Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On the Wings of a Bird!

Our book today is H.R.Sass' modest 1929 hit On the Wings of a Bird, which was reprinted a handful of times back in the days before paperbacks, when almost all a book's sales were generated the old-fashioned way, through word of mouth. This book started out as one essay and grew through that demand, mainly because Sass is so poetically winning about what he calls the 'enchanted kingdoms' that all those who walk in the wild world manage to find. His are in the Carolinas, mostly, in the cypress-shaded lagoons and hot-wind beaches with their seal-shadowed sand bars, although such enchanted kingdoms can exist virtually anywhere, as we saw with dear old Nauset Marsh.  "You cannot trace upon any map the frontiers of your enchanted kingdom," he tells us. "It is remote and yet near at hand; you were far from it five seconds ago - oh, ten thousand miles away - yet now, in the twinkling of an eye, you are in its very heart." Aided by minimalist, winsome sketches by Herman Palmer, he guides us.

As Sass readily admits, this is mostly a book about birds. They certainly haunt these pages right from the start:
Sitting on the piazza on cool evenings in late September, I hear the voices of the feathered hosts that I cannot see. In hundreds and thousands and, it may be, in hundreds of thousands, they are streaming over my head, up in the black infinity between earth and stars. The whole air is full of them; now here, now there, now elsewhere, there various voices call to me out of the darkness. Some of the sounds I know well - the guttural "quok" of the black-crowned night heron, the high-pitched "skeow" of the green heron, the metallic chirp of the ricebird that travels in company with the larger wayfarers in the gloom. Others are sounds that I have never heard at any other time - that probably I shall never hear except on these autumnal nights when the far-called armes of the migrating birds are fleeing southward before the intangible, irresistible might of approaching winter.

But this is no monograph: plenty of other creatures wander in and out of these pages - deer in the woods, foxes, rabbits, and the two apex predators that were once ubiquitous all along the low-lying Carolina coastland, alligators and sharks. Alligators feature in our author's memories most fondly:
I like alligators. I like to see them and hear them; the bellowing of a big bull dragon, by the way, is one of the most impressive sounds in the American woods, an eloquent reminder of those colorful early days when a man could scarcely sleep near one of the great swamps because of the unearthly chorus of the wild beasts.

Because Sass was an avid surf-fisherman, sharks aren't quite as welcome in his recollections:
When there are sharks about, the surf-fisherman, if he has any sense, is constrained to stick to the shallows. In the easy chair at home he will laugh to scorn the tales that are told of sharks that attacked anglers, but in the surf slues, with a tall black fin showing above the foam-flecked water, he is apt to regard those tales more seriously.

And whether he's talking about menaces or marvels, Sass strikes one note entirely in common with all other good nature-writers - because he loves the places where he has wandered, because he wants them to be there for future generations, he cares most about stewardship. He cites it as the central theme of his book:
The utmost that can be hoped for is that it may help in some small measure to bring nearer the day when man shall cease to be a destroyer and shall become instead the friend and protector of his lesser kinsmen - the guardian and preserver of that marvellous life of earth and air over which, in the course of long ages, he has achieved almost absolute power. If it can give even the slightest aid to that good cause, its faults may be forgiven.

Whatever faults On the Wings of a Bird may have can certainly be forgiven - this is a gently spellbinding book, long out of print. It's doubtful Sass would have liked the many changes to his beloved Carolina coast since he put down his pen. Reading and smiling over this book, I just have to hope he'd somehow find enchantment there even so.


Anonymous said...

Which Carolina?

Libri de Avibus: Books About Birds [John King's Bookstore, Detroit] « Fur Gots said...

[...] the Wings of a Bird by H.R. Sass (1929) – Blog Post at SteveReads “You cannot trace upon any map the frontiers of your enchanted kingdom. It is remote and yet near [...]