Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Viewers of Nature

Watchers at the Pond 

Watchers at the Pond (Nonpareil books)

“The hawk turned slowly and flexed his great wings to maintain his height. In this cold wind, he flew merely to see and to travel. Gone was the exhilaration of fast-rising summer air carrying him so high into the sky's blue vacuum that the pond became a silver speck and the great southern lake dazzled him with a glaring slash of reflected sun.”  ― Franklin Russell, Watchers at the Pond

The poetic style of this book reminded me of Loren Eiseley's marvelous science writing. Franklin Russell watches along with other animals and narrates what he sees over the course of the seasons. The other watchers include hawks and hares and muskrats, but the observations of the narrator bring the pond alive merging science with poetry.

He begins his story in the winter with some ladybirds encased in ice while chipmunks and others would hibernate nearby. Some of the birds have flown south for the winter only to return in the spring. Nature explodes in the fury of a blizzard that wrenches limbs from trees and exposes sleeping carpenter ants to the frigid cold.

The pond of the title was actually based on many ponds from a park in Hamilton, Ontario to many other ponds that he would explore in the Canadian countryside. What he finds he relates in beautiful prose that does not ignore the science on display. He can visualize single-celled organisms "by the billions in the pond . . . infinitely more varied than visible creatures . . . their soft unicellular bodies pulsing with slow and stately dignity." He does not let the scientist get in the way of the watcher or the writer. The ducks flying over the pond pass "very low and fast" and are "gone in the sound of a quack." Spring and summer come with more variety from mosquitoes to more waterfowl. He does not ignore the flora with descriptions of flowers and fruits like wild strawberries. Some of this reminded me of my own Wisconsin upbringing and time spent near similar ponds.

Thoreau wrote, near the end of Walden: "We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor . . . We are cheered when we observe the vulture feeding on the carrion . . . and deriving health and strength from the repast . . . I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another . . . The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence."

The year at Russell's pond ends in a kind of innocence as well. The beauty of his prose mirrors the beauty of nature yielding a classic small book about the science and poetry that one can find at the edge of ponds. I would recommend this book as a great read for any season.


Fred said...


Thank you for posting about this work. I had heard a little about it but not enough to interest me. To be honest, your comment about Loren Eiseley is what first grabbed me. Eiseley is one of my few top ten writers and is one of my few must get writers. I think I've read everything by him that's been written for the general readership. And, I go back again and again to his prose and poetry, as you might notice if you check the Labels section on my blog.

The rest of the review would also have convinced me to take a look at it.

By the way, have you read Henry Beston's _The Outermost House_? It's an excellent account of his year on Cape Cod Bay.

I shall have to now check out Watchers.

Thanks again.

James said...


Thanks for your comment. I also like Loren Eiseley's writing, having first encountered him while in college. I haven't read everything by him so will check out your blog for recommendations. Russell may not be quite as good but his writing is worth checking out. I have Henry Beston on my tbr pile so I'll be reading him soon.

Fred said...


My first encounter with Eiseley was _The Immense Journey_, and although the others are excellent, it's still my favorite.

I have checked with the local library and they don't have a copy of Watchers. I will next try InterLibraryLoan, which has usually come up with what I wanted.

R.T. said...

I am intrigued by your fine review/posting, and I will check at my library for a copy of the book. Thanks!

James said...

Thanks for your kind words. If you like fine science/nature writing this is a good example.

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this book James.

I think that I would like this. I remember when I was young loving National Geographic Articles on similar subjects.

We have a lot of ponds in the woodlands around where I live. They are great places to explore.