A Naturalist in the City
I LIKE a city, if it is great enough, or small enough to be lovable. But it took time and good luck for me to discover that even Manhattan may be, for a naturalist, an open door to the field. When I was small my city was Chicago, and I so hated it that. I would mentally adjourn from the stone-cold city and dirty grey environment in which my scrawny, bronchitic body found itself to a world all Nature’s.
Of the first time I actually found myself there, I can recall nothing except that I was standing alone in a country that was green and blue and red. The red was the deep cuts in the clay soil; the green was pine forest, and blue was mountains and dreamy melting distance. In that place I felt warm and vigorous; I could no longer hear Lake Michigan shouldering up its ice and stones to smack them on the beach, nor the thrumming of the old furnace, nor my father’s desolate coughing. I was free, and explored where I pleased. I was rich, with a piece of quartz in my pocket, and there was sunshine on my hand.
I learned the mayflower and trillium by name, and the Carolina wren and the cardinal, all the singing birds except the one who sang alone in the rain, lifting his voice and letting it fall in a long silver whistle. I had a small hatchet, and made trails in the woods, hacking sweetgum and spice bush and sassafras, shearing their pungent bark so they bled odors that I got by heart, though the plants were nameless to me. There amid the glittering leaves I stood a long time listening for the thrush to sing again. Slowly the notes came ringing through the woods, a mile away and bell-clear. I knew what they were saying; I had t he verse by rote, out of that book by a young man whose melancholy portrait I admired in the frontispiece. To me, too, the thrush said: —
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge! I have none,
And yet the evening listens. He who saddens
At the thought of idleness cannot be idle,
And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.’
Fret after it or not, knowledge comes. The grey wintry waves of school life in a Northern city closed over me again. Till with time I forgot to remember how I used to lie on my back on a rock under the hemlocks, watching the buzzards soar up and up, with never a wing flap. Not for years did I go South again. I was not homesick for it any longer; sometimes, as I grew too tall and my wrist.s shot out of what wais still a new suit, I thought it was because I could no longer feel that sweet nostalgia that I was sad. But the populous, stimulating city life was triumphing then.
I was headlong in the business of growing up. I was six feet in my seventeenth year; I was an adolescent in first evening clothes, whose after-dinner sip of Benedictine burned his vitals, and I stood very thin and stiffly in my costume of manhood, a broomstick made of green wood. The opera was La Traviata. I had such health now, I was so much more innocent at seventeen t han at ten, that I could revel in the musical glitter draped over prostitution and tuberculosis. I knew every note that was coming; with a voice now well established in the deeper register, it was the coloratura roles I hummed when I was gay. But now I was too happy to be gay. Rapt, I sat looking not at the stage but at the glister of pink taffeta, pink amethysts, in the box beside me, and the big pink feather fan that played, with a skill borrowed from the diva, over a halfbared childishly thin shoulder where the brown curls lay.
In those years Nature was simply the out-of-doors; it was outside my house of life. Within, I spent my youthful ardors on the great performances of other men; I was happy among their muses, their tragedies and comedies, pictures, architecture, and music. But I had no such mistress of my own.
So, at twenty, I found myself hungry, empty, gone astray. I supposed, however, that I had begun the business of living at last, because I had a job, and in New York City, at that.
At no time in my life did I know more nervous stimulation; nowhere else was I ever so miserable. I suppose I ought to have been happy. Raw as I was, I had got a job in a publishing house by asking for it — for the reason, no doubt, that the president of the company had been, upon a time, one of the countless young men for whom my parents had found jobs. This job of mine paid fifteen dollars a week, in theory, but three dollars were removed from the envelope to buy me the compulsory security of a Liberty Bond; the president was making a patriotic showing from his employees that last year of the war.
The work was interesting and pleasant. I can thank it for such knowledge as I possess of the way that books are read, judged, refused, accepted, proofread, publicized, and sold. I observed the firm’s authors being handled, in person and by letter, and was presently detailed to do a little handling myself. So now I recognize the technique when I am treated to it.
