by Donald Culross Peattie
[Simon and Schuster, $3.75]
THOSE who enjoyed the miniature portraits of open-air naturalists in An Almanac for Moderns will go to Green Laurels with happy expectation. They wilt not be disappointed, for they will find there many old friends depicted on ampler canvas and housed in a gallery almost exclusively their own. Those who seek also a coherent picturc of the growth of modern biologic doctrine will not fare so well. Evolution alone among the major themes of contemporary biology is shown in any fullness, and that more for the personalities than for the ideas involved.
By excluding naturalists who did not work largely outdoors, as well as those who were geologically rather than biologically inclined, Mr. Peattie has necessarily excluded some of the greatest figures and ideas in the history of natural science. By excluding, on the other hand, the nature writers who brought nothing new to science—Izaak Walton, Gilbert White, Thoreau, Burroughs, Hudson, and their kind —he has narrowed his field still more. It might seem strange to some that such slaves of the laboratory as the early microscopists could hurdle the fence; that such an important outdoor worker as Louis Agassiz could not. With a few notable exceptions, those who succeeded are men who were chiefly devoted to what is now professionally considered only the spade work of science: the classifiers and describes of organisms and their ways.
But the author knew exactly what he was doing and exactly why he was doing it. He planned his book for the type of man and ideal he specially loves. Like Thoreau before him, he has little patience with current botany and zoölogy, whose devotees are ‘a prudish lot , constantly afraid that you will discover that they are human,’ and whose aims are ‘cautious, niggardly, unattached to fundamentals.’ These ‘highly cerebral’ technicians of the laboratory, who cannot tell an oak from a maple, have had their gibes at the old-fashioned naturalists of the field. It is time something were said for the amateur and the amateur spirit. In Green Laurels Mr. Peattie says it with such sympathy and verve that the hardshell scientist himself might almost be convinced.
It would be a grave injustice to infer from this that the book is a polemic. It is rather a pæan to Nature and to the men who have loved her. Its tone is almost consistently joyous and generous.
Lyrically, anecdotally, emotionally, it bubbles down the course of history from the Schoolmen to J. H. Fabre. It picks up fragments of a varied lore as it goes: how fungus spores behave beneath a microscope; how prophetically Linnæus was named for a flowering tree; how Rafinesque pursued a cloud of bats with Audubon’s violin, gasping the while that they were all new species. Wherever there is human drama, it eddies and swirls: around the jealous hatred of Buffon for Réaumur; around the tragic failure of Lamarck to impress the society of his day, and the triumphant rise of his reputation after death; around the quiet but colossal victory of Darwin over illness and the enmity of a bigoted world
If it fails as a balanced history of the natural sciences, it is only because it does not try to be one. If it does not achieve the sustained grace and beauty and wisdom of An Almanac for Moderns, it is because not even the author himself may easily repeat such an achievement. If it is structurally somewhat amorphous and ends with too abrupt an anticlimax, it is because the heterogeneity of the material makes perfect unity impossible. If it harbors an occasional error (such as the implication on page 171 that the cataclysmic theory of Cuvier assumed the complete annihilation of life whenever‘seismic colic’ convulsed the globe), it shows that even an accurate commentator makes mistakes. What it is is ample justification for what it is not.
Above all it is a challenge to a care-ridden indoor civilization to go into the air and live. One remembers how a similar challenge was sent out from Concord some hundred years ago, and how it was not heard. Mr. Peattie is to be congratulated for making his own generation listen. His generation should he congratulated even more.