The Peripatetic Reviewer

OUR home on Beacon Hill is twenty-eight miles from our summer cottage in its three acres of woods on the Gloucester Branch. On those border Saturdays after Thanksgiving and before winter locks us out we like to drive down to chop wood for the town fireplaces and to see what we can of our wilder neighbors whose lairs had been hidden in the heavy foliage of summer. Our wood lot adjoins an undeveloped estate of some two thousand acres, and so we enjoy the benefit of a preserve; the first thing we look for is the sharp thrust-prints of the deer who come down the trail from the ridge and who leave their calling cards in the soft mud of the courtyard.
Then as we circle the house we note the wasp’s nest under the eaves which explains why Mother was so plagued in the guest room last summer. In the bittersweet over the screen door is the nest of the most stubborn robin we have ever known. She built it three springs ago before we arrived, and ever since has made us feel that we are the intruders. The door, which is on a spring, has annoyed her constantly: I should think her brood would be a nervous outfit but this is where she wants them. As we unlock the stone-cold living room (is anything so grimly cold as an unoccupied house?), we see that the squirrels have renewed their winter sport of unstuffing the old red leather chair whose dents have already provided them with nest-lining.
In the dense thicket below the living-room windows was where “Raccy” lived. Two summers ago in the early morning hours we heard through our sleep the clanging-to of the iron cover of our underground garbage container, and in the day light was the clear evidence that someone was helping himself. A smart dog, we thought. The visitor, growing bolder, came earlier until one night my wife stationed herself behind the door with a flashlight. When the lid clanged she darted out on the back porch and aimed the beam at the bin. Nothing was there. She covered every shadow within the enclosure — the place was deserted; and as she raised the light to go in, there on the top of the fence four feet away sat a big raccoon, smiling, his tail gently weaving. We put this on a friendly footing: our next step was to leave things for him.
This summer Raccy came at dusk. There is a small window at the midpoint of our cellar stairs, and sitting there in the fading light we could watch him get his paws under the lid and then brace with his hindquarters as he forced his head in; he’d take his time choosing and then in a whisk he’d be gone and the lid would fall. Once he came in broad daylight; and being detected, he scooted for cover behind the fence—all but his bushy tail, which was in full view. In his hurry he had dropped the fat he was carrying. As this was pointed out to him his tail acknowledged our trust. He emerged into full view, came up to the steps, retrieved his dainty with a bland expression, and streaked across the lawn to disappear in the thicket.
That was the last we saw of him. We heard him once or twice, but now it was a habit. Then silence. The final explanation my wife listened to in the village drugstore. “I trapped three raccoon last week.”“What sex were they?" asked the clerk. “I didn’t bother.”
On these border days no expedition is complete until we’ve climbed the trail to the ridge and entered the silence of the pines. The aisles are so clear, the quiet so secure, you think you might detect those who live here. This is where the chicken hawk takes refuge in July, when the smaller birds gang up on him: then we hear his rusty “creek” of indignation; this is where the owls proclaim; but on a half-winter’s day you see only the cleft rocks, the natural dens, the small burrows which might have been home place. Years ago when Ted was ten, he was scouting ahead and came to an earth tunnel that looked interesting. Big enough to put his hand down it, and he did. Whoever was there bit. Ted came running back to us holding out his forefinger with its two red incisions. “Animals are ray friends,” he sobbed.


There are so many questions about the animal world for which one would like a plausible explanation. Do trout and salmon distinguish the colors in a fly? John Hutton, the great English angler, thinks they do, and his favorite flies all have blue in them. Again, on Sunday afternoon the crows were having a most talkative session over something in the swamp. But do they really talk? Alan Devoe, who is certainly one of the most charming naturalists I have ever read, has prepared his new book for just such curiosity. This Fascinating Animal World (McGraw-Hill, $3.75) equates lively observation and human reasoning with curious facts of animal behavior. He calls his process “ animalizing,”and I find it great fun.
His method is to ask a question we have all wondered about and then to follow it afield. “Why do birds sing?” he asks. That leads to an examination of a bird’s windpipe, then to an identification of bird vocabulary, then to a discussion of whether they prefer to pour it out from the treetops or on the ground. The wood thrush, he reminds us, will sing his evening song after foraging over a lawn; and as he says so, back comes my earliest memory of that beautiful sound. On another brisk page he gets to talking about the speed of animals: a jack rabbit, he says, can hit forty-five miles an hourso can a startled buck; a charging lion can get up to fifty; and the fastest animal of all is a cheetah, which has been stop-watched at seventy. He writes a minute account of a chipmunk’s comings and goings; he explains the porcupines’ passion for salt and how they will chew up a sweaty ax handle for the trace of salt that is in it. I like his rationalization about snakes, and I think I like best the opening pages where he explores the evidence of animal suffering and where he has such pleasurable things to say about the mating and courtship of the highest and most familiar animals. His accounts of the enticement of the female gnu, the giraffe, and the llama are laughable; the tigers, as he tells it, have the greatest intensity in their love-making. Mr. Devoe’s information is graphic and wisely related, a quiet stimulant for any age as one waits for the coming spring.
Curiosity about wild life and an instinctive desire to paint inspired those two great books, the Quadrupeds and the Birds by John James Audubon, which when they first appeared were valued quite as much for their identification as for their art. Audubon’s youth at Mill Grove near Philadelphia where he trained his hand, his impecunious marriage to Lucy Bakewell, the middle years when hestruggled so hard to be free, and his long-anticipated expedition to the Upper Missouri, on which he made so many of the famous paintings of the quadrupeds, have been nicely told by Alice Ford in her handsome compilation, Audubon’s Animals (Studio-Crowell, $12.50), a beautifully illustrated volume which sets the record clear and which brings to light a number of unknown originals.

