“Even today, White’s book continues to foster the conservation efforts he deeply believed in. Each year, the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge receives numerous letters from young readers who inquire about Louis and seek information about the refuge and the trumpeter swans.” – Marcia Melton, in “E. B. White’s Montana and ‘The Trumpet of the Swan,'” Montana – The Magazine of Western History, Spring 2012
Most of us remember E. B. White (1899 – 1985) primarily for his children’s books Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte’s Web (1952) and as co-author (with William Strunk, Jr.) of The Elements of Style (1959). But a book that grew out of his 1922 trip to Montana in a Model T Ford when he was 22 is not only equally notable but demonstrates how well-told stories about the natural world can influence young readers to help protect the treasures they first discover in fiction.
“Montana made a lasting impression on White,” writes Marcia Melton in her feature article in the current issue of Montana – The Magazine of Western History. Fifty years later, that impression was still strong enough to lead to The Trumpet of the Swan about a young cygnet who had no voice. Even though White worked for a while on a Montana ranch and saw a lot of scenery, he never saw a swan and never visited the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge where his story is set. (He knew how to do research.)
Founded in 1935, the refuge is in the greater Yellowstone area near the Centennial Mountains and the headwaters of the Missouri River. According to the refuge’s website, “A very shy bird by nature, the trumpeter swan is the subject of intense study in an attempt to learn how to ensure their survival. Rescued from near extinction, trumpeters breeding in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including Red Rock Lakes, have grown in number from a low of only 200 birds in 1932, to a success of more than 500 in recent years.”
As Melton notes, the swans were heavily hunted in the 19th century and early 20th century for meat, quills, down, and feathers. Fortunately, by the time White’s book was published inn 1970, the insanity of hunting wild creatures into extinction kept us from losing the swan. However, the bird still faces threats, as The Trumpeter Swan Society informs us, from illegal shooting, power lines, lead poisoning, and habitat loss. The Society, with the help of numerous volunteers, is one of the trumpeter’s strongest allies.
When White accepted the National Medal for Literature for The Trumpet and the Swan in 1971, he said “Only hope can carry us aloft, can keep us afloat. Only hope, and a certain faith that the incredible structure that has been fashioned for this most strange and ingenious of mamals cannot end in ruin and disaster.”
Reading Melton’s article about the man who wrote a story about a young swan named after Louis Armstrong who finds his voice in the form of a trumpet at a store in Billings, Montana, reminds me of the strength of a writer’s “act of faith,” as White calls it, and how that faith can be carried far and wide on the winds on white wings.