My associates were kind, and many were cultivated. Some have dropped out of the picture, others have come forward in it to greater prominence. I meet them occasionally around the different shops in New York, for the personnel of publishing is ever being stirred with the Great Horn Spoon. But when I go back to the outfit where I worked nobody remembers poor old Rip. Twenty years ago in New York is as far back as the Eocene.
But then it was an aching present. For one thing, to be in love there was a torture of loneliness. It. seemed the fault of the entire city that she did not come, did not write, did not say, when she wrote, what I wanted to hear. She had escaped me; she had emerged from the chrysalis of pink taffeta and, more mature though younger than I, moved now beyond my reach in the world that belongs to men. And because I knew myself for a boy, 1 hated myself for it. There are still streets in New York on which, when I walk them today, I meet this old despair. I see myself stalking there like an unhappy green heron, hunting for some feeding ground, some cheap restaurant where the noon meal might for once have savor.
It makes an old joke now, shared between us. But once it was a curse upon the stones of Gotham. They rang for me with nothing but defeat, mine and that of all the unwitting multitude around me.
All day and all night I heard that mortal beat, the sound of footsteps, the tread of a city of fourteen million soles, pellmell down the subway ramps, up the elevated stairs, into Grand Central and out, marking time in the theatre lobbies, stampeding in the ferry exits. Forever — when you came to listen — they tapped, pounded, shuffled, limped, lagged, faltered, pelted. The smallest hours of morning were still loud with the leaderless army.
Of this I too was one. In the wilderness of Manhattan I had no glimmer of direction. Every day I grew more politely difficult for my family to live with. Every evening the barrel organ on our corner of West Ninth tinkled t he Addio al passato. The humanoid eyes of the monkey, I thought, — looking down into them, into the little upheld cap, — were kinder than any you see on Fifth. And emotions rose up in me like dark arterial blood in the throat of a man wounded in the chest, choking, startling when it comes to light, incredible as belonging to one’s self.
Yet in a city of seven million, all hiding their wounds from one another, I would grimly have agreed that I was one of the fortunate. If the job had come easily, so did a variety of pleasures. I was that useful supernumerary, the ‘odd,’ the ‘extra’ young man. I went much to the theatre; on other nights I resolutely danced to the strains of “Dear Old Pal of Mine’ with ‘nice, wholesome girls ‘ trotted out to me. Others as wholesome but not so nice were offered by generous young males who wanted me to feel at home in New York City.
But I had no such desire, though I explored it nook and cranny, seeing all the parts I never see now. They were the sights possible for a young man who had Sundays and a few Saturday afternoons to spend, and what was left over, from necessities, of twelve weekly dollars. I knew the fish in the Aquarium well, and the Battery, and the calm of St. Paul’s and Trinity. I went abroad, to the limit of my means; my knowledge then of Staten Island was enviable, and I had some acquaintance with the Palisades and Tarry town. Towards far-off Montauk I cast wistful eyes, but the fare lacked me, the time was not vouchsafed. Once on Labor Day the dispensations of Providence got me as far as Tilly Foster.
Wherever I went, even in the metropolitan district, I took my Gray’s Manual of Botany with me. Humboldt his Brazil, Banks his Australia, Hooker his India. And for me the flora of Hackensack and Tottenville and Far Rockaway.
It took me time to learn it, green as I was. I might sit down, with my manual and my pocket lens, in a midge-haunted lot somewhere in the suburbs, to identify a small crucifer, and only after a long hour would I discover that what I had got hold of was a stray from somebody’s radish bed. I had no vasculum in which to carry home specimens in a fine state of freshness. I had never even heard of a plant press, and couldn’t have afforded one anyway. Instead I spent a dime on a notebook, and in it I drew up from the living plants my own description of every detail, often adding a sketch which might be bad enough; but there is no way to observe like trying to draw what you sec.
So I began to know another citizenry, the plant population of Greater New York. It is perhaps the most exotic in the country. For just as the metropolis is the first catch-all of the immigrant races of the world, some of whom never leave the sight of its towers, so there is a waif flora of immigrant plants as firmly rooted around their port of entry. They have been established here since the days of the old ballast dumps from the sailing ships. They have come in holds bringing cargoes from all over the globe; they stowed away in the bales and bundles, perhaps on the very shoes, of incoming foreigners, as burs in wool, as seeds in the soil sometimes so reverently transported from the old country to the new.
