Study Guide

An Almanac for Moderns

by Donald Culross Peattie

An Almanac for Moderns Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

AN ALMANAC FOR MODERNS is a collection of essays on Nature entered journal-fashion, one for each day of the year. Some of the essays are complete on a single page, while others run on for several pages. At the time the book was being written, Peattie was living in Illinois, at the childhood home of his wife. Like Gilbert White, he has written a natural history of his own American Selborne, but unlike White, he observes Nature with the eye of a trained scientist, bringing into his book the accumulated scientific knowledge of the twentieth century. It is for this reason that the book is an almanac “for Moderns.” Modern science has answered many questions since White’s time and—what is more important—it has provoked more questions than it has answered, questions which could not possibly have occurred to the serene, clerical mind of Gilbert White.

The almanac is filled with descriptions of local plants and animals, with now and then a glance at the stars and planets. Although Peattie has a naturalist’s eye for all living things, his observations on plants, birds, insects, and amphibians seem to outnumber all the others. Each description is a gem of scientific accuracy plus poetic insight. Epithets and similes abound: “that tombstone world,” the moon; the “cold batrachian jelly” which unites us with the amphibians; the “silky, silvery and perpetually talkative needles” of the white pine; the “click of a seed in a weatherbeaten pod,” describing the song of the chickadee; a “turret of inflorescence,” the goldenrod; the song of the grackles, like “the uncertain, ragged voice of a boy”; Equisetum, “like some wizened ancient race of men whose stature is cretin, whose language is cryptic”; ants, “the mankind of insects”; the Compositae, “a city . . . of little florets . . . enclosed within leaflike walls”; the “goblin flight” of bats, “seemingly so drunken.”

The almanac is not devoted to plants and animals exclusively. It also abounds with thumbnail biographies of naturalists, whose birthdays are thoughtfully observed on the calendar of days. Great names like Darwin, Lamarck, Pasteur, Audubon, Linnaeus, Thoreau, von Humboldt and Goethe appear with less-known names like Fabre, Wilson, Huber, Forel, Hudson, Rafinesque, de Vries, Nuttal, Reaumur, Michaux, and even Johnny Appleseed. These biographies add zest and human interest to the almanac.

About the only resemblance between Peattie’s almanac and the conventional drugstore variety is that it is organized according to the signs of the Zodiac. The first entry is made on March 21, the vernal equinox, in the sign of Aries, the Ram; the last, on March 20 of the following year, in Pisces, the Fishes. Spring is covered in the first ninety-eight pages of the book, from March 21 to June 20; summer, in the next 101 pages, from June 21, the summer solstice, in Cancer, the Crab, to September 21, in Virgo, the Virgin; autumn, in the next hundred pages, from September 22, the autumnal equinox, in Libra, the Scales, to December 21, in Sagittarius, the Archer; and winter, in the last ninety-seven pages, from December 22, the winter solstice, in Capricornus, the Goat, to March 20, in Pisces, the Fishes. Thus the year begins and ends with spring, the season of universal regeneration.

Although the nature lover will enjoy Peattie’s descriptions...

(The entire section is 1379 words.)