The Peripatetic Reviewer
WE WERE on our way to Plum Island for what was perhaps my last visit of the year, and almost certainly the boy’s last until he returns from the Army. The sunlight had that hazy, suspended beauty of the late autumn, prompting you to take a good look while it lasts, and as we drove we noted as one does the new things that are always changing the familiar: here on Heartbreak Road is the new wayside stand where we found the best sweet corn in the summer: we passed the famous blueberry moors that have been so barren this year because of the spring frost; we noticed the dying elms on the Rowley Green and wondered if maples would be planted in their stead, and as we crossed over the span of the Rowley River, we saw that the tide was almost high and, judging from the pull on the buoys, coming in strong. Now our gaze was to the east, to the tawny marshes with the white-topped sand dunes marking the far barrier against the Atlantic. That is where we would be in another fifteen minutes, but first we paused at the Sportsmen’s Rest, not for a beer, but to hear if they had had any word about the stripers.
The bartender referred us to two customers in long-billed caps. “It’s a sheer gamble now,” they said. “Last we heard of were taken early Sunday morning out of the surf by the old Coast Guard station. Small ones, school fish.” That’s where we intended to go anyway, and the native skepticism was usual.
The white road which leads into the Parker River Refuge took us six miles down the sandy thumb. We met the warden driving out and hailed hint. “Anybody doing business at Big Sandy, or the Station?” we asked. “Haven’t seen a fish or a fisherman. You’ll have it all to yourselves.” So in time we parked, and with the long glass rod and our bag of plugs climbed through our favorite gap in the dunes.
At the high point you pause to take it all in: the nine-mile crescent of immaculate beach, the sandy parapet built up by the last flood tide, and below that the wet brown ocean floor and the breakers. We looked for feeding gulls and found them, a small cluster inshore but far down toward the point, and closer, to the north of us but half a mile out, a rowdy colony of others. They were settling on the water when we arrived, but a minute later they were dispersed and in flight, and now we saw why, for they were hunting over a mile-long reef of feeding fish. Here, far, far beyond our reach, were the stripers we had come for, an enormous school of them whose presence darkened the water with a slight riffle and whose pursuit drove to the surface the little fish the gulls Were swooping for. The gannets plummeted straight down from fifty or sixty feet, the sunset on their wings, and they hit the water like a shellburst. We began laying out a tinclad as far as we could cast on the chance that a truant from the school might have wandered inshore. But reason told us they were hopelessly out of reach. Meantime we watched the geysers of water that flashed again and again in the far sunlight over that incredible reef.
In this hour it was our luck to be spectators. We saw cormorants riding the water as stolidly as tugs, and in another instant gone from view. We saw four white-winged scoters evenly spaced jetting their way south in their low undeviating flight; a scurry of sanderlings landed beside us for their twinkling, inquisitive business at the water’s edge. I whistled, and the flock rose, took protective shape, veered away, and then settled right back again. The shellbursts continued far out in the fading light, and then as I lifted my gaze I saw coming toward us the ever-changing, unmistakable V of the Canada goose and heard at the same instant the creak and honking of their intercom. The first flight numbered twenty-five and was so low that we could mark and listen to the leader. Necks outthrust, white cheeks showing, the wingbeat so powerful, so regular, they came in right over us and then broke formation to mingle and form up with a much larger flight that had been following. Then, still in a V, they angled away from the ocean to the security of the bay, where — did they know it? — no shooting is permitted. Now the light and the flood tide were gone, and it was time for us to head for home. Fishing is not always for fish, as we have cause to know, and there is a retentive beauty about these last hours of the open months. On the way out the boy picked up a giant clamshell as white and unblemished as if it had come from the carver’s hand. It will remind us.
MAN AND NATURE
In the great days of sound effects, one of the most amiable and knowledgeable voices on the air was that of JOHN KIERANof Information Please. A veteran newspaperman who had risen to he sports editor of the New York Times, John Kieran brought to Information Please a spritely and encyclopedic memory. He had an enormous zest for the world about him, and he remembered the details because he enjoyed knowing. Now from his home base at Rockport, Massachusetts, he reads and writes as he pleases, and out of such cogitation has come JOHN KIERAN’S TREASURY OF GREAT NATURE WRITING (Doubleday, $4.95), a book full of entertainment and edification for those who value wild places and the wildlife therein.
The best anthologies follow a clearly discernible pattern and are bound together by sinews of the editor’s devising. The pattern of this book is to present sixty prose selections touching “many aspects of Nature and varied departments of Natural History,”Mr. Kieran has been skillful in placing those authors who are time-honored beside those who most certainly come as a discovery, and the medley has then been woven together into closer affiliation by Mr. Kieran’s deft and delightful thumbnail sketches of his fellow naturalists.