They are cosmopolites, these plants, tramps to whom all ports are alike and every city is home. Many appear to have no native land, or none that will claim them. No written flora anywhere in the world admits as indigenous that lusty weed, a chenopod, called Good King Henry — or fat hen, city goosefoot, low amaranth. They reached us from Europe, but in western European manuals they are assigned to eastern Europe, which in turn passes them to the Caucasus. And in the Caucasus they refer these wanderers across the Caspian, for an origin, to the country whence the Huns and Turks came from Europe. Not that for certain these plants first issued from there, but it has long been popular with botanists to fix this as the source of mysterious roving plant tribes, just because so little is known about the land of the Oxus and Samarkand.
And what little we do know about our waif weeds in Turkestan shows them clinging close to the heels of man. Just so the crisp-leaved amaranth has stuck to the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Like a chorus girl, it regards Jersey City as the Far West, though it plays sometimes to Albany.
Had they not been aggressive, had they not been able to outwit man’s efforts to destroy them through these many centuries, such city weeds would never have been able to keep their foothold around the wharves and new-made land, along the highways and up the alleys. Some have a lust.y alien beauty of their own — king devil and orange hawkweed and cotton thistle — all harsh and fierce as they are. I came to understand this, to pluck a stalk of stramonium, its white trumpet-shaped flowers exhaling a warning of their poison, with zest because it had come here out of the tropics; to snap, with gritted teeth and pleasure, the prickly stem of a blue devil arrived from the hard-pressed flora of central Europe.
Not that I did not long, amid the stone and steel and asphalt, for bluebells and a thrush. Even Chicago, sprawling over its prairies, had let a little of Nature into its borders. But there was a minimum of natural life here on Manhattan, an island on which millions crowded together and many were yet as lonely as on the Dry Tortugas. Like a maroon escaping, one day early in the summer of my coming I got away to Staten Island; there, toiling through a swamp, I pushed abruptly into a clearing bright with flowers I had never seen before. The woods were encroaching upon it; the brambles claimed it; a solitary chimney told the story of a house here once, and an abandoned garden. It was a garden, I began to discover, planted to flowers once popular but long since relegated as Victorian in style. For by my manual I named them all, that long, sweet-scented, drowsy afternoon as the sun slipped west. Day lily, prince’s feather, dame’s rocket breathing an odor like a violet sachet. Hyssop, and spearmint, gill-over-theground, and apple of Peru. Moth mulleins and lamb’s lettuce, dusty miller rioting from its once prim bed, and cypress spurge weeping on a grave mound all but sunk to earth’s level, under the shade of a tree of heaven. Of such, survivors of old gardens and wandering escapes, is formed another plant society which clings to the footprints of man and is regarded with hostility by the native American woods.
I came back that evening on a churning ferry with people who were hurrying in to New York to dinner, the theatre, the night shift. We passed the opposing boat bringing the day shift home. Everybody was reading the newspaper; coming or going, all were absorbed in t he doings of the city as reported that day, in the events of the world — and those were stirring times. Alone, I did not read; I had no part. I was sad at the thought of my idleness; I thought myself asleep. Was I not. storing up for myself an early but lasting failure?
The near-by salt marshes were rusty with sunset light, and filling up with the might and sorrow of the ocean rising in its tide. The crooked creeks, bordered with black mud where long-legged wader birds went mincing, were gutters of blood reflecting the sky. Across the bay the towers of Manhattan were lighting up their violet points; they prickled and trembled in the murky conflagration of the sky. Each building’s pattern was a constellation, the whole a galaxy.
Thus, from afar. But once within the city, I knew, I should find it nothing that it seemed across the water in the twilight. Like the interior of a star, it was all a seething storm of light and motion.
Now, said I to myself, there are young fellows all over the country would give their bottom groat to be in my shoes, coming into New York of a Saturday night. To have a foothold, even shallow as mine, on those fabulous cliffs, a place to make in the mightiest and tallest city in the long history of the world. And I could not wake to any of it; nor did the evening listen.
