Theodora C. Stanwell-Fletcher
Introduction by Wendell Berry. Afterword by Rhoda M. Love.
Driftwood Valley recounts a magnificent story of adventure and survival in the wilds of northern British Columbia. For almost three years, naturalist Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher, together with her husband John, a trapper and explorer, lived and worked in the remote Driftwood River Country. Marked "unexplored" and "unsurveyed" on the few incomplete maps of the area, it was a region that had seen few white people.
From their wilderness cabin the Stanwell-Fletchers studied the area's rich wildlife. "We wanted to make detailed and accurate observations on the lives of the Driftwood region; to understand the lives and problems of the wild things about us as they passed through all four seasons of the year," wrote Theodora. Her account reveals the daily pleasures and insights sparked by living close to the wild. It also chronicles the isolation, hardships, and struggles, including the severe sub-arctic winters that brought deep snow and temperatures of forty-below.
A popular success upon its publication in 1946, Driftwood Valley won the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in nature writing, its author the first woman to receive the award. In his introduction, Wendell Berry describes how as a teenager he discovered Driftwood Valley and recalls that it was "the only book I read for a year or two, the end serving only to permit a new return to the beginning." In a new afterword, Rhoda Love provides a fascinating biographical profile of the author.
About the author
Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher earned a Ph.D in Animal Ecology from Cornell University in 1936. Prior to and after her years in Driftwood Valley, she spent various periods of her life studying natural history in locations ranging from the South Pacific to the Canadian sub-arctic. She is now deceased.
Read more about this author
In 1947 or thereabouts, when I was in the seventh or eighth grade, my friend and hunting partner Pete Harrod handed me a book that he had found in our school's small library. At that time, although I was off and on a rather bookish boy, I was aware of the library mainly as a good fort in a paper-wad fight; because of the wire mesh that enclosed it, it could be shot out of much more effectively than it could be shot into. How the book, Driftwood Valley, got into that library, and how Pete discovered it there, I never did learn. One day, anyhow, he handed it to me and said, "You ought to read this, Wendell. It's a good book:"
I remember that I was surprised to receive literary advice from Pete, for our talk at that time was all of fishing and hunting and the unconfined, out-of-school world that fishing and hunting led us into. But because of our partnership in that nonliterary world, I trusted his literary advice, and I took it, thereby giving myself one of the best literary pleasures of my life.
The book proved to be a journal of three years in the Driftwood River country of northern British Columbia by the author, Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher, and her husband, whom she calls "J." and whom the Indians called "Jack." These periods occurred between August 1937 and January 1939, and between mid-February and mid-September of 1941. Though I wouldn't have been aware of it forty years ago, this was surely one of the last times in the history of North America that a couple traveled by foot and horseback into virgin country, and lived there largely by their own efforts and in extreme isolation (they had no modern equipment; on their first stay they did not have even a shortwave radio), exploring mountains and valleys that no white people, and sometimes perhaps no people at all, had ever seen before.
I went into the book headlong. It was not a tale that I swallowed, but one that swallowed me. I have no idea how many times I read it, but I have the impression now that--like The Swiss Family Robinson and The Yearling before it--it was the only book I read for a year or two, the end serving only to permit a new return to the beginning.
In the last fifteen or twenty years, I have read it twice again, each time to find it as good as ever, but more moving. When I read it now, I am moved, not only by the book itself, but by the memory of how moved I was by it when I first read it. For this is a book that is not merely in my life, but of it, one of its events.
The book is to a considerable extent the record of a couple's working out their "mutual desire to live in and study the wilderness." And the record is moving because the living and the studying are, with them, so nearly the same thing. They want to know "the lives and problems of the wild things" because they like them. And as I read these pages now, I remember my old excitement, and am excited again, by passages that record the entrances of neighbors, wild and human, into awareness:
Then suddenly Vinson paused and pointed down at blue-green water sparkling through the trees.
"Tetana," he remarked indifferently.
The afternoon sun lay across the still surface of a small, shallow, crystal clear, vividly colored lake.
Today J. called excitedly to "come out quick!" Far in the north was an odd new noise… And then slowly, from the northwestern sky, came a ragged V of fifty-four big white birds, flying high, and talking to each other in deep soft voices.
As we drank our tea… the last daylight faded and the world was locked in the silence and glittering snow and moonlight of the early northern night. Then, suddenly, outside came a burst of rippling notes.
The other afternoon, when we supposed that the softness of the six feet of snow now on the ground would make it impossible for any living thing to be abroad, we were, literally, scared stiff when a strange voice outside suddenly shouted, "Hey jack!"
