Through the Cabin Window:
Collected Essays of
James Howard Sedgwick

Right: J.H. Sedgwick,
dressed for the field;
Above: The Cabin;

 Photos courtesy of
Hanson Studio archives.

About a half-century after the run of NATURE NOTES, I published privately, for family members, this compilation of what would be called “blogs” today. Now, nearly another quarter-century later, it strikes me how much of the material here still resonates. While the modern environmental movement is usually traced to the publication of Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, the advocacy in these columns makes it clear that environmentalism was alive and well in the Great Depression and that (perhaps sadly) many of the same issues still need attention. The public’s lack of understanding and the venal motives of politicians are but two of the issues discussed here that are yet problematic. So it goes.

HP Hanson
Estes Park, 2014


From 1936 to early 1942—with an additional issue in early 1943—James Howard Sedgwick edited and published NATURE NOTES, “The Magazine of Outdoor Information,” (which motto, delightfully, was often translated into: “The Magazine of Outdoor Inspiration” on the contents page) as a paean to his love for the beauty of nature. Most issues included an editorial column, “Through the Cabin Window,” and the following essays are, for the most part, selections from the collection of those columns.

The Cabin, the view through whose Window inspired these essays, is long gone. It stood on a bluff above the Illinois River on the north side of Peoria amidst the hardwood forest environment that is typical of the non-cultivated landscape in that part of the country. I recall the Cabin mostly as a dusty treasure trove of books, butterfly collections, and fascinating naturalist’s paraphernalia.

* * * * *

I have often thought that my choice of careers was strongly influenced by my Grandfather Sedgwick: by concentrating my efforts on understanding our global environment rather than on being an aerospace engineer (for which I was originally trained), I feel that somehow I am following in his footsteps. As can be seen from these columns, he was a naturalist in the Victorian tradition of generalism rather than in our current mode of extreme specialization in science. Some of that ethic has shaped me: I have no doubt that it was his broad curiosity and knowledge about all facets of the outdoors, impressed upon me while I tried to keep up with him during all those walks in the woods, that motivated me to pursue environmental sciences.

* * * * *

What is perhaps most interesting to me about these various editorials is the degree to which Grandfather presents himself as what we now call an “environmentalist.” Fifty years ago, environmentalism was expressed less stridently than it is now, but comparing the basic ideas in these essays with the paradigm established by Edward Abbey, a truly radical environmentalist whose Desert Solitaire (which originally appeared in 1968) set the stage for such advocacy groups as Greenpeace and Earth First!, is revealing indeed. They both use nature’s beauty as the inspiration for their writings and express this inspiration in detailed, loving descriptions of species of birds, flowers, animals, and seasons, Grandfather describing the woodsy, nurturing environment of the midwest and Abbey the harsh environment of the desert. They both admonish the reader to slow down: What’s the rush? Grandfather preaches at length on walking (and makes small fun of himself for doing so) and even dismays his readers with the notion that nature appreciation by car is an oxymoron at best; Abbey, at the end of a paragraph that, in full, should be read only by mature adults, preaches: “...I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam-rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! and women! like human beings! and walk—walk—WALK upon  our sweet and blessed land!” In Desert Solitaire, Abbey spends an entire chapter on the problems of what he calls “Industrial Tourism,” (i.e., the degree to which even minimal development of wilderness benefits tourism, which is then compounded by the self-interested lobbying of the tourist industry in behalf of more and more development: I’m inclined to agree with the problematic aspects of this feedback); Grandfather’s gentler admonition (in V. VIII) is:

Why don’t we just take our vacations in May? Perhaps it’s just as well we don’t. Give the birds a chance to nest, the flowers a chance to bloom, the fish a chance to spawn, before the great industry of vacationing the public begins.

On the other hand, the ideal of fifty years ago sometimes disagrees with Abbey’s newer environmental ethic: Grandfather wanted to bring the “parks to the people”; now the approach is to isolate the two. Fences were to be crossed carefully and respectfully in 1937; today they are to be broached and destroyed. Perhaps these changes are only a reflection of our lack of progress toward what Grandfather was suggesting then. Would he agree with the newer, more strident approach? Maybe so. I recall that he seemed increasingly depressed in his later years by society’s continued lack of respect for nature. In any case, I am proud to be called an “environmentalist,” even if I may be more conservative in that regard than some of my contemporaries. Perhaps my conservative version of environmentalism is genetically derived.

* * * * *

In compiling these essays, I have used a certain amount of editorial discretion to eliminate what I may call “publisher’s boilerplate”—he was trying to sell magazines, after all. My intent is to capture the essence of a man who was enthralled by the beauty and intricacy of nature, to recapture, if you will, the ideas and feelings that have shaped so strongly my own attitudes about nature. These ideas and feelings serve me well here in Colorado, and I am grateful for having had the exposure to them as a child.

HP Hanson
Boulder, 1991

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