“A highly engaging narrative of adventure amid wild beauty. Harris describes not only what has been lost but also what remains, and merits our protection, today.” —John Elder, author of Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa: From Vermont to Italy in the Footsteps of George Perkins Marsh
“Following in the footsteps of one of the sweetest adventures any American ever took, John Harris demonstrates that the beauty of the American East, even on a warming planet, is still hauntingly deep.”—Bill McKibben, author of Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscapes
“Captures the connection between humans and the landscape in order to ask essential questions: How do we cope with loss? How do we hope for recovery in the face of such devastation as species extinction and climate change?”—A. James Wohlpart, author of Walking in the Land of Many Gods: Remembering Sacred Reason in Contemporary Environmental Literature
At winter’s end in 1947, driven by the devastating loss of a son killed in World War II, naturalist Edwin Way Teale and his wife Nellie followed the dawning spring season northward in an amazing 17,000 mile odyssey from the Everglades to Maine. He wrote about the adventure in the best-selling book North with the Spring. Its sequel Wandering Through Winter won the Pulitzer Prize, and Teale became the most recognized nature writer of his day.
Following in the footsteps of Edwin Way Teale and his wife, Nellie, author John R. Harris sets out to have the same adventure, but finds a very different natural world. He finds that climate change, invasive species, and other factors are to blame for the destruction of these environments. Along the way, Harris also discoveres government-protected wildlife areas and “rewilded” ecosystems that encourage him to delve into the world of conservation and sustainability. His quest brings him into contact with ecologists, naturalists, and authors that share with him their experiences and memories about Eastern North America.
Below is an enlightening Q&A with author John R. Harris about why he wrote Returning North with the Spring and what he found on his journey.
Your book retraces the 17,000-mile journey that naturalist Edwin Way Teale recounts taking in his book, North with the Spring. When did you first read his book, and why did the story have such tremendous staying power for you?
I first read Teale’s seasonal account in high school, and as a young man I was immediately drawn in by the author’s quest for remote wild places and by the book’s chapter titles: “The Trembling Trees,” “A Hundred Miles of Warblers,” and “The Poisoned Hills,” for example. His detailed portrait of the spring season continues to resonate today because we live in a time of dramatic climate change.
What motivated you to follow Edwin Way Teale’s route and how did you ensure you followed his route precisely?
From the beginning I was interested in discovering what had changed over 65 years in the flora and fauna of each landscape Teale visited. I took his journals with me and read key passages each morning before I set out on my own exploration. In that way I was able to compare what he had seen directly with what I observed at the same location on the same calendar date.
In what ways do the stories that you tell differ from those that Teale relates in his narrative?
Teale wrote in the decade before significant environmental losses were exposed. Today, our relationship with nature almost always emphasizes diminishment. Therefore, what was surprising and rewarding to me was the realization that many of the places he described have grown wilder, with more mature trees and a greater diversity of birds and animals than when he visited. My excursion included many opportunities for celebration in the face of despair.
If Teale were able to follow his course again now, how do you think he would react to the changes in the environment?
Edwin took his journey with his wife, Nellie, and I believe they both would have mixed feelings. They would be gratified that so many of the vulnerable places they visited have been protected and preserved. They would also applaud the progress we’ve made in civil rights and ecological conscience. However, the couple would be deeply troubled by the consequences of global warming, particularly the steady rise in numbers of invasive species as well as trophic mismatches, the disconnect between the emergence of one species (plant or insect) and the arrival of another (pollinator or animal) that once depended on it. In addition, he and Nellie would be shocked and saddened by our extreme levels of wealth and consumption.
Of the places you visited, which one has undergone the most dramatic change since Teale’s day?
The Ducktown Desert in Tennessee has been completely transformed since 1947. Teale was skeptical that this blighted landscape, which had been poisoned by sulfuric acid as a result of copper roasting, could ever be healed and restored. Today, the town sports green lawns, pine forests, courting birds, and skipping children.
Why do you think Teale’s work has not seemed to enjoy the same timelessness that other nature narratives have?
Teale’s genial tone, like that of John Burroughs, is reminiscent of an earlier age. Much of the environmental writing that followed Teale featured a polemical, adversarial tone. I remain convinced that Teale’s books on the seasons have much to teach us not only about close observation but also about empathy for all living things and how we might appreciate each other’s company.
Who are your favorite authors, and how have they influenced or informed your own work?
I discuss a couple of my favorite authors—in particular Annie Dillard, John Terres, and Robert Finch—in my book. Each of these writers sees the natural world in a new and distinctive way, and I suspect I’ve learned a number of important lessons in how to craft prose through the study of their works. I’m also a big fan of Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams.
What do you hope readers will enjoy the most about your book?
The journey—following the progress of spring northward in the footsteps of Edwin Way Teale. In the company of numerous experts, I gained a new appreciation for the intricacy and splendor of the natural world. I stood spellbound in the presence of fabulous birds, paddled alligator-infested swamps, biked popular rail trails, and documented the preservation and rewilding of many vulnerable places my predecessor described.
What are you working on next?
I’ve begun to focus my attention on the natural history of my home ground of Southern New Hampshire. I’m interested in exploring in greater depth the places I have grown familiar with over more than thirty years. This yearning feels a bit like Teale’s desire to catalogue his home region in one of his other books, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm.