Gavin Maxwell, who wrote a memorable bestseller about otters, Ring of Bright Water, managed to keep his background out of his books in a way that nature writers rarely do. He might mention some impractical commercial scheme he had undertaken, such as trying to restore the shark-fishing industry on an impoverished Scottish island, and he might describe with extreme care the inaccessible highland cottage where he has lived for 15 years, but as for personal revelations, he was excessively retiring.
He has now written a fine autobiographical volume, The House of Elrig (Dutton, $5.95), which explains with pained embarrassment and prose of distinction that he really had nothing to hide. It is gradually wrenched out of him that his grandfather was the celebrated naturalist and politician Sir Herbert Maxwell. His father was a sportsman and soldier killed by the first shell of a bombardment three hours after landing in France in October 1914. The boy grew up surrounded by animals and an affectionate family in Elrig, an immense house his parents had built in a wild and rough tract of Monreith, which the Maxwells had owned since 1482. Gavin read all the animal books of Ernest Thompson Seton by the time he was 8. He had a pet heron he raised himself and a pet owl that rode on the handlebars of his bicycle. His mother was the daughter of the fifth Duke of Northumberland, and one glamorous relative was William Percy, a great ornithologist and a prominent secret agent in the romantic pre-World War I tradition. Another Percy uncle was the biggest coal-mine owner in Britain. At school Gavin was constantly shown mystifying cartoons in Punch caricaturing his Percy uncles with labels such as "Reaction" affixed to them. Sir Henry Percy (1364-1403), none other than Harry Hotspur, was in his mother's family line, another source of embarrassment, for Gavin once failed to identify him in a history lesson.
Before her death last year at the age of 56, Rachel Carson started a book about her explorations of nature with her nephew Roger, explorations that began when she carried him to the beach of her Maine home when he was 20 months old to show him the waves in a storm. Her unfinished essay has been published in a 95-page gift book, The Sense of Wonder (Harper & Row, $4.95 until December 31, $5.95 thereafter), illustrated with 49 photographs in color and 47 in black-and-white to establish its mood of serene surrender to the beauty of woods and waves and wildlife. The text, too fragmentary to be characterized, consists of such lines as a tribute to the song of the white-throated sparrow, "pure and ethereal, with the drowsy quality of remembered joy," and comments on the sense of wonder as an antidote to alienation "from the source of our strength."
Edwin Way Teale invented a new sort of seasonal nature book and guide with North With the Spring, published 14 years ago. In that rambling account of a south-to-north trip across the U.S. he managed to give a sense of the U.S. as a whole, where naturalists traditionally concentrate on a single region, and while he never wandered far from familiar scenes accessible to every motorist, he invariably incorporated into his accounts items of information unfamiliar even to local authorities. His books on the American seasons, including Autumn Across America and Journey into Summer, sold some 750,000 copies. The new one, Wandering Through Winter (Dodd, Mead, $6.50), will increase the total. It begins in San Diego in December and ends in Maine in March. There-is the old unbeatable combination of commonplace and rare items: there are 500 to 1,000 rare aromatic elephant trees in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California; the kit fox of the desert, not much larger than a cat, is a playful creature that likes to slide down tents.
November 29, 1965
The Cascade Mountains are currently much in the news in the Pacific Northwest. Last May a prominent young Seattle politician, Wing Luke, on a flight over the Cascades, vanished from the face of the earth. Two companions likewise vanished. Wild Cascades: Forgotten Parkland by Harvey Manning (Sierra Club, $20) is a reminder of how vast and little known the mountain wilderness still remains: the book is a plea for the creation of a new national park that will encompass 1,300,000 acres and preserve a region that man has scarcely penetrated. The 90 photographs of magnificent mountain scenery (19 in color) carry captions from the works of the late Theodore Roethke, who was poet in residence at the University of Washington. Justice William O. Douglas contributes an introduction demanding a stop to "all new road-building into wild lands, all damming of wild rivers, all logging of virgin forests." The text begins in the folksy mood of much outdoor writing, with references to family camping trips with Eldest Daughter, or Middle Daughter stung by a yellow jacket, or Number Three "so exhausted on the return that I carried her most of the last mile." But the author soon has ample (and troubling) facts to communicate. The book is a visually impressive introduction to a region as beautiful and as mysterious as any on the continent.