I recollect the very moment when that sorry young man astray in New York City started off in what was, for him, the right direction. He asked how to go, of a policeman on Madison Avenue — asked the way to what was his destiny, though of that no least suspicion was as yet. awake. The officer said to take the local from Grand Central Station.
The Bronx Botanical Garden is attached, more or less, to the Zoo, and there arc few who arc not diverted from it by the charms of a giraffe or blue-bottomed mandrill. For those who wander in, as I did on that day, the garden is a prospect pleasant but not exciting. It all resembled Nature as a flower show resembles a garden. I investigated the greenhouses; the high glass roof sheltered tropical ornaments in a steamy atmosphere not unlike my aunt’s conservatory off her old back parlor; nursemaids and children and a few old men with canes loitered on the walks. I wandered out again. Presently I found some beds set out, not formally for a floral effect, but planted in families.
This was strictly botanical; my attention pointed like a bird dog. I was not meant for a horticulturist. Over the trees there glimmered at me the roof of a high bald building, and I walked toward it, certain as the dog on a scent.
In the botanical museum I spent some time over the public displays, the series of labeled specimens in swinging frames, of plant fibres and essential oils, the charts and photographs. But it was something gamier I was after. When at the bottom of a top flight of stairs my way was barred by a chain with a pendent sign, I knew that I had found it. The sign said No ADMITTANCE.
There was a guard at hand, and lie was watching me. Point-blank I asked him for permission to ascend those stairs. For answer he asked whom I wished to see, and I said, ‘Anybody.’ Therefore he demanded who I might be, and, suspect, I replied that I was nobody.
This ended it, of course. But not for me. All that I knew was that those Olympians in seventh heaven up above were my friends, and that it was my business they were conducting, without me.
The guard stepped off to lend benevolent advice to some more orderly visitor than I, and because Nobody was admitted up there, Nobody jumped over the chain in one long-legged scissors vault.
The librarian, as I entered, looked up with welcome behind her eyeglasses. I had got past the bureaucrats, it seemed; I was entering the democracy of science. Out of his office came Dr. Barnhart, the historian of botany, probably the bestinformed man in the Western Hemisphere on even the most obscure botanists. The obscurer the better, evidently, for me he welcomed with incredible kindness and affability.
I had not learned, in those days, that all scientists welcome one another, and that you begin to be a scientist from the moment you wish to be one. I had not then found out that, so far from keeping to themselves their knowledge, men of science eagerly desire to share it. I did not know that the advanced are not supercilious to beginners, for the fine and humble reason that they know themselves, even the highest, as beginners all.
Did I wish to see the herbarium? suggested Dr. Barnhart.
At first it looked to me like a vast loft, lighted from above, filled with rows and rows of tall narrow cases arranged like houses on streets. There were avenues and cross streets, and a main artery with a park of tables running down the centre. And every house door, I discovered, bore the name of its occupants — Orchid family, and Canna family, Ginger family and Arrowroot family; behind their Latin I knew them. I saw how all were arranged in the same order as the families in my now well-worn Manual of Asa Gray — the order of their evolution from the first and simplest flowers to the modern splendor of orchids and composites.
And I, still overwhelmed by the four thousand, eight hundred and eighty-five species in Gray’s range (which is from Virginia to Newfoundland and west to Kansas and North Dakota), was here confronted by dozens, scores, hundreds of families I had never heard of, tropical groups from Demerara and Cayenne, Antigua, Yucatan, Tobago, Maracaibo, and the Keys. Here in this gigantic repository were the plants of Paraguay and the plants of Baffinland, and the flora of any point between. Nearly a million specimens were housed here, Dr. Barnhart remarked, and he opened a case and showed me how they were stored — dried, pressed, fixed to a stiff white sheet measuring eleven and a half by fourteen and a half inches, which is a size standard all over the world, so that specimens, when exchanged, will fit into cases at Kew, Tokyo, or Cape Town. And every one was ticketed with a label bearing its identity, the time and place of collection, and the name of the collector.
Unlike an amateur collection, which is a personal possession oftenest emphasizing the rare and lovely, this great one belonged to nobody in particular. Yes, even to me. I or anyone else could come here to study it; and any number of plants would be sent to the ends of the earth for study by others. Here plants gathered by the hand of Asa Gray himself, or Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, were merged in with the humblest beginner’s specimens. The purchase price of a rarity was exactly the same as of a common thing — ten cents a sheet. For specimens are judged on their merits as materials for the advancement of knowledge. And that knowledge is forever widening, describing several thousand new species a year, working out the course of evolution, discovering new economic plants and new uses for old ones, completing the provincial floras of state after state and country after country.
Among the cases we encountered a young man, gentle and deliberate, by the name of Pennell. I was also introduced to Dr. Small, authority on Southern floras, and to Dr. Britton, here the chief. I listened to these men and marveled, never having encountered science before outside the classroom. These men were not teachers preparing others to teach; the way in which they talked of travel and research took my breath away. If you became interested in a tropical island whose flora was unknown, you simply went there; business first, you know. If a plant you required to see grew on top of a far-off mountain, you climbed that peak. They seemed to assume that I had just come back from somewhere fascinating, and when I told them it was Staten Island, they did not smile. They asked me to sign in the book of visiting botanists. Because, when I wrote my name there, I did not feel like a forger, I knew that I had begun to identify my weedy seif.
On a day late in winter, upon one of my frequent visits to the herbarium, I was turning over specimen sheets when the next one in my hand looked back at me from out its neat Manila folder familiarly. I knew before I looked at the label what would be written on the spot where the place of collection is entered. For, though there are many kinds of trillium in the world, there is no other place where this kind springs.
Therefore the label bore the name of the mountain where I had heard the thrush when I was small, and that oncenameless bird that sang in the rain. The word was like a secret between myself and Nature. Deeply it had lain buried with that other life closed years ago, which now opened suddenly beyond this flower. All at once I could remember how this trillium smelled, a dark honey perfume, where it grew on mountain tops that rolled in misty blue away to the south.
I took my specimen in to Dr. Barnhart. I said — most casually remarking it — the place name which was passport to me. Dr. Barnhart reached for his atlas, and turned to the page that mapped the Carolinas. Historian of botany that he is, he began to trace out the route that Michaux took through that country, searching the wilderness for new plants commanded by his king for Marly and Marie Antoinette’s Versailles. Somebody, Dr. Barnhart remarked, ought to get down in that country again. He might find that rare plant Shortia galacifolia, discovered by Michaux and then lost again for a century to science.
On Horsepasture Creek, near Toxaway, in the Blue Bidge, I stood at last with the loam-bound roots of Shortia in my two hands, and felt myself to be at the centre of things. I had simply walked off that map which shows New York City as the axis of America.
For weeks thereafter I was alone with Nature every day and all day long. No one knew in what glen or on what ridge I wandered; no one was there to watch me as I changed identity, tramping and climbing and sleeping noons or nights whenever I felt weary. Confusion and uncertainty ran out of the soles of my boots. Conviction slowly came.
The new vision added dimension to a world that had been flat. Everything in it now had atmosphere behind; far-off ranges came at a stride miles nearer in this clearer air. I saw newly; I knew at last what it was that I wanted to know. I understood how I wanted to think. I found that for me the natural world, seen with the eyes of science, was — and is — reality.
I did not know much, but what I had learned I had to believe. As art (which had been the preoccupation of my youth) feels its way intuitively toward reality, through emotion and sympathy, so science knows its way, step by hardwon step. And Nature was what I wanted thus to know; it came to me with the exaltation of a conversion.
Now, twenty years later, I have all that most I lacked, when I was a maroon upon Manhattan. I have her arms now, and the arms of our children, around me. I have a job in life that sends me every morning to my desk impatient for it as a horse to feel its master in the saddle. I have about me, as I write, that apple of my eye, my working library, here in my study with its fire and its long window looking on the pines and mountains, all at the heart of this spacious old nautilus of a house beside the Pacific. If ever any man had riches, I have and know it. And I know too, as I began to guess at twenty-one, that the last of these with which I would ever part is the one that nothing in heaven or on earth could take away from me. Call it my faith — my belief in the Nature of things.