THERE once was an American actor who, after many successes and thousands of matinees in which he was the idol, decided to build himself a place of retirement on a bluff overlooking the Connecticut River. The spot he chose was of great natural beauty, but the actor, long accustomed to illusion, preferred an atmosphere less American and more medieval. He commissioned his architect to build a ruined castle; the bricks would be laid in the antique way, the arches and fenestration carefully copied; the living quarters would be artfully concealed on the ground floor, and the whole pile disguised in ivy. The masonry, when finished, of course looked a little raw, but this it was believed would soon be effaced bv the ivy which had tentatively begun to take hold. The only unconsidered factor was the rain: as the thunderstorms rumbled down the valley they proved that the new old ruin was not waterproof. In fact it leaked like a sieve. The architect, hastily summoned, recommended a pouring in of hot paraffin to fill the chinks, but this in turn was too much for the ivy, which lost its foothold, and so for a time the ruin stood as naked as a play pen. The moral of this story is that one cannot be sure of recapturing the past.
Most Americans with a strong sense of heritage do not want to build ruins; they would rather preserve the few good landmarks that survive. They want to preserve the Adams Houses in Quincy, the Old Manse in Concord, the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, the Gracie Mansion in New York, the Newcomb Tavern in Dayton, the Alamo in San Antonio, and the Mission at Santa Barbara. Here in Boston we want, to keep the magnificent brick houses of Beacon Hill — what Francis Henry Taylor has described as a “national trust” — from being torn down for modern apartments, and we have in our Trustees of Public Reservations a resourceful group of vigilantes who fight to keep the past alive.
There is another minority equally intent on preserving the past, which for them is the wilderness. In the macadam suburban New Jersey where I grew up, there were a few small pockets of wilderness— Salem Dam, Bunnell’s Pond, Kean’s Woods, and the ridge above the Baltesrol. Each spot held enough to stir the imagination of a Boy Scout, second class, and down in the lower reaches of the Barnegat, in the piney woods, were stretches which in 1910 seemed to me as primitive as the year 1. In Massachusetts, my adopted state, where fishing has brought me into ever increasing sympathy with Conservation, I have come to realize the truth of what Aldo Leopold said so well: —
“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot . . . wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasqueflower is a right as inalienable as free speech.
“These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.”
Here in the Bay State I have watched the fight to set aside the Plum Island Reservation, that superb sanctuary for wild fowl, which was for some time opposed by the unreasonable realtors and the contrary-minded. (The ducks would do immeasurable damage to the clamming was one of their pet arguments!) I have looked forward to surf-casting from Monomoy Point, that sea-blown sandy spit now a federal preserve, and I am one of many indebted to Sam Hoar, who converted an inland marsh of a thousand acres in Concord into the Great Meadows Reservation.
A Commonwealth, if it is to preserve a modicum of wild life and of hunting and fishing for its citizens, needs gifts as intelligently conceived as this. It. needs the farsighted management of its marshlands; needs the depollution of its streams, a campaign yet in its infancy; it needs the picnic grounds and fishing streams of Willowdale, which once was the private estate of Bradley Palmer; it needs the forests of Quabbin — the watershed area of reservoirs are ideal for camping; it needs the steady introduction of new preserves —our newest are Birch Hill and Miller’s River — which will provide shooting and fishing for the public and which will revert to wildness under intelligent state management. The Commonwealth also needs an oncoming generation who will swell our minority, boys in their early teens who have worked for part of the summer in the Massachusetts Sportsmen’s Junior Conservation Camp. But that is another story and one I shall discuss in detail next month.
True to life
It was Henry Thoreau who more than any other American changed our attitude toward the out-ofdoors, and since his day American authors have played a leading part in the new field of nature writing. According to Marjorie Nicolson, mountains at the end of the seventeenth century were usually described as “horrid” — that is, lending to arouse horror. A century later they were “sublime”; and then as the Romantics came on the scene they were “picturesque.” But it was Thoreau who really took us out into the open and who with his two disciples, John Muir and John Burroughs, led the way for a new school of writing, perceptive, minutely — not sentimentally — observant, and alive with the sense of participation. Great American Nature Writing, Selected and with Commentary by Joseph Wood Krutch (Sloane, $5.00), shows how far we have gone along these new trails; it is for me the most pleasurable anthology of the winter.
“I spend a considerable portion of my time,’ wrote Thoreau, “observing the habits of the wild animals, my brute neighbors. By their various movements and migrations they fetch the year about to me. Very significant are the flight of geese and the migration of suckers, etc., etc. But when I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here — t he cougar, pant her, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc., etc. — I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country.”
