Natural Observers: Susan Fenimore Cooper, Mary Hunter Austin, and Nan Shepherd

By Karen Wills

Nature writing reaches my heart. It does that through poetic, detailed description of an outdoor setting. In the last months I’ve read three wonderful books by women nature writers. Let’s consider them from earliest to most recent.

Susan Fenimore Cooper,cooper James Fenimore Cooper’s daughter, founded an orphanage in Cooperstown, New York, a town established by her grandfather. She made a success of the enterprise in every way. In 1887 she also wrote Rural Hours, nature writing that covered a year in Cooperstown season by season. Much of it appeared as journal entries recorded after walks that ranged over the countryside. Both writer and artist, she also made watercolors of birds, coopers birdflowers, animals, and the lake near the town that drew her to its shores over and over. Her writing was accurate and poetic.  “Spring has a delicate pencil; no single tree, shrub, plant, or weed, is left untouched by her, but Autumn delights rather in the breadth and grandeur of her labors, she is careless of details. Spring works lovingly-Autumn, proudly, magnificently.”

Already sorry for the damage caused by the post Civil War increase in America’s population, she also conveyed a warning familiar to modern conservationists. “The rapid consumption of the large pine timber among us should be enough to teach a lesson of prudence and economy on the subject.”

Mary Hunter Austin wrote a collection of nature essays, The Land of Little Rain, in 1903. mary austinShe focused on the Mojave Desert including Death Valley. She considered Nature as an entity with a beneficial connection to Native peoples and recent arrivals alike. She mixed small matters of opinion in with the big themes.  “This is the gilia the children call ‘evening snow’ and it is no use trying to improve on children’s names for wildflowers.” She is poetic. “The origin of mountain streams is like the origin of tears, patent to the understanding but mysterious to the sense.”

Finally, there’s Nan Shepherd who wrote her best-known work, The Living Mountain, with a mountaineer’s authenticity. nan shephardHer setting is the Cairngorm Mountains of Northern Scotland. Writing in 1944, she shared her belief in nature’s grand unity. “The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird—all are one.”

Each of these writers had a poetic respect and thorough knowledge of her most favored area of the natural world. We are the richer that each shared her love of nature with us.

https://karenwills.com

Face Book: Karen Wills Author

Advertisements

A FLYING LOVE AFFAIR

Just as I hate spiders, I love birds.  Big birds, little ones, noisy ones, quiet ones, most birds.  I love to see them flying, and envy their extreme athleticism, their amazing ability to navigate through the air, their dance in concert in the air.  How do they do that?

If we could reincarnate as an animal, I’d pick a bird.  Let’s see, a vulture, maybe not, considering their icky diet.  A fierce eagle, or hawk, yeah that might do, though still not the favorite diet.  Their death-defying dives are wonderful, though, the stuff of legends.  I really like robins, too, how they pair up and stay together, and their odd song is always recognizable.  The males declare their territory every morning and night, flitting from tree to tree to outline what they claim.

No chickens for a do-over—they usually don’t have a good ending. Turkeys, either, and domestic turkeys are just about the dumbest animal alive.  If you leave them outside in the rain, they’ll drown because they don’t know enough to hold their head down.

Finches are the racers, the remarkable speedy fliers who whiz so fast into the juniper tree in my yard that I can’t tell what they are.  This summer, one has been tearing into the tree, then it sits and calls out, maybe looking for a mate to join it?  Haven’t heard it lately, it must have gotten lucky.

Last year, I had an old birdhouse sitting on a pole stuck in the ground in front of my porch.  A cute pair of chickadees took up residence, with Momma cleaning house by hammering the floor, and Daddy keeping watch.  The next morning, the floor of the little house had been hammered in two, and the whole shebang had fallen onto the bushes below.  The chickadees were gone, probably traumatized.

Ravens and magpies are the sociable fliers, unless you’re a cat. They’ll sit on the roof above a cat and yell at it for hours, until the cat finally gives up trying to make one lunch and saunters off.  Their calls are different, the raven shouting all their communication so loud they can be heard almost a mile away.  The magpie has a scritchy voice, and they are just as good a scold as their cousins.  I think magpies know they are beautiful, prettier than the ravens, but smaller, and smart enough to stay away from the bigger guys.  Ravens, crows, magpies, can all do human talk if taught.  Imagine that, they can talk our language, and we can’t talk theirs.

The little water ouzel can walk on the bottom of a creek, snagging bugs from the rocks.  Montana creeks are mostly clear, and I love to watch as they bob along, able to withstand the fastest water.

A meadowlark has come to live near me this summer, and I whistle at it, copying its great song.  When I whistle, there is a pause, like the bird is thinking, ‘What the heck is that?’, then it replies, but with a much prettier riff than mine.  I’ve had conversations with meadowlarks since I was a girl and had taught myself to whistle.

And there’s a mourning dove, too, its sad call following as I go about my business.  I think it’s alone; usually there are two, mourning together in perfect harmony.   Sometimes, they make me cry.

My least favorite bird is the killdeer, they are constant in their noise and their irritating run in front of you, faking a hurt wing, trying to lead you away from their babies, even if the babies are hundreds of yards away.  They screech even at night, preferring the spot under my open window to declare themselves to the world, make their paranoia evident.  They sure are pretty, though.

Pheasants are pleasant.  (Sorry.)  They have a barnyard call, similar to a rooster, though wild and untamable.  I love to see them beside the road or in a field, their feathers shimmer with color, and they strut like the world is theirs.

The perfect sparrows zip through the air in the evening, ridding our world of mosquitoes, thanks.  I think they probably have a contest every night to see who can catch the most bugs.  They use mud and straw to build houses on the bottom of eaves or on cliffs, an engineering marvel.

Bluebirds, red-winged blackbirds, wrens, emus, ostriches, blue jays, ducks, geese, parrots, etc., etc.  If it has wings and flies, I’m all for it. Think of that,–they fly through the air with the greatest of ease, a medium not known for its support.  And don’t get me started on their side-to-side clown walks.  I’m pretty sure they know I’m laughing when I see one struggling along, rocking like a clown.

Nan McKenzie