Why I read it: Torrey historically lived right down the street from where I resided at the time I read it.
Summary: A series of short essays on nature, set in New England.
My Thoughts: I travel Torrey Street, and pass Rambler Road, just across from the Bradford Torrey Bird Sanctuary, just about every day, but I dont think many people in his hometown know who he was.
I live in his hometown of W______, as he calls it in that sublimely Victorian style. He references it in the book, decribing his own property, a road that once wandered alongside a river to the sea, farmers' fields he traversed as a child in search of berries, and the wildlife - mostly the birds - that lived there and he knew well. But his wanderings took him, in this book, to the Green Mountains, the White Mountains, along the shorelines north of Boston, and more. His "lease," as he terms it, is a spiritual one, a self-proclaimed partial ownership of farms and forests he walks.
I usually escape books without too much introspection. But Torrey caught me.
"Some men (not many, it is hoped) are specialists, and nothing else. They are absorbed in farming, or shoemaking, in chemistry, or in Latin grammar, and have no thought for anything beyond or beside. Others of us, which there may be two or three subjects toward which we feel some special drawing, have nevertheless a general interest in whatever concerns humanity. We are different men on different days. There is a certain part of the year, say from April to July, when I am an ornithologist; for the time being, as often as I go out-of-doors, I have an eye for birds, and, comparativley speaking, for nothing else. Then comes a season during which my walks all take on a botanical complexion. I have had my turn at butterflies, also; for one or two summers I may be said to have seen little else but these winged blossoms of the air. I know, too, what it means to visit the seashore, and scarcely to notice the breaking waves because of the shells scattered along the beach...There are several men in me, and not more than one or two of them are ever at the window at once."
Yup, that's me. As a friend once said to me, "Specialization is for the weak!" (though I would never say so as harshly). One professor at my alma mater told me that if I didn't watch out with my varied interests, though, I'd suffer from pluralistic ignorance, and spend my life reading U.S. News and World Report. But there's more.
"How shall one blest with a feeling for the woods put into language the delight he experiences in sauntering along their shady aisles? He enjoys the stillness, the sense of seclusion, the flicker of sunlight and shadow, the rustle of leaves, the insect's hum, the passing of the chance butterfly, the chirp of the bird, or its full-voiced song, the tracery of lichens on rock and tree, the tuft of ferns, the carpet of moss, the brightness of blossom and fruit, - all the numberless sights and sounds of the forest; but it is not any of these, nor all of them together, that make the glory of the place. It is the wood - and this is something more than the sum of all its parts - which lays hold upon him, taking him, as it were, out of the world and out of himself."
I've done my share of walking (see my other blogs) and can say, using an oddly inapproriate euphemism, that Torrey hits the nail on the head. We, the wood saunterers, get lost, on purpose.
Torrey was one of the great American nature writers of the nineteenth century, behind Thoreau and Muir, but not many more. I've found a kindred soul in him so far; I'm looking forward to seeing what else he has to say, where else he went, and how far our kinship can reach.