Sunday, July 13, 2014

Rereading Laura Ingalls Wilder - as a Birder

I happily read Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series at least a couple of times as a kid and again as my children got to suitable ages. Recently, having encouraged Dave to read them since he never had, I picked them up again myself.

I find myself reading the story of this sturdy, closely knit pioneer family's travels and travails in the last quarter of the 19th century with new eyes -- the eyes of a birdwatcher, aspiring naturalist and conservationist who newly understands the role that grasslands have played in the North American circle of life and the sad fact that we have been plowing up more and more of them -- starting in the very times of which she wrote -- until native grasslands are almost gone from huge areas of the U.S. landscape.

Though Wilder, with the help of her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, wrote these books decades after the times she describes, they are as close to a contemporary eyewitness perspective on the pioneer experience in those places and times as we have in our popular literature. While the focus of the stories is on family life, she captures a wonderful amount of detail of the world they inhabited.

1939 edition of By the Shores of Silver Lake,
illustrations by Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle
Photo credit: Bramblewood Fashion blog

Here is one passage, so evocative of the land and its wealth of bird life. Imagine yourself in Dakota Territory in about 1880, newly arrived in a railroad shanty town where your father has taken a temporary job as shopkeeper while your family looks for an ideal homesteading site. Almost 13 years old, you are exploring the lakeshore with your sisters on a summer afternoon:
Laura and Mary and Carrie walked slowly along on the green shore by the rippling silver-blue water, toward the wild Big Slough. The grasses were warm and soft to their feet. The wind blew their flapping skirts tight against their bare legs and ruffled Laura's hair. Mary's sunbonnet and Carrie's were tied firmly under their chins, but Laura swung hers by its strings. Millions of rustling grass-blades made one murmuring sound, and thousands of wild ducks and geese and herons and cranes and pelicans were talking sharply and brassily in the wind.
All those birds were feeding among the grasses of the sloughs. They rose on flapping wings and settled again, crying news to each other and talking among themselves among the grasses, and eating busily of grass roots and tender water plants and little fishes. 
The lake shore went lower and lower toward Big Slough, until really there was no shore. The lake melted into the slough, making small ponds surrounded by the harsh, rank slough grass that stood five and six feet tall. Little ponds glimmered between the grasses and on the water the wild birds were thick.
As Laura and Carrie pushed into the slough grasses, suddenly harsh wings ripped upward and round eyes glittered; the whole air exploded in a noise of squawking, quacking, quonking. Flattening their webbed feet under their tails, ducks and geese sped over the grass-tops and curved down to the next pond. ...
The soft, cool mud sucked around her ankles as she stood, and before her the little ponds glimmered among the tall grasses. She wanted to go on and on, into the slough among the wild birds, but she could not leave Mary and Carrie. So she turned back with them to the hard, higher prairie where waist-high grasses were nodding and bending in the wind, and the short, curly buffalo grass grew in patches.
Along the edge of the slough they picked flaming red tiger lilies, and on higher ground they gathered long branching stems of purple buffalo bean pods. Grasshoppers flew up like spray before their feet in the grasses. All kinds of little birds fluttered and flew and twittered balancing in the wind on the tall, bending grass stems, and prairie hens scuttled everywhere. 
A few weeks later, it's autumn:
The weather grew colder and the sky was full of wings and great birds flying. From East to West, from North to South, and as far up into the blue sky as eyes could see, were birds and birds and birds sailing on beating wings.
 At evening down they came endlessly from the sky, sliding down long slopes of air to rest on the water of Silver Lake.
There were great, gray geese. There were smaller, snow-white brant that looked like snow at the water's edge. There were ducks of many kinds, the large mallards with a shimmering of purple and green on their wings, the redheads, the bluebills, the canvasbacks, and teals and many others whose names Pa did not know. There were herons, and pelicans, and cranes. There were little mud-hens, and the small hell-divers [grebes -- I had to look that one up!] that peppered the water thickly with their little black bodies. When a shot cracked, hell-divers up-ended and vanished quicker than winking. They went far down in the water and stayed there a long time.
At sunset the whole large lake was covered with birds speaking in every kind of bird's voice to each other before they went to sleep for a night of rest on their long journey from north to south. The winter was driving them; the winter was coming behind them from the north.
-- By the Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder  (c) 1939, renewed 1967.
Wilder's writing puts you right there -- hearing the sounds of thousands of birds, and feeling the wind against your bare legs and the warm grass and soft mud under your bare feet. I'll leave you with those passages, for now, but I may be back with more. Though the books reflect some historical views on Native Americans by European settlers (held noticeably less by the main character, Laura, than by certain others around her) that can be disturbing from a modern perspective, they are well worth reading at any age.

Western Grebes, North Dakota 2014


Dan Tallman said...

In The Long Winter, if my memory serves me right, Ingalls reports an auk taking refuge in their barn during a South Dakota blizzard. The exact identity of this bird is unknown, but it may have been an Ancient Murrelet, which has since been added to the South Dakota list.

Jill said...

Well written, Penny >>> :-)<<< Memories of childhood and the summer reading program at the SF Public Library where we earned a gold star for every book we read. Reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder series was one of the highlights for me. Thank you for reminding me of what I saw (heard). I preferred the books to the TV series that came many years later and in fact saw very few episodes. Interesting about the illustrations. News to me.

Wayne said...

The Chicken Whisperer: Laura Ingalls Wilder and family authorship

A new essay about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Almanzo Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane, is now available as a Kindle E-Book!
Based on a scholarly paper written for University of Connecticut, author Wayne Jebian examines the roles played by Laura, her daughter, Rose, her husband, Almanzo, and her parents in the creation of the best-selling "Little House" series of books.