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A NATURALIST GIVES AN OLD FARM

    “Where you stand,” Wendell Berry once wrote, “is what you stand for.”  No two people lived that truth to a greater degree than Edwin and Nellie Teale. The Teales bought an old farm in Hampton with the express idea of experiencing nature to the greatest degree possible within 150 miles of Manhattan.  They did this, not just for their own enjoyment, but for the purpose of awakening in others the ability to enjoy whatever is left of the natural world around them.

    Edwin Way Teale was a nature writer and photographer whose books were widely read in the 60s and 70s. The Teales sold their suburban Long Island home in 1959 and bought an old farm, a circa 1808 house in Hampton, up in Connecticut’s Quiet Corner. They named the place Trail Wood and spent the rest of their lives there, observing nature, making friends with their neighbors, learning about local history, and turning out a steady stream of books.  Edwin died in 1980.  When Nellie died in 1993, the house and 156 acres were gifted, as the Teales planned, to the Connecticut Audubon Society. The Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary is now open to the public every day of the year. The house acts as the office, with Edwin’s study kept just as he had it at the end of his life. During the spring and fall, Trail Wood is visited by many busloads of elementary schoolchildren and their teachers. Teale House
 The house at Trail Wood was built in 1808.
TealeEdwin Way Teale built this Summer House for his wife, Nellie, who enjoyed many hours there observing birds and other wildlife around Little Beaver Pond. In 2005 Joel Szarkowicz and other members of Boy Scout Troop 25 in Pomfret, CT made improvements to the Summer House as an Eagle Scout Service Project.
Even when busloads of kids are there it is easy to find solitude at Trail Wood, which contains more diverse terrain than you’re likely to see in any place its size, which has grown to 168 acres. If you’re in the mood for a big day-hike, the Air Line Trail, which follows the course of the old railroad that used to run from New York City to Boston, goes from Trail Wood eight miles directly into Audubon’s  702 acre Bafflin Sanctuary at Pomfret.     

    Sometime in the late 70s I came across a paperback copy of A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm, Teale’s account of his and Nellie’s first years at Trail Wood. It has remained one of my favorite books.  I love rereading passages like this one, about a tempestuous April night long ago:

    About seven o’clock, huddled in heavy clothing, I sought protection where the west wall joins the garage overlooking the pasture. The mercury stood at thirty-two degrees F. and gusts were reaching fifty miles an hour. Only a little past full, the moon spread its pale silvery light across the open fields and over the dark lashing tops of the trees. While I crouched there, over and over the woodcock climbed into the cold windswept sky, riding the great gusts, to come tumbling down again.  Two or three times during these storm flights, in momentary lulls of the pounding surf-roar of the gusts, amid all this tumult, my ears caught small tender fragments of its aerial song.

Teale
Edwin Way Teale's writing cabin at Trail Wood.
Teale
Little Beaver Pond. Summer House can be seen in the background.
    In 1990, I went to Trail Wood to interview Nellie and see the place for myself. According to the book, Nellie’s motto was “Go Slow and See More,” so I was expecting her to be a somewhat subdued, quiet person. To my surprise, she was as outgoing as can be. She talked enthusiastically about the birds, animals and plants around the house and out in the woods and fields, and her acerbic Irish wit bore down on the vagaries of human nature.While we were conversing at her kitchen table, I noticed what looked like a small diploma hanging in the middle of a group of photographs on the wall behind her. Later I had a chance to get a closer look at the document. It was the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, awarded to Edwin Way Teale for Wandering through Winter.  

    Teale had an organic view of human society and nature. He was interested in the history of his own house and of Hampton to exactly the same extent he was interested in the histories of the beaver and the quail. A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm is loaded with local folklore, including the story of “the litigious woman who, when told by an exasperated judge: ‘There is enough brass in your face, madam, to make a five-pail kettle,’ shot back:” ‘And enough sap in your head to fill it!’”  Teale was fascinated by the local tradition of independent crafts and arts. “A tradition of craftwork continues in the village into the present. Various homes produce ceramics, weaving, hand-crafted jewelry, candles of original design, and wooden toys.”  This is still true a half-century on.

   As much as I enjoyed reading him, I used to wonder how, with the world in chaos in the 60s and 70’, Teale could spend so much time counting chipmunk calls:

So far the all-time record is held by a chipmunk that inhabited a lichen-covered stone wall beyond Hampton Brook along the Old Woods Road.  Perched on top of this wall on an October day, it called 536 times before it fell silent only to begin again after no more than a minute or two.
    
    And then there was Teale’s discovery of a new fern in the shade of the lane beside the house.  “The total came to an incredible 2,972, all growing in a space less than 200 feet long.” Not approximately 3,000, but exactly 2,972. This counting of things was not done for any scientific project, but came out of a pure sense of awe and an agreement with Emerson that so much of nature that he was ignorant of, so much of his own mind he did not yet possess. By taking this stand, he gave the public, his heirs, a clearer idea than politics can of what’s at stake in the effort to preserve wildlife and wild lands.

Teale
The world of nature awaits you at Trail Wood Sanctuary. For more information, visit the Connecticut Audubon Society at Trail Wood – The Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary Web page



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