It is a terrible truth that this world (in particular, the people who inhabit it) has a way of destroying or dimming some of its brightest spirits and
minds. Genius, innovation, and creativity are isolating qualities that are generally misunderstood until recognized in retrospect. So is the case of
Opal Irene Whiteley, born on December 11, 1897 in Washington, and relocated to Walden, Oregon, where she was raised in a logging community. (I
learned all of the following information by reading The Singing Creek Where Willows Grow: The Rediscovered Diary of Opal Whiteley.
Opal was a sensational, captivating child and young lady who charmed and impressed adults, elders, and children alike with her enthusiastic and deep
knowledge of the natural world. The following is the story of her adventures; her desire to share her reverential love of nature with those around
her, her short-lived but sweeping success as a best selling author, her subsequent downfall and ruin by detractors and the media, and her tragic
spiral into detached isolation/mental illness.
This is a picture of Opal Whiteley at about 5 years old:
Opal fell in love early with the natural beauty of the Oregon woods, and eagerly began studying, collecting, listening to and learning from, caring
for, carrying around, and naming the animals and flora in the nearby fields and woods.
She was an avid reader, writer (from the age of 3), and spoke like an adult by the time she was 6. She was the youngest child in her community to
attend school, where she excelled, and there the teachers and classmates remember her bright eyes, humble spirit, small size, dreamy reveries, and
observant, questioning nature. When she was 6, Opal began recording a diary. She wrote it with crayons and on various scraps of paper a neighbor
In her wonderful diary is a cast of 96 people, farm animals, pets, and trees, with names such as Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus (a wood rat she
carried around in pockets she fashioned), Felix Mendelssohn, a mouse who loved to travel tucked under her curls, Lars Porsena of Clusium, “that very
wise crow” who would steal thimbles from Opal’s home which Opal would later find in a hole in a nearby fir, and Brave Horatius, “such a lovely
dog.” Friends have memories of birds and butterflies landing on her and of her menagerie, including a dog and pigs, following her around to school
and through the woods.
Opal loved attending church where she was said to have memorized the Bible, cover to cover, at a very young age, but her true connection with God came
from being in, admiring, loving and listening to God’s creation. She frequented a clearing in the woods which she called her cathedral, where she
would later take other children to either sit and listen to the woods in silence or to sometimes listen to a lecture she delivered. One woman recalls
her time with Opal:
“It was pure joy to be with Opal. I have never forgotten my summers with her. To her I owe my love of nature. Through her I learned to see beauty
in everything.” Another recalls lectures about resurrection; likening plants dying, seeds falling into earth and then being reborn to our own
upcoming rebirth, and similar analogies and stories which left her listeners enrapt. Opal’s belief was that God was everywhere: “God made the
out-of-doors. You learn to love Him when you understand his handiwork and His creatures.”
Opal, center, age 9 or 10:
Opal was always eager to share her discoveries with others, and had a strong desire to write a book about the inhabitants of the woods and fields, the
brooks and trees and stars (all of whom had a different spirit to Opal). To this end, she was constantly studying, exploring, collecting samples of
and learning from her environment. She had meticulous methods for collecting, recording and storing information.
When Opal was 13, she began teaching classes out of a two room structure- all the walls were covered in the specimens she had collected and stored.
Opal knew the scientific names in English and Latin for each specimen, as well as their physical characteristics, and would teach these as well as
each creature’s personality and what one could learn from studying it. Children were spellbound by her lectures.
When Opal was 13, two friends remember her running to them in tears, devastated that her younger sister had ripped her diary to shreds. She saved the
scraps and stored them in a friend’s house for 7 years. It was this diary that Opal sent for and had published, the same diary which made her the
most talked about author of her day, at first glowingly and then as one accused of fraud. I will get back to this portion presently..
edit on 25-2-2017 by zosimov because: (no reason given)