Voices: Robert Petty

October 18, 2005

In a new field guide published by the Indiana University Press, Anne Petty edited and completed her late husband Robert Petty’s final work, creating what one reviewer calls "a most moving experience in nature appreciation."

An excerpt:

We remember a place in time—in human consciousness. We were there. A hundred centuries ago we came upon that vast drowned land. It seemed we walked into a foreverness of lakes and marshes, the brief night spinning into dawn.

Children of the glacier, we hunted the great herds; then, with the fierce winter, tracked them south.

Far to the north and east lay the blue-grey paternal ice, still a half-mile thick. At summer’s end and throughout the dwindling light of autumn, a great wind-howl roared from the frozen waste. It swept over gravel tundra, across the withered sedge and stunted trees. Those sounds of wind and the wet gray skies still haunt us with old meanings.

Each spring the wind brought storms and the wet rains of pollen. Both drifted over the widening thaw of lakes. Lakes of all sizes. Millions of lakes sparkled in the Pleistocene twilight. In early summer we crossed the country of melted ice: horizon of boulder-strewn gravels, glacial till in mounds and ridges, and the long moraines. It all lay scattered like the bones of some beast too huge to imagine.

We came upon a rise and beyond it saw forests like long fingers reaching out, invading. Forests of light and dark spruce, balsam fir, and a scrub of willows. Beyond that was quilted land, patches of pine, birch, and aspen—the coppice that followed fires. Fire and wind and freeze. The forces on the land were physical. We felt the terror of each fierce shaping force. It was a gift simply to endure.


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