Re-Introducing Almanac For Moderns

FullSizeRender (1)“March Twenty-First,” the initial entry in Almanac for Moderns
By Matthew Fluharty
As spring emerges across the country, I turn to the work of Donald Culross Peattie in Almanac for Moderns, which we initially discovered and chronicled in our electronic pages in 2010. While a great deal has developed for Art of the Rural in these ensuing years — as we moved from a blog to a national organization — our belief in both the practice and the conviction within Peattie’s book has remained and only grown stronger.
In the years since, his grounded, ecological perspective led us to look even more broadly and to ask how (through a fieldwork journal, for instance) we pay sustained attention to a place, a cultural question, or a community. Much of our work, from the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange to the American Bottom Project, and all the way through to our Next Generation initiative on rural creative placemaking, seeks to learn from the bedrock of Peattie’s patient and sustained practice: to listen, to notice, and to humbly ask questions.
Please find our initial introduction to Peattie’s work below, and click on the image above to read his entry for March Twenty-First.
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As spring arrives again, our thoughts turn to the fields, gardens and container plots waiting to be planted. Or, if we don’t possess a green thumb, we wait eagerly for the warmer weather to bring the markets and roadside stands back into our lives, to sit down with that first bowl of spring greens, to bite into the first corn of summer or that first peach.
As we all look ahead to these joys, let me introduce Donald Culross Peattie. He’s a figure we’re going to keep close by this season. Here’s how one bloghas summarized Mr. Peatties many contributions:

Donald Culross Peattie was the pre-eminent Naturalist of his day. After leaving University of Chicago and French Poetry for Harvard and Botany, he worked for the Department of Agriculture and produced several works of mostly scientific value—his A Natural History of North American Trees is indispensable, authoritative and exhaustive. Later, he married the novelist Louise Redfield, and turned to nature writing as a career, for which he is most remembered. Through the 30’s and 40’s he published a dozen or so books directed to the general reader which were, owing to his popularity, distributed through many book clubs; he also wrote for Reader’s Digestand produced columns for the Washington Post and Chicago Daily News.

Yet Mr. Peattie’s career as a writer and a naturalist was not always so certain. It was actually a combination of the depression years and a return to his wife’s rural community that provided the springboard for his many later successes. Here’s Peter Friederici of Chicago Wilderness Magazine setting the stage:
In 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, Glenview, Illinois witnessed a subdued homecoming. A couple and their three young sons returned to the state of their origin after six years in the south of France. It was early winter, and bleak; the drought of the Dust Bowl had not yet broken. Glenview was more rural than suburban. Lacking snow, the northern Illinois farmlands looked “dingy now and threadbare.” The great old bur oaks of the prairie groves appeared dead.
They were both writers. Their books had found publishers but not much of an audience. Jobless, the man doubted his own ability to provide for his family. “Still to put trust in me, I thought . . . was to perform more than I ever had yet,” he wrote. For what, he wondered, had they left the warm delights of the Riviera?
Such was the homecoming of Donald Culross Peattie and Louise Redfield Peattie.

The book to emerge from from these Northern Illinois fields was An Almanac for Moderns (1935) a breathtaking combination of naturalism and poetry, with  a philosophical and observant eye that prefigures many of the agrarian writings that, a few decades later, would take a stand and argue for the validity and the necessity of rural culture. Remarkably, this book is currently out of print. (But can be found cheaply here.)

Here’s Robert Finch describing the Almanac in The Norton Book of Nature Writing:

The “moderns” that Donald Culross Peattie wrote for in his An Almanac for Moderns were a skeptical generation. They were the descendents of Darwin and Freud and the inheritors of World War I, who had seen “the trees blasted by the great guns and the birds feeding on men’s eyes.” … His deliberate choice of the archaic literary form of a daily almanac contrasted the stable natural order of the ancient philosophers and naturalists with the modern existential view of nature as soulless and purposeless. Its short 365 chapters not only pose many of the philosophical questions that have preoccupied contemporary nature writers, but also contain an informal survey of natural science and evocative observations of seasonal life.

In a technological and social moment when the “archaic literary form of a daily almanac” doesn’t really seem that archaic, we’re hoping to use this site (updated almost every day) to celebrate the work of Donald Culross Peattie–and to hopefully start a word-of-mouth campaign to give this author the new edition he richly deserves.

[Editor’s Note: A new edition of Almanac for Moderns was published by Trinity University Press in 2013.]

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