Well, here they are: the keen-eved and keeneared writers to make us aware of the wild life not yet, thank heaven, exterminated from our hemisphere. Wendell and Lucie Chapman to tell us of the martens which they fed and camped with; G. Murray Levick, who writes the most rollicking and delicious account of penguins I have ever read; Roy Bedichek, the Texas naturalist, who considers man’s feeling for domestic animals; Henry Best on to show us the power of the surf on Nauset Beach; Will Cuppy to make us ashamed of all things stuffed; Charles D. Stewart (whose best work appeared in the Atlantic) to spin a fascinating web about Chicago spiders; Gustav Eckstein and his canaries; William Beebe to measure a Yard of Jungle, Donald Culross Peattie and Admiral Byrd, and William Morton Wheeler, a resourceful company admirably introduced to us by Mr. Krutcli in his Prologue and in his skillful commentary. Good to be in touch with so much life in a year when death stalks the imagination.
Times when the mainland gets almost too hot to hold us it is tempting to think of an island offshore where one might find a community dedicated simply to the art of living. Such an island Rumer Godden has conjured out of the Indian Pacific in her romantic Maxfield Parrish novel, A Breath of Air (Viking, $8.00). The island Mãnoa, rechristened Terraqueous, is ruled over by a Mr. van Loomis who was formerly the Earl of Spey: here with his infant daughter, when death had cheated him of his wife and when his brother had cheated him of his estates; here with a magic and absolute authority the natives respected, he developed a tropical paradise, hidden and delightfully self-sufficient. Into this hideaway drift Valentine Doubleday, London’s glamorous young playwright, and McGinty, his pilot: their plane has run out of gas and they arrive on the scene in the midst of the courting season when Charis, the daughter now grown, is for the first time lonely for eligible white suitors.
The romance which follows is sweet to the taste and not hard on the intelligence. The island life is depicted in charming detail. It is amusing to see Valentine, the sophisticate, tricked by van Loomis and humbled in his courtship of the candid and discerning Charis. It is soothing to believe that natives anywhere could be as gentle and as willing as these on Terraqueous. This story of Miss Godden’s casts a pretty spell; it lulls the imagination with its picture of languorous living where every pleasure is available and where nothing is for sale. It adds little, in fact I think it detracts from the savor of the fantasy, to say that she is following the pattern of The Tempest, for that comparison is not to Miss Godden’s advantage.
Criminals from the inside
My Six Convicts by Donald Powell Wilson (Rinehart, $3.50) is something new in Americana. It is a study of the underworld, racy and idiomatic; it is an eye-opening account of federal penitentiaries before and after the reforms of 1930; it is a biography of six colorful criminals whom Dr. Wilson came to know, to analyze, and eventually to salvage.
A trained psychologist, in the early 1930s he was given a leave of absence from his college teaching and sent to Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary to begin three years of research in the relationship between drug addiction and criminality. Thanks to the penal reforms, a great change was then sweeping through our twenty-nine federal penitentiaries — sweeping out the almost incredible brutality which had been prevalent, and in its place installing light, clean cells, good bedding, and for the hospital the newest electrical equipment and the best medicos the United States Public Health Service could enlist.
Doc Wilson was first known as the Squirrel Guy: the grapevine said he had come to “bug ‘em,” and the prisoners were wary; they wanted no part of his tests, they thought he was a stool pigeon. Prom the windows in hts basement office early in his stay the Doc saw how swift retribution could be. A group of prisoners in the prison yard drifted by and suddenly t he knot separated and one of them collapsed. He had been stabbed six times and fatally, but the guards who came running could never find the knife.
Doc Wilson wore a white coat and the Warden told him that coat was essential to his protection. Hut more essential was the confidence which he gained among the prisoners, six of whom he chose for his staff of assistants. His converts were Connie, the prison photographer, a safecracker in for six years, who had previously served time in Sing Sing, Joliet, San Quentin, and Atlanta; then Punch (Baby Face) Pinero, Public Enemy No. 4, with something like forty murders chalked up to him and his goons. Connie and Punch passed the word, and others began to apply for duty in Doc Wilson’s office in the hospital. So he tested and picked his men. King, the counterfeiter; Scott, the Southern college graduate, taking the rap for his girl; Gibbs, who didn’t know his own strength; Boss, the engineer and dope fiend — these were his assistants. With their experience and his knowledge he tested the new narcotics as fast as they arrived. Now, after a passage of time and with protective disguise, Doc Wilson has written his remembrance of “my world as they saw it and their world as I saw it,” a book which is fast reading, very masculine, authentic all the way.
The clocks that wouldn’t run
The Thirteen Clocks (Simon & Schuster, $2.50), which James Thurber calls “a fairy tale for grownups,” was written, so the author tells us, in Bermuda, where he had gone to finish another book. It is much in the manner of The White Deer, but not nearly so successful as that enchanting work. Yet it has the promise and some of the ingredients of good entertainment. It gets off to an enticing start; the illustrations by Marc Simont are so delightful that you race ahead. The plot is the classic one of the young prince who comes in disguise to woo the beautiful princess and who is set to a series of impossible tasks, at which all her suitors heretofore had failed. The geese ate them when they failed, but not Prince Zorn: he knew the hat trick. Yet it was in this account of the Prince’s achievement that I got lost. There are too many unexplained incidents, too much coincidence, too many coy tricks of language, too many metaphysical hints about time, sorrow, laughter, love. I felt as if I were reading without a key or as if I were listening to a fanciful uncle who had talked too long.