Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Spring of the Year, by Dallas Lore Sharp (Book Review)

By Anne White

After a winter like we've had, browsing through an online book called The Spring of the Year sounded like a tonic for the dirty snow banks still heaped outside my window.  For some reason, the author's excitement over his blossoming shad bush got my curiosity up too.  What is a shad bush, and do we have any around here?  A few minutes of Internet searching came up with other names--service berry, bilberry, Saskatoon--Saskatoon? like the Saskatoon berries out west?  Gotcha.  And there were some photographs of white flowering trees, plus the assurance that yes, serviceberries (or shad bush as the author called it) certainly do grow in Ontario.  After beating back the usual guilty I-didn't-teach-that-to-my-kids reaction, I kept reading and recognized many of  the bird and plant names--just not, in most cases, their faces.  Violets and dandelions we get in abundance, right in our yard; but to see bloodroot and trilliums, you have to put your boots on, so to speak, and go out to the woods.  We see robins every day, sometimes cardinals and jays, crows, flickers in fall--but bluebirds?  I never see them in my own neighbourhood.  More Internet and local-bird-guide searching...yes, there are bluebirds, and warblers, and Brown Thrashers.  I suddenly found myself picking my husband's brains for likely trails and parks...and this was just after reading the first chapter.

Early in the last century, Brown University professor Dallas Lore Sharp had begun publishing collections of his nature essays, such as The Lay of the Land.  A number of those same essays were then re-used in a series of seasonal books, with extra practical material aimed at young students.  Although I don't have any of the actual details on how that happened, I can imagine Professor Sharp's editor (in a collar up to his chin) coming over one day, maybe having to wait while Sharp returned from the woods, and launching the idea he'd had to boost sales: a new series, aimed at schools.  I imagine him saying something like, "You won't really have to do all that much work...we can re-use a lot of your earlier stuff, with a little editing here and there...we just want you to come up with some hands-on ideas for the nature clubs, maybe a couple of extra chapters in each book.  Oh, and some notes for teachers would be good.  What do you think?"

Not so surprisingly, Sharp agreed.  More surprisingly, these books do not read like re-packaged adult material with a few sidebars for the children (as might have happened with other writers).   Knowing their previous publishing history does explain their slightly episodic format; that is, why they aren't necessarily books you must read through from beginning to end, no skipping.  But that's almost a contemporary approach, isn't it?--seeing each of the volumes as a sort of nature package, that can be unpacked at different points.  Each of the four volumes in the series has "Things to See" and "Things to Do" chapters interspersed with essays. A teacher or homeschooling parent might read or assign the essays, but present the hands-on material in a less formal way, using Sharp's suggestions as a basis for field study.  There was just one chapter in Spring of the Year that I did not like as much, or rather, I felt my squeamish student might not appreciate, about predators and prey, and whether small animals experience a "life of fear."

These are not books that will give you detailed information about exactly where to find bobolinks, or what colour certain types of eggs are; they are meant more to get the reader excited about discovering nature in his own region.  Of course, since Sharp lived in New England, most of the plants and animals he describes are native to the northeastern United States, and, to some extent, to the surrounding areas such as southern Ontario.  I found that most of the birds mentioned in the Spring volume also appeared in our local nature guides, as did several of the wild flowers such as Jack-in-the-Pulpit.  That doesn't mean they're in every back yard, just that if you live in the northern hemisphere, east of the Rockies, and if you put a bit of effort in, you might have a chance of seeing them.

The lists of things to see, do, and listen for in spring are useful, and sometimes humorous, such as "listen for grass growing.". In fact, that's one of Dallas Lore Sharp's strong points: besides being practical, his style is friendly and not overly serious.  These are good books for families to read together, and then to go out, find things, draw them, write them down.  You can start any place in the series, but Spring seems like a particularly nice opening point.  Go find a shad bush, or whatever marks the seasonal turning point for you; start there, and then use Sharp's "bucket lists" (or make your own), and enjoy the spring together.

(Scanned and plain-text versions of Sharp's nature books are available on various websites including Project Gutenberg.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Dallas Lore Sharp on the problems of nature writing

"Insincerity is the mother of all the literary sins. If the writer cannot be true to himself, he cannot be true to anything. Children are the particular victims of the evil. How often are children spoken to in baby-talk, gush, hollow questions, and a condescension as irritating as coming teeth! They are written to, also, in the same spirit....

"Just as strong to the story-writer is the temptation to blacken the shadows of the picture—to make all life a tragedy. Here on my table lies a child’s nature-book every chapter of which ends in death—nothing but struggle to escape for a brief time the bloody jaws of the bigger beast—or of the superior beast, man. 

"Neither extreme is true of nature. Struggle and death go on, but, except where man interferes, a very even balance is maintained, peace prevails over fear, joy lasts longer than pain, and life continues to multiply and replenish the earth. 'The level of wild life,' to quote my words from 'The Face of the Fields,' 'of the soul of all nature is a great serenity. It is seldom lowered, but often raised to a higher level, intenser, faster, more exultant.'

"This is a divinely beautiful world, a marvelously interesting world, the best conceivable sort of a world to live in, notwithstanding its gypsy moths, tornadoes, and germs, its laws of gravity, and of cause and effect; and my purpose in this series of nature books is to help my readers to come by this belief. A clear understanding of the laws of the Universe will be necessary for such a belief in the end, and with the understanding a profound faith in their perfect working together. But for the present, in these books of the Seasons, if I can describe the out of doors, its living creatures and their doings, its winds and skies with their suggestions—all of the out of doors, as it surrounds and supports me here in my home on Mullein Hill, Hingham, so that you can see how your out of doors surrounds and supports you, with all its manifold life and beauty, then I have done enough. If only I can accomplish a fraction of this I have done enough." --Dallas Lore Sharp, from the introduction to The Fall of the Year, 1911. 

(AO curriculum users who have read Year Seven's natural history option Lay of the Land will be familiar with Dallas Lore Sharp.  Stay tuned for a review of his seasonal nature books -- Anne White.)