The decline of Mr. Wog

In the years following the First World War Joyce Cary, now successfully established as a novelist, was stationed in Africa as an officer of the British Colonial Service. In this experience he found the source material for one of his best novels, Mister Johnson (Harper, $3.00). Mister Johnson is a warmhearted African clerk who has left the jungle to serve with the British administration. His figuring is not too scrupulous; his badge of office is his pair of patent-leather shoes which he wears more often around his neck than on his feet. He has many creditors, for he cannot resist spending; he is cocky, reckless, and seventeen.
For a time Mister Johnson lives a charmed life. He engages in a successful dicker for his beautiful wife Bamu, and the song which he improvises, “ Dat King of England is my King . . .”in celebration is a thing of beauty. He persuades the administrator to give him a salary advance and with it buys an extravagant dress for his bride which she will not wear. The world is so full of promise that Mister Johnson can resist the bribes of the Waziri who wants him to rifle the safe. But not for long. His debts pile up and in desperation the boy, knife in hand, steals into the administrator’s office for the confidential files. Mister Johnson s official life and the story might have ended there, but he gets away with it. With the bribe money he is off to a fresh start, and when a young administrator with an obsession for road building takes command of Fada, Mister Johnson has another chance for his initiative. His tragedy is that he can never keep out of trouble. His spending, his generosity, and his boasts entrap him; and after his assault on Sergeant Gollup, Mister Johnson is on his way out. His romance has turned into tragedy, and the final stages of his defeat are humiliating and pathetic.
This book is written to disturb, not to decide. It is disturbing to see how Blore, Rudbeck, and Tring, the Hritish officers, administer the native community of Fada, and equally disturbing to see the ignorance and cupidity with which Mister Johnson -Mr. Wog as he is endearingly nicknamed by one of the English wives — betrays both himself and the system. As the novelist says, Mister Johnson is “a poet who creates for himself a glorious destiny.” The pity of it is that he falls so short. His songs and his dancing when the beer is flowing, the charm with which he helps to snarl up the account books, the recklessness with which he sweeps aside his friend Benjamin’s caution, his dream of England learned in the Mission School — these we remember as we last see Mr. Wog on his knees.

Democracy at its best

Denmark Is a Lovely Land (Harcourt, Brace, $4.75) is the first line of the Danish national anthem and, in Hudson Strode’s words, proof that the Danes of today are an admirable, versatile democracy. Mr. Strode has made excursions to the Country both before and after the war and so is able to compare current conditions with those of 1939, reporting with the satisfaction of an old friend that despite “the five damn years” of occupation, the loss of Germany as a market, and the poverty of England (Denmark’s largest consumer of exports and just now a rather unprofitable customer), the Danes have lost none of their good humor and highly civilized outlook. He makes the reader share both this liking and his indignation that these kindly and intelligent people should be caught in the squeeze of international economy.
Mr. Strode covers the pleasures (and they are impressive) of Copenhagen and the beautiful landscape of Fyn; he describes the private industries and the coöperatives and the remarkable system of pensions and medical insurance. He meets and talks with Danes of all ages and most levels — farmers, fishermen, businessmen, hard-working country nobility, artists, and teachers. He makes you appreciate the Denmark of Hans Christian Andersen, Kierkegaard, Niels Bohr, and Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa and Seven Gothic Tales, whose portrait is the best in the book.

The adventure of archaeology

Archaeology, the treasure hunt of the ages, is the most adventurous of modern sciences, and it is a fact that the most dramatic discoveries have been achieved quite as often by intelligent laymen like the American consul, Thompson of Chichén-Itzá, as by the more strictly professional scientists in the field. This is the story, the very human story, which C. W. Ceram has fairly assimilated and skillfully told in his well-illustrated, fascinating book, Gods, Graves, and Scholars (Knopf, $5.75).
Here are the spectacular, unorthodox exploits of Heinrich Schliemann, who in defiance of scholarship insisted on following the clues in Homer and by so doing uncovered the nine cities of Troy, the royal tombs of Mycenae, and the dead city of Tiryns. Here is the story of the French physician Paul Émile Botta, the French consul in Mosul, who discovered the first Assyrian palace of Nineveh. Here are Grotefend, who cracked the cuneiform writing on the Babylonian tablets; Major Rawlinson, the young diplomat who deciphered Nebuchadnezzar’s “dictionary”; and Austen Henry Layard, who at twenty-eight, and with the backing of £60 and a friendly tribe, excavated the great mound of Nimrud. The book highlights the dramatic events of archaeology, but it seldom makes you feel the prodigious energy involved (the statement “Schliemann’s workers had moved more than 325,000 cubic yards of earth” does not convey the exhaustion); and it minimizes the really bitter opposition, at times almost amounting to official censorship, which the divine amateurs encountered in the academic world. What the book does give you in its swift and readable pace is the almost incredible adventure which the nineteenth century afforded to those who were seeking for the past.