By Bradford Torrey. Houghton, Mifflin, 1894. Project Gutenberg.
I was drawn to Bradford Torrey’s account of a ramble in east Florida in 1894 because I now spend nearly half the year in Florida myself—though in the west—and I was curious to see what I might glean about the state of the state more than a century ago.
I had never heard of Torrey, but an article by Kevin E. O’Donnell that appeared in Early American Nature Writers, which I found online, provided a thorough and interesting profile of the man. A popular Boston naturalist and writer in his time, who influenced both nature and travel writing, he was the author of 13 books, mostly collections of essays he produced for the Atlantic Monthly. He also wrote a weekly column for the Boston Evening Transcript and was the editor of Thoreau’s journals.
Torrey’s Florida journeys take him to the St. Augustine area, to Daytona Beach, and to New Smyrna, and everywhere his main focus is on birds. He describes the ubiquitous great blue herons, the eagles who steal fish from the ospreys, the blue grosbeak, the woodpeckers, the flickers, the various sparrows. I was excited to find him setting out to find the famed ivory-billed woodpecker, but this, unfortunately, was one bird he missed.
Along the way Torrey offers vivid descriptions of the landscape—the pine barrens, swamps, and flora—as well personal encounters. I was especially interested in his interactions with blacks, in view of how soon after the civil war this was.
Although Wikipedia calls Torrey an ornithologist, he characterizes himself in this sketch book as “a simple bird-gazer, an amateur, a field-naturalist.” But he was clearly one of those amateurs who are experts lacking only credentials, which he seems to have eschewed.
O’Donnell says that though Torrey has been largely ignored by literary critics, his work “has continued to serve as primary source material for naturalists, cultural historians, and, more recently, environmental historians.” Among the striking aspects of his work that O’Donnell mentions is that “Torrey considered birds to be individuals, as well as representatives of their species, and he sometimes wrote commentary about individual birds' musical performances that borders on music criticism.” Now that is something I’d like to seek out!
It isn’t surprising that literary critics have ignored Torrey; the appeal of his prose is that it is easy-going and comfortable. But I found that it took me right along with him on his ramble, and I enjoyed the excursion.