Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In the October Moon, by Dallas Lore Sharp

Dallas Lore Sharp (1870-1929) was an American nature writer and a professor of English at Boston University.  His 1908 book The Lay of the Land is considered a landmark in the American conservation movement.  His books were very popular, and were prescribed reading in some elementary schools.  His writing is beautiful.  It expresses all the wonder of moonlit nights and chilly mornings, and the thrill of new discoveries.  When he writes about animals, he sympathizes with them without anthropomorphising them.  They are fellow travelers due respect.

The essay "In the October Moon" is included in his book Wild Life Near Home, published in 1901.  John Burroughs said of the book "of all the nature books of recent years, I look upon Mr. Sharp's as the best." Excerpts from this book were collected in a small volume called A Watcher in the Woods, published in 1910 and intended for schoolchildren.  My copy of the latter book has, stamped in light blue ink on its title page, the words "Prescribed for eighth grade reading in the 1910 syllabus of the New York State Dept. of Education".  

Several people have owned the book before me.  Written on its pages is the name of someone who called himself "Junior" in 1913, then seems to have decided to call himself "Jimmy" in 1914.  These are written in indigo ink, in much better handwriting than mine, but a little awkwardly by the high standards of the time.  There's also a (later?) name, written lightly in pencil, of a lady named Elizabeth.  These are the things that change a book from a document into an artifact.

I pick this book up and read it again and again.  It's comfortable reading that soothes, and puts everything back into its proper place.  It's also appropriate reading for the current season.  I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I have. 

You'll notice that even then, in 1901, Sharp was bemoaning the demise of the wilderness.  The growing suburbs were already eating up the wild places, replacing them with something more refined.

Here are a few excerpts from "In the October Moon" to whet your appetite:
"The Harvest Moon", by Currier and Ives
"An October night, calm, crisp, and moonlit! There is a delicate aroma from the falling leaves in the air, as sweet as the scent of freshfilled haymows. The woods are silent, shadowy, and sleepful, lighted dimly by the moon, as a vague, happy dream lights the dark valley of our sleep. Dreamful is this night world, but yet not dreaming. When, in the highest noon, did every leaf, every breeze, seem so much a self, so full of ready life?"
"...[P]rotected by the dark, the shy and suspicious creep out of their hiding-places ; they travel along the foot-paths, they play in the wagon-roads, they feed in our gardens, and I have known them to help themselves from onr chicken-coops. If one has never haunted the fields and woods at night he little knows their multitude of wild life. Many a hollow stump and uninteresting hole in the ground—tombs by day—give up their dead at night, and something more than ghostly shades come forth."
"... Our forests by daylight are rapidly being thinned into picnic groves; the bears and panthers have disappeared, and by day there is nothing to fear, nothing to give our imaginations exercise. But the night remains, and if we hunger for adventure, why, besides the night, here is the skunk; and the two offer a pretty sure chance for excitement. Never to have stood face to face in a narrow path at night with a full-grown, leisurely skunk is to have missed excitement and suspense second only to the staring out of countenance of a green-eyed wildcat. It is surely worth while, in these days of parks and chipmunks, when all stir and adventure has fled the woods, to sally out at night for the mere sake of meeting a skunk, for the shock of standing before a beast that will not give you the path."
"... Our eyes were made for daylight; but I think if the anatomists tried they might find the rudiments of a third, a night eye, behind the other two."
"... Albeit, let us stay at home and sleep when there is no moon; and even when she climbs up big and round and bright, there is no surety of a fruitful excursion before the frosts fall. In the summer the animals are worn with home cares and doubly wary for their young ; the grass is high, the trees dark, and the yielding green is silent under even so clumsy a crawler as the boxturtle. But by October the hum of insects is stilled, the meadows are mown, the trees and bushes are getting bare, the moon pours in unhindered, and the crisp leaves crackle and rustle under the softest-padded foot."

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