Mark Twain saw a lot of the outdoors over a long life that took him from the Mississippi to California to Connecticut. As I think back on what I’ve read of Twain, though, nature — Nature — doesn’t play much of a role at all. Landscape, even so dominant a feature as Huckleberry Finn’s river, never seems to be more than narrative convenience or metaphoric convention.
I was surprised, then, to find a notable selection of natural history titles among the books Twain donated to the library in Redding, Connecticut, in the last years of his life.
It turns out that most had been gifts to his daughter Jean.
On her early death in 1909, Jean Clemens’s father wrote that
She was a loyal friend to all animals, and she loved them all, birds, beasts, and everything — even snakes — an inheritance from me. She knew all the birds; she was high up in that lore.
And she learned her bird lore the way most people did in the first years of the twentieth century: from the works of Frank Michler Chapman. Clemens owned both his Warblers, in a 1907 edition, and a 1903 printing of his Handbook.
Clemens also owned another standard of the day, now forgotten, Oliver Davie’s popular oology:
More cutting edge: Dugmore’s Nature and the Camera, an early introduction to photographing birds, other animals, and natural features.
Clemens received this book as a gift from her father in 1903, six years before her death. Does anyone know whether she ever put its precepts into practice?
Herbert K. Job was another early “camera-hunter,” still far better known today than Dugmore ever was. Samuel Clemens gave a copy of Job’s Wild Wings to his daughter in November 1904.
All I know about Jean Clemens’s books is what was written in the NYT some time ago. But that is quite enough to suggest that her interests in bird study ran deep, and it seems likely that a careful examination of the physical books themselves would turn up notes and other signs of use to offer some insight into the birding life of a young woman at the turn of the last century.
A few other images from our visit to BCS:
One of a loose flock of ten (!) Scott’s orioles working the reeds at Todos Santos.
And another bizarre icterid:
a hypomelanistic yellow-headed blackbird on the beach at the Estero San José; I couldn’t remember ever having seen an “abnormal” plumage in this species.
Everybody wants to see the Big Three species-level endemics in Baja, but the small, rather darkish Gila woodpeckers were just as striking to my eye.
Non-avian vertebrates were surprisingly scarce. I got to see a single jackrabbit, and the highlight of our whale “watch” were the close views of California sea-lions.
Common birds all, but great to see them at the Estero San José:
I’m very glad iguanas are vegetarian.
This was my first opportunity to see California scrub jays after the resplit this past summer.
With an astronomical telescope and some luck, I could have been watching Baird’s juncos and royal terns all at once.
This photo — below even my usual low standard — at least shows the brown nape patch said to be shown by almost all Baird’s juncos.
Tourists come to Baja for the sun. So do white-faced ibis, apparently.
Gerardo and Leo picked us up at dawn at our hotel in San José, and three hours later we started our walk in the Sierra de la Laguna above San Antonio.
It was a lovely warm morning, and there were birds to be seen along the way, to boot. Single black-throated gray and Townsend’s warblers reminded us that we were in the southwest, and the San Lucas robin made sure we knew that we weren’t just anywhere in the southwest.
We also got to see the bizarrely dim-eyed angustifrons acorn woodpecker, and a heavily spotted spotted towhee that was presumably the aptly named umbraticola. A feral hog was a source of momentary puzzlement, and then it was higher, ever higher.
I was embarrassed at having to take three (three!) quick sitting breaks for out-of-breathness, but everyone was kind about it. I’m not used to being The Problem Client, and I’m not used to being Oldest In The Group, but I guess I’d better start resigning myself to it. At least each of my long pauses was another chance at leisurely enjoyment of the stunning desert scenery.
Then, at about 1200 meters, Gerardo mentioned that we were at the lowest spot he’d ever seen the bird. “And there’s one now!”
In early February 1883, when he was exactly my gasping, panting age, Lyman Belding set off alone for the Sierra. Belding found “the trail leading to Laguna … the longest, highest, and possibly the worst” in these mountains, “which were probably never previously explored by any collector.”
The effort paid off handsomely, however, when, on reaching the lower edge of the pines, Belding encountered “a beautiful new Snowbird,” which he dispatched and sent to Robert Ridgway at the Smithsonian for description, specifying that the new bird was to be named for Spencer Baird, “in consideration of [his] valuable ornithological services… in field and office, not the least of such services being his original, full, and accurate descriptions of so many North American birds.” Ridgway, finding the bird “pretty and very distinct,” obliged, concluding his formal description with the observation that the Baird’s Junco “is so markedly distinct… from all its congeners as to really need no comparison with any of them.”
We didn’t have to go anywhere near the pines.
Instead, all we had to do was plop down on the roadside and wait for this most beautiful of the juncos to re-emerge from the shadows to feed in the open.
The birds were nervous at first, perching in the bushes and chacking like tiny thrashers.
For the most part, all three were quite stolid, barely shifting their big feet when it came time to reach up to take another bite.
There was a little bit of occasional and unenthusiastic double-scratching, but never in the hour we watched them did I see the creepy shuffling so typical of Mexican yellow-eyed juncos, just short hops.
