Wednesday, August 25, 2010

By This Wing: Letters by Celia Thaxter to Bradford Torrey about birds at the Isles of Shoals 1888 to 1894 Edited by Donna Marion Titus

Why I read it: Annual trips to the Isles of Shoals, and I lived at the time in the hometown of Bradford Torrey.

Summary: Pretty self-explanatory title! Celia lived at the Shoals part-time, and began a correspondence with fellow nature writer Torrey after finding a killdeer wing on the island. They maintained a correspondence until her death, never meeting face to face.

My Thoughts: What was Torrey's problem?

Bradford Torrey is certainly an interesting historical figure, one of the giants of 19th century American nature literature. Celia was right there with him, not nearly as prolific, but beloved for what she did write (An Island Garden, Among the Isles of Shoals, and numerous articles for popular magazines of the day). For parts of seven years they kept up their correspondence, trading copies of books, discussing birds and wildflowers, with Celia asking, pleading, eventually begging Torrey to make a visit to the Isles of Shoals off the Maine and New Hampshire coast. She begged until her final letter to him in 1894, less than a month before her death.

But Torrey never showed. Why?

He prided himself on his ambling, his Thoreau-like walking and appreciation of nature. Did he have a fear of boat travel? It's the only thing I can come up with. The Shoals are now, and have been for more than a century, a Mecca, a pilgrimage point for folks interested in history and nature, in spiritual rejuvenation. In other words, it was right up Torrey's alley. He lived in Weymouth, Massachusetts, three hours from the Shoals by boat (the town I live in now). She even sent him boat schedules, but no, he never appeared.

I guess to find my answer, I'll have to read the other side, find out more about the life of Torrey. I visit the Shoals annually, stand in Celia's Garden, which is still there, despite the fact her house is gone. Perhaps I'll find my answer there, but I think, instead, I'll find all the more reasons why he should have made the trip.


  1. Hello,
    Nice posting. I found it to be a very curious and sad relationship. My mother-in-law is the editor of this book. If any of your readers are interested in a copy of this book you can let us know. We have many unread brand new copies available. Donna will also sign the book as requested. Thanks.

  2. Hello and thanks so much - I'll certainly let folks know. Please tell your mother-in-law it's very well done, and that I read it in anticipation of leading a group of birdwatchers to Appledore. I actually just returned from the Shoals and had the opportunity to again walk the grounds and ruminate on Celia's life and times. What an amazing place. I'm so glad she shared so much of it with those who wanted to know about it.