Our book today is Gone for the Day, a collection of the columns Ned Smith did for the Pennsylvania Game News magazine from 1966 to 1969. As near as I can tell, the magazine included the book as a subscription gift one year and it became so popular they reprinted it several times – but still only for their subscribers. If this is true, those were lucky subscribers, and the original readers of these columns must have been luckier still, since there’s nothing quite like the low-simmer enjoyable sense of possession that comes from finding a really good regular column and following it religiously (I guess the closest equivalent these days would be finding a really good blog and subscribing to it, but as with all things on the Internet, it just doesn’t feel the same).
The vagaries of magazine budget and space being what they are – and passion being, as always, unpredictable – you never know where you’re likely to find such a column, and the ones that manage to stay very good for years at a stretch are rare. One thinks of Stephen Jay Gould’s “This View of Life” column in Natural History, or Katherine Powers’ A Reading Life that was lately and shamefully cut from the Boston Globe (and picked up, in a move so thick with ironies you can barely count them, by the Barnes & Noble Review). How I would have loved to be one of those readers catching Ned Smiths’ “Gone for the Day” columns as they were originally appearing, always under their neat little banner (enviably double-talented, he did all his own illustrations):
Smith was a lifelong walker in woods and fields (and, thankfully for the rest of us, a “lifelong writer-downer”), tracking through wooded hills and mountains of Pennsylvania for most of his life, in all seasons and weathers, carrying a battered notebook and a camera and noting the comings and goings, the tracks and passages of the multitude of living creatures he encounters – or just misses encountering:
February 7: A rabbit that hangs out on the edge of a neighborhood woods left an easily read account of last night’s activities inscribed in the snow. Near the fencerow he had bitten off a number of greenbriar vines and eaten large portions of each. The mark of where he had been sitting, and the vines bobbing as he nibbled, left an arc of gashes in the snow. The tendrils and formidable thorns had been neatly nipped off, and lay scattered about on the snow.
That quiet gift for detailed observation runs through this entire book – Gone for the Day easily accomplishes what all the best books of nature-writing do: it puts the reader right there in the woods (or swamps, or arctic wastes, or what have you) with our guide, seeing what he sees:
February 6 [the following year]: Red squirrels are natural-born clowns, and when they don’t know they are being observed they are absolutely hilarious. This afternoon I watched the antics of three of them from a blind at the feeder. Where they came from, I don’t know, but they exploded onto the scene like a troupe of vaudeville acrobats. It was impossible to be sure who was chasing whom as they streaked over fallen logs, up and down trees, and over the snow in blurry, intertwining circles. Occasionally they tangled, squealing and churring in real or simulated anger, then they broke apart, only to resume the dizzy chase.
(There’s even a winning quality of innocence, as that last quote makes abundantly clear: as should be obvious to any less cheery observer, those squirrels weren’t happily clowning around with each other right there on the doorstep of the breeding season – they were ruthlessly trying to bite each other’s balls of and then rip each other’s throats out)
Smith has that wonderful facility for disappearing, melting into the scenery so thoroughly that time and again he catches animals just being themselves, totally unaware that they’re being watched. The animals almost always sense him eventually and then do their own disappearing acts, but before they do, we get many marvellous glimpses from the Pennsylvania woods and meadows and stream banks:
March 14 – A muskrat feeding on the roots of some unidentified weeds from the breast of our dam proved to be a surprisingly fastidious diner. Each time he dug up a root he carried it to the water three feet beneath him, where he carefully washed and ate it. Climbing back up the steep earthen breast he then dug up another and repeated the entire process. Not before he had laboriously washed and eaten half a dozen roots did he notice me sitting on the far bank observing his table manners. Without an upward glance he plunged off the bank and into the water like an overgrown frog.
And the book tries for more than such camera-glimpses – and it very often succeeds. Like most people who consciously make roaming around in nature a part of their days, Smith quickly came to appreciate and gently preach the restorative powers of spending time with animals in their world. Even after fifty years, Gone for the Day still breathes that restorative power – it’s the next best thing to going out wandering yourself. It might prove a bit tough to find a copy, but I urge you to try: this is a nature book to keep and re-read for the rest of your life.