However familiar the names may look, one will always take away something fresh from reading Thorcau’s reflections at Walden, or Gilbert White at Selborne, or “A Rural Ride” by William Cobbett, or John James Audubon on “The Passenger Pigeon.” Here are some of the Atlantic classics: Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “Dissertation on New England Elms”; Tom Barbour’s hilarious account of “The Glory Hole” in Salem; and “Turtle Eggs for Agassiz” by Dallas Lore Sharp. Then there are the discoveries: Edwin Way Teale’s brilliant and perceptive paper, “Winged Bullets,” on the dragonfly; or Archie Carr’s experience in seeking to solve “The Riddle of the Ridley” (“the
most mysterious air-breathing animal in North America”); or Joseph Wood Krutch on “The Contemplative Toad,” a chapter which should be dedicated to my friend David McCord, who, when the fishing is slack, has had more amusing byplay with toads and frogs than any other man I know.
Two of my special favorites I do not find here: Wyman Richardson on Nauset Marsh and Roy Bedichek, the expressive Texan naturalist who has been fighting so hard to preserve the whooping crane. But no anthology cart hold everything, and this one is rich and copious and the more endearing for the lyrics Mr. Kieran has included, as well as for his introductions to writers like W. H. Hudson, Henry Boston, and John Muir. This book is a monument to those twin powers of observation and description which every great naturalist must possess.
PARIS AND OXFORD
LUDWIG BEMELMANS delights us all by writing about the succulence of life: he has an exquisite palate for wine and food, he enjoys the caprice of a woman quite as much as her beauty, and his heroes, whether they be a South American general or a French nobleman, are so rich that they can indulge the most extravagant whim. The hero of his newest romance, THE WOMAN OF MY LIFE (Viking, $3.50), Armand, Due de MontfortLamoury, is a bachelor who has inherited property in England, America, Poland, Belgium, and the Belgian Congo.
His father was a rake, and in rebellion against his cynicism, Armand, who has a nicety the elder never possessed, determined to shun women and to make himself as inconspicuous as a man of his great wealth could possibly be. His story comes to us in the form of a memoir which he inscribes during a mild prison term. In this reverie he re-examines the women from whose charms he has escaped and compares them with his present and constant flame, a young American girl with lovely legs whose administrative ability was acquired at the Harvard Business School. Her protective instincts were aroused when the two of them were evicted from the Royal Grand Large in Montparnasse, and in her direct way she decides she will manage him for life. Whether she will enjoy the Due’s insouciance, his delectable philosophy, and Gallic shrewdness as much as the reader does is a question.
I am a divided jury about A CUP OF TEA FOR MR. THOUGILL (Harper, $3.50), STORM JAMESON’S new novel. This is the subtle, skeptical story of how Communism insinuates itself into the cultivated upper levels of an Oxford college. The Master, suave and indolent in his aristocratic tyranny, is immune; so too is the Senior Tutor, Henry Gurney, who has thrown away his ambitions after his wife was killed in the Blitz and whose ironic honesty has the edge to cut through the most difficult situations. Henry is the central and most appealing figure in the book, and it is his acumen which triggers the detection.
The story comes to us mostly in dialogue, which Miss Jameson handles with great deftness, and the talk throughout is flavored with that rudeness, malice, and denegation with which the English enjoy scalping one another. One is aware at all times of the social stratification, and the author takes a kind of quiet glee in the breakdown of Nevil Rigden, the self-made scholar, up from the laboring class, who turns informer. Nevil’s selfdoubt and humiliation, like Gurney’s grief, come close to being the real thing, but the mystery which Miss Jameson is never able to explain is what Nevil did with his common sense when he joined the Party and what possible motives his benefactor, the immaculate Tom Paget, could have had in showing him the way.
THE “OLD FARMER’S ALMANAC”
“Sagacious, predictable, and beloved": those three words sum up the career of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, now in its 166th year of continuous publication. And they might indeed have been its epitaph had the publication not fallen into the hands of a New Hampshire Yankee who possesses the self-same gumption as its founder. When ROBB SAGENDORPH took over the Almanac in 1940, the circulation had slipped to less than 100,000 copies. Today it is over a million and still growing. From its present and old issues Mr. Sagendorph has now compiled THE OLD FARMER’S ALMANAC SAMPLER (Ives Washburn, $5.00). He has selected an assortment of items — several hundred in number —ranging from weather forecasts to recipes (how to make onion sauce, clam chowder, cabbage salad, Yankee plum pudding); hints on health and thrift; jokes — some good, some archaic; serious tips on farming and animal husbandry; “entertaining matter,” such as the revival from frozen death of six persons in Montpelier, Vermont; the account of the great black blizzard of March 31, 1955; or how Bud Fisher published the first American comic strip in 1907. Best of all, there are aphorisms with an American twist and tang. For example: “It is with narrow-souled people as with narrow-necked bottles — the less they have in them, the more noise they make in pouring it out” (1803); “The only way for a man to escape being found out is to pass for what he is” (1858). A book to be nibbled at, quoted, and remembered.