They learned the country by living in it, and by living from ita very different way of learning from that of people who go into wildernesses to learn about them merely by studying them. The Stanwell-Fletchers went, undeniably, as students. They spent a great deal of time collecting specimens and taking photographs for a museum; their small library contained reference books on biology, geology, and geography. But in this, their own book, the life of the place is always allowed to impinge upon and to qualify what is learned about it, and thus a great deal more is learned than would be available to the specialized student. The passionate enjoyments of the book have less to do with knowing than with encountering creatures and places, and one senses that the enjoyments are greater insofar as they are unencumbered by the gun or camera of the student.
The wish to know the lives of wild things is one of the motives behind the book; in the book, it is inextricably joined to a delight in living with them. One of the pleasures of this book is the writer's engagement in the daily business of seeing what is happening in the world around her. She has a gift for companionship with creatures. The company of animals, domestic and wild, is a source of endless excitement, amusement, and consolation to her. "Much of an animal's time," she says, "must be spent in the sheer joy of living, the sheer pleasure of physical sensations." And she says, "The loyalty of dogs and the patience of horses are very big and touching things." This theme of the book reaches its culmination in the sociability that develops between the human couple and a pack of wolves: "We have come to the conclusion that the wolves are well aware of our presence and habits, and like us! … It is rather wonderful that the most intelligent of all our wild companions has reached this basis of tolerance toward us. It seems a fitting fulfillment of our greatest desires."
It is possible (unfortunately) to imagine a reader who will object to Mrs. Stanwell-Fletcher's anthropomorphizing of animal thoughts and feelings. But of course this is common to people who live and work closely with animals. It is the language of affection and sympathy. How else might one explain animal character to human beings? And why, after all, should one want to be "purely scientific" about neighbors and companions? One must wonder, indeed, if there is any "purely scientific" way to get along or cooperate with animals, any more than there is with humans.
In those years immediately before the Second World War, bush pilots were beginning to operate in northern British Columbia, and the Stanwell-Fletchers were sometimes glad to fly to the outside. But they did not travel by plane very much, and the reader cannot help but feel the propriety of their travels on foot with packhorses, pack dogs, and dogsleds, or in dugout canoes. The remoteness of Tetana and the cabin is felt and understood, by writer and reader alike, because the country dividing it from human settlements has been experienced in the intimacy of physical effort. Getting there was a difficulty commensurate with the difficulty of living there. And these two difficulties authenticate distance and solitude in the reader's, as in the writer's, imagination.
The book's purpose, obviously, is to give an account of life in the wilderness, of the lives of wild places and creatures Its paradox--perhaps an inevitable one--is that it also, just as charmingly, gives an account of domestic life. It is full of the daily satisfactions and dissatisfactions of the home life and travels of a married couple. It Is full of the domestic drama of parting and reunion, absence and return, strangeness and familiarity, dependence and independence, anxiety and relief. This drama is more vividly understood danger and intensely felt, I think, than it would be in a book about life in civilization, because here it is always face-to-face with its causes and justifications. The house exists because of weather and because of work, both immediately experienced. Separation and isolation suggest the endangerment and death that they may, in fact, Involve, and from causes intimately known.
There is a fine candor in Mrs. Stanwell-Fletcher's recognition of the discomforts and risks of her life at Tetana, and this gives the book a wholeheartedness that I have always liked. It is a book touched everywhere by "exhilaration and a mighty anticipation." There is no condescension in it, no posture of superiority to experience, no irony, no apology.
My early readings of Driftwood Valley, as I remember, were purely exultant. Here was the true wilderness that probably every American child, wandering the woods or learning to hunt and fish, has longed to know. And I remember how this book's vision of great wilderness, ancient travel, and primitive experience charmed the farm woodlands and the homey streams that were wilderness to Pete and me. It gave us the understanding that the wild places we knew in Henry County, Kentucky, were somehow of a piece with wild places everywhere, and that we were participating in something large and old.
My later readings have renewed the satisfactions of the earlier ones, the major difference being that now the ending has come to seem to me profoundly sad. The last of the chapters is dated September 16, 1941. World War II had been going on in Europe for two years, and in less than three months the Japanese would bomb Pearl Harbor. Mrs. Stanwell-Fletcher's final pages make clear the likelihood that her husband would be called into service. I am sure that I was aware of these things when I first read her book, and yet I had not understood what a division the war had made. I did not see that I was already living in a different time, and indeed a different world, from the time and world that the book is about. Now I see that those excited young people, wintering alone in their cabin in the wilderness, were having an experience that is now lost to us, along with the pristine America of which they give us one of our last glimpses. And so the ending of this book has about it a more insistent intimation of mortality than most.
But this sadness is mostly introspective. The book itself is a celebration of everything it is about. At the last, of their parting with an Indian family with whom they had sometimes traveled, Mrs. Stanwell-Fletcher writes: "After all, though we have all in times past been angered one at the other, we are fond of one another, for we have seen and done great things together."
They had indeed seen and done great things, and we are lucky to have been told about them.
"One of the most distinguished and consistently absorbing books of the outdoors ever written."