’s early nature writing focused on insects. He explored the small worlds of insects he first discovered in the field of rye. His books and close up photographs opened up these worlds. “Even the commonest of insects, once we enter the Alice-in-Wonderland realm they inhabit, become engrossingly interesting. Their ways, their surroundings, their food, their abilities are so foreign to our own that imagining ourselves in their places becomes an exciting adventure of the mind” (Near Horizons 7).
Part of Teale’s genius was his ability to see into the interconnectedness of all things. He, as William Blake said, “see a world in a grain of sand.” In his books, Teale expressed “The simple enjoyment of universal nature, with no other end in mind” (Wandering Through Winter 84). His works capture the tone of the natural world—a mood at once both melancholy with the life and death struggle in nature and hopeful and optimistic. “On this somber day, when winter’s conquest seems so imminent and so conclusive, I am remembering the calm preparations of the insects around me. Nature, in all her acts, reflects her faith in the future” (Near Horizons 309). Teale’s concern for conservation underlies his work, yet his writing never becomes political or argumentative. He said, “It is the conservationist who is concerned with the welfare of all the land and the life of the country, who, in the end, will do the most to maintain the world as a fit place for human existence.”
Teale leased land near his home on Long Island to be his “insect garden” where he could study and photograph insects. He developed new techniques for close up photography so he could show his readers the worlds he discovered. During this early period of nature writing, Teale and his wife were deeply and personally affected by World War II. Their only son, David, was killed in battle in the war. In North with the Spring, Teale says that he and Nellie managed their grief during those horrible days of war and loss by keeping another dream alive. They planned a series of books based on travels following the progression of the seasons throughout America.
The first of the books, North with the Spring, was published in 1951. In it he tells about leaving his home in New York on February 14 to drive their black Buick to the Everglades in Florida. There he turned around and followed the spring on a 17,000 mile journey up the eastern states. Over the next twenty years, he followed all the seasons, traveling to almost every state. He wrote books describing all the American seasons: Autumn Across America (1956), Journey Into Summer (1960), and Wandering Through Winter (1965). The books provide a fascinating chronicle of America, not just the changing natural seasons, but also a record of little known people and places during a pivotal decade and a half in a rapidly changing America. The books are full of anecdotes about other naturalists and quotations from other nature writers. All four books are dedicated to the Teales’ son, David, who died in the war. The inscription reads, “Dedicated to David Who Traveled with Us in Our Hearts.”
Teale kept meticulous notes and records of his observations. Ann Zwinger remembers that Teale always kept a shirt pocket notebook with him to record his nature observations and thoughts while they were fresh in his mind. Every evening, he would type out his notes on a portable typewriter. In her introduction to A Conscious Stillness, the book she and Teale co-authored, An Zwinger provides an inside look at Teale’s writing life. The University of Connecticut library now preserves his notes, diaries, letters, and rough drafts.
In 1959, the Teales moved from Long Island to an old farm near Hampton, Connecticut. Teale had always wanted to devote time to exploring the natural world of one place. The farm gave him that opportunity. He and Nellie lived there for the rest of their lives. They named the farm, Trail Wood. Over the years the plants and animals of the farm unfolded their secret worlds to the Teales. They came to know and to be a part of the land and the community of living things there. Teale wrote about his experiences at Trail Wood in his book, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974).
Teale also traveled to Britain where he traveled extensively, 11,000 miles through the countryside of Great Britain. He visited the homesites of naturalists and writers he admired. The resulting book, Springtime in Britain, is dedicated to his wife: “To Nellie, The Best of Companions on the Longest Journey of All.”
Edwin Way Teale died in 1980 and Nellie passed away in 1993. Their home site, Trail Wood, is now managed as a wildlife sanctuary by the Connecticut Audubon Society. Visitors can follow trails over the 156 acres through pond, wetland, meadow, and woodland habitats. The Audubon Society also maintains a natural history museum there.
Edwin Way Teale received many awards for his work. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Wandering Through Winter. He also won the John Burroughs Award for nature writing in 1943. In addition, he received the Ecology Award of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1975. Teale was an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Sciences, and an associate of the Royal Photographic Society.
Books by Edwin Way Teale
Book of Gliders (1930)
Grassroot Jungles (1937)
Boys Book of Photography (1939)
The Golden Throng (1940)
Near Horizons (1942)
Dune Boy (1943)
The Lost Woods (1945)
Days Without Time (1948)
Byways to Adventure (1948)
North with the Spring (1951)
The Junior Book of Insects (1953)
Circle of the Seasons (1953)
Insect Friends (1955)
Autumn Across America (1956)
Adventures in Nature (1959)
Journey Into Summer (1960)
The Lost Dog (1961)
The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects (1962)
Audubon’s Wildlife (1964 )
Wandering Through Winter (1965)
Photographs of American Nature (1972)
A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974)
The American Seasons (1976)
A Walk Through the Year (1978)
A Conscious Stillness (with Ann Zwinger, 1982)
[Completed by Ann Zwinger from Teale’s notes.]
Books Edited by Edwin Way Teale
The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre (1949)
Green Treasury (1952)
The Wilderness World of John Muir (1954)
The Thoughts of Thoreau (1962)