The birds grew more trusting as time went on, and I was able to repeatedly change my position, getting closer each time, without causing any obvious alarm. They were obviously alert to whatever passed overhead, though, reacting nervously to everything from turkey vultures to a canyon wren, and I suspect it was a flighted threat that finally chased the birds back into the dense, dark vegetation whence they had come.
Our walk back down the mountainside was nothing short of joyous, a dream of decades having finally come true. Minds and memories full of the junco, we paused to look at fruiting burseras
and weirdly exfoliating slopes.
Thanks to Bryan, Gerardo, and Leo for making this day such an astounding success. I can’t image what the rest of 2017 could possibly bring to match it.
Now in the library of the University of Illinois, this copy of the second, 1840 edition of Thomas Nuttall’s Manual has passed through some very distinguished hands indeed.
The rather ferocious bookplate on the inside of the front board identifies it as the property of Thomas B. Wilson, born on this date in 1807. Wilson and his brother Edward, among many other contributions they made to the Academy of Natural Sciences, were instrumental in bringing the collections of Prince Masséna to Philadelphia, a coup that instantly cemented the Academy’s reputation as the best place in America to study birds.
Wilson was one of the greatest benefactors of the Academy’s library, but this volume went its own uncertain ways after his death in 1865. The next station we know about was nearly sixty years later, in September 1923, when the book was presented — a fine present indeed — by Charles Reuben Keyes to Harry C. Oberholser.
Oberholser is too well known to require biographical comment. Keyes, on the other hand, is virtually forgotten even in Iowa, where he was born in 1871 and where he died eighty years later. His professional career, spent at Cornell College, was devoted to Germanic philology (Keyes’s 1923 Harvard dissertation was on Rist’s Irenaromachia), but his real passions were ornithology and, especially, archaeology.
The two probably met in Iowa, where Oberholser briefly taught at the end of the 1910s and conducted field work in the early 1920s. I do not know exactly what the occasion was for the gift, but someone with access to the principals’ papers should be able to figure it out. In any event, the book obviously remained in Oberholser’s library until 1948, when he sold his collection to the University of Illinois.
What is puzzling about the book, though, is not its provenance but the mysterious signs of use — or defacement, in a couple of instances — left inside by one or the other of its earlier owners.
A number of passages, including this diagnosis of the turkey vulture, are marked for excerpting, some of them with the directions “Begin” and “Stop” in the margins.
A couple of times our annotator directs that distant passages be combined, as here in the account of the bobolink: “stop, see p. 200,”
is followed there by “begin” and “stop, see p. 202.”
But these passages aren’t marked just for verbatim quotation. Pius corrector deletes unnecessary words (“liquid sound” becomes simply “sound”), replaces pronouns (“he”) now missing antecedents (“the bobolink”), and even updates Nuttall’s diction (the quaint “livery” changes to “dress”). Similar editorial interventions pop up on the pages Nuttall devoted to the northern bobwhite:
I am fairly sure, a certainty based on only very limited comparative material, that those lines and notes are Oberholser’s. I can’t find my copy of his Texas (where do all my books get to when I’m on vacation?), and my dear friend google isn’t turning anything up, at best sending me back to Nuttall’s unamended text when I search for the edited versions.
I’ll keep looking in the hopes that I can discover just how Oberholser was using these edited passages. It’s possible, though, that we’ll never know: that he excerpted them for a lecture or for an essay never finished, or that they lurk somewhere in the more than two million (!) unpublished words of the untrimmed Texas manuscript.
Or maybe you know.
An hour from San José on the Pacific coast of the peninsula, Todos Santos is a large but happily quiet town, a much-needed respite from the touristy bustle of Los Cabos and only relatively slowly being swallowed up by hotels and strip malls. We didn’t really have a target in mind, though I was hoping to find some Savannah-type sparrows out on the beaches. (Didn’t.)
The first challenge came on our arrival above the flat salty pond known as La Poza. Where to park? The signs were everywhere and clear: not here, not here, not here! Rather than drive back up into town and walk the steep dusty streets down to the water (and then walk the steep dusty streets back up to the car), we cleverly made lunch reservations at the Posada La Poza and left our car in their parking lot, watched over by one of eleven (!!) Scott’s orioles we would see on our walk.
Among the first birds to pop up as we left the parking area was a gray thrasher, perching briefly on a fence then, for lingering close-range scope views, atop a cactus. Fortunately, we still had some admiration left to bestow on the first-cycle white-crowned sparrow working the gravel nearby, the only Gambel’s sparrow we saw the entire trip.
The pond itself wasn’t exactly crowded with birds. There were black-necked stilts, western and least sandpipers, greater yellowlegs, cinnamon and blue-winged teal, and a few lesser scaup and ruddy ducks; the only mildly notable bird on the water was a lone American white pelican.
The beach was no birdier, and the only fly-bys were the odd Brandt’s cormorant and California gull. Out in the middle distance, though, there was activity .
Humpback whales were nearly constantly in sight, splashing with their tails and occasionally flopping a flipper into the water.
We’d been on a whale “watch” from San Lucas a couple of days earlier, with views as close as any I think I’d ever had, but how much more evocative it is to see them like this, wild and wary, out in the same waters that not that long ago would have been slick with blood and grease.
And lunch at Posada La Poza? The food was ok, the service genuinely kind, and the view out over the palms and the water pretty close to perfect.