Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Onawa Bestiary ~ A Gift

I have a small collection of favorite books, each of which captures the natural history of a specific place.  It includes, among others, Louis J. Halle’s Spring in Washington (1947), Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928), Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949), and Vincent G. Dethier’s The Ecology of a Summer House (1984).  Each of these volumes places the author, and, vicariously, the reader, into the midst of the natural environment of a place.  Each author is someone who, to appropriate Leopold’s apt description, cannot live without wild things.  Each is passionately open to the natural world.

To this group of slender works, I add another:  Henry D. M. Sherrerd Jr.’s The Onawa Bestiary:  An Opinionated Survey With Digressions (1988), an obscure, out-of-print work deserving to be more widely known.  I found it tucked away on a shelf in a used bookstore.  In its original incarnation, it was self-published, the copies to be given away as gifts.

Sherrerd’s writing is graceful, intimate, and direct.  He shares with the other authors in this clutch of books an ability to capture those wild things on paper and, in so doing, build an indelible image of the place where they were encountered.

His place is a “camp” (in this case, a group of summer cabins) on Lake Onawa in the middle of Maine, northwest of Bangor.  The lake appears below in Google Earth:

At the time he is writing, portions of the south shore of the lake have become more generally accessible, and so, “along the south shore at least the original Spartan (even Puritanical) back-to-nature way of life . . . finally gave way in the 80s to whatever is meant by the term ‘lifestyle.’  The uplake camps [of which his was one], on the other hand, still live more or less in the Edwardian Age, dependent on boats for transportation and kerosene lamps for light.”  (p. xi)

His camp occupies a peninsula poking into the lake; it is a piece of land looking much like the head of a cartoon duck’s head facing to the left.  The Google Earth link below centers on the Sherrerd camp.

Sherrerd seems to be a jack of all trades.  He studied aeronautical engineering at Princeton for four years, transferred to Bowdoin College, but spent three years in the Air Force in the early 1950s before attending classes there and earning a degree in English.  Later, he did graduate work in Medieval and Old English.  He bartended in the Yukon.  He’s worked on outboard motors and done technical writing in aeronautics.  But, above all (at least in my view), he’s an essayist and a poet.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word bestiary as “A treatise on beasts: applied to the moralizing treatises written during the Middle Ages.”  Sherrerd writes of The Onawa Bestiary, “This book offers a good deal of moralizing and interpretation (not necessarily serious) but very little theology.”  (p. x)  I disagree with him a bit.  In keeping with its title, the book is a collection of descriptions of various “beasts” encountered on and near Lake Onawa.  But these descriptions are only on occasion moralizing; rather, they are insightful, typically idiosyncratic, decidedly opinionated (some of these animals he likes, others not), and often very humorous.  This is a heady mix and therein lies their power and their charm.  Yes, it’s a bestiary, but, in many ways, this is also a rogues’ gallery of the Onawa fauna.

Sherrerd does not use the passage of the months during the course of a year or part of a year as his organizing principle.  The seventy-six, often brief, descriptions of Onawa fauna are presented in alphabetical order, beginning with Bats and ending with Woodcock.  Mammals, birds, fish, insects, and bivalves make it into this bestiary.  To prove Onawa’s Maine roots, the entries include Black Flies, Loons, and Moose.

Sherrerd’s no romantic about nature and its beasts.  In the Introduction, he notes that Onawa
is still much as it was nearly a hundred years ago:  a collection of summer camps in the wilderness, most of them handed down through three and even four generations.  Which is why the wildlife is around to be observed, enjoyed, and in some cases eaten.  (p. xi)
He hunts (though he notes that gave up deer hunting because he “lack[s] the true killer instinct . . . .”  (p. 31)) and is an inveterate fisherman.

In many instances, it's not a gentle world being depicted.  The specimen described in the Snapping Turtle entry is “an ugly sonofabitch, being big – about two feet from nose to tail – covered with slimy green crud, armed with formidable claws and beak, and having an extremely offensive smell.  A singularly unattractive animal.”  (p. 137)  In these pages, predators, such as the mink, do what comes naturally, kill to survive.  Sherrerd’s lack of romanticism extends even to the hummingbirds.  “Hummingbirds are certainly beautiful and their powers of flight are unique, but otherwise they are about as sweet and gentle as a Tiger tank,” aggressively fighting off other hummingbirds who dare approach a feeder.  (p. 58)

That said, he is certainly not above some anthropomorphizing when doing so captures an essence of a creature; into such descriptions, he often mixes humor.  He begins his entry on Sunfish with a typically blunt note:  “Most fish are just fish:  cold, silent, mindless creatures living in an unseen world of water that is foreign to the human experience.  Even the gamest of game fish, trout and salmon, do not impress me as anything other than fish.”  (p. 127)  But, then, there are sunfish.
The sunfish . . . assumes a definite personality, and a somewhat pugnacious one at that.  A sunfish hanging in the water off the dock stares back at you with very much an air of ‘OK, buddy, what do you want to make of it?’  And a whole group of them in a boat-shadow are much like a gang of drugstore cowboys:  nowhere to go, nothing to do except make wisecracks about the passing minnows.”  (p. 127)
The Swallows entry centers on those individuals occupying the cross beams of the boathouse which functions as Sherrerd’s workshop.  Though actively discouraged from nesting in the rafters, their daily presence is tolerated because they offer companionship.  When he’s working, the birds don’t huddle away in a corner.  No, they cluster close above him.
Their conversational twittering is constant, and it is impossible not to feel that they are discussing whatever I am doing at the moment.  The occasional drawn-out rasping sound is uncomfortably derisory, particularly when I have just made a mistake.  They are so much a part of the scene that I sometimes find myself talking to them, even stepping back to let them get a better view of the work and asking if they approve.  And then I wonder if I really do spend too much time in the woods.  (p. 128-129)
Staying true to the medieval bestiary, Sherrerd describes certain fantastic animals that exist only in his (and our) imagination, such as the Side-Hill Bowdger, the Tree-Squeek, and the Willipus Wallapus.  Take the tree-squeek which usually resides in the upper branches of tall trees and makes its calls when the wind blows.  Even I know it well.
Occasionally, the tree-squeek will overcome its natural shyness and live at lower levels, closer to man and his works.  (This is thought to be a degenerate mutational variety by some authorities.)  These are mostly found in trees very close to buildings and as a matter of fact there is one in the birch tree that has grown into contact with the eaves of the pumphouse.  (p. 132)
The Onawa Bestiary is literary pointillism.  Yes, we learn about the fauna, but, through the accumulation of brief comments and passing observations, portraits of the camp, the lake, the sometimes quirky people of this place, and Sherrerd and his wife Ayako, take shape.

Though I think there is no agenda to this wonderful book (as there is to some of those in my collection), it has a subtext:  the author, and, by inference, the rest of us, fit into nature individually and uniquely.  Indeed, the motto of Sherrerd’s summer camp is, as written in the book:  Chaçun À Son Gôut.  I translate this as “To Each His Own.”

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