Born Edwin Alfred Teale in Joliet, Illinois, to Oliver Cromwell and Clara Louise (Way) Teale, his interest in the natural world was fostered by childhood summers spent at his grandparents' "Lone Oak" farm in Indiana's dune country—experiences recalled in his book Dune Boy (1943). At the age of nine, Teale declared himself a naturalist and at 12 changed his name to Edwin Way Teale.
He received a B.A. from Earlham College in English literature in 1922, then took a job at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. Teale taught at Friends from 1922–1924 and served as men's and women's debate coach, yearbook adviser and chairman of the campus Peace Contest. In 1923 he married Nellie Imogene Donovan, also on the Friends faculty, whom he had met while at Earlham College.
In 1924, Edwin and Nellie moved to New York so Edwin could pursue his education at Columbia University. Teale chose Columbia in part
...because it was in New York and it wouldn't take two months to get a manuscript back from a magazine.
In 1926 he received his Master of Arts degree from Columbia University.
In New York, Teale spent 13 years in his first full-time writing job, as a staff writer for Popular Science, working on a wide variety of assignments. In 1937, Teale's first photographic nature study, Grassroots Jungle, was published from among 200 of Teale's insect photographs, many of which were taken on a 4-acre (1.6 ha) plot of land near his home on Park Avenue in Baldwin, Long Island This was followed, in 1941, by The Golden Throng, a combination of text and photographs on bees.
At the age of 42, Teale left Popular Science to become a freelance photographer and nature writer.
In 1942 he wrote Byways to Adventure: A Guide to Nature Hobbies as well as Near Horizons, which received the 1943 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing.
In March 1945 Edwin's son David was killed in action in Germany. The Teales began a series of trips across the country, in part to deal with their grief. That same year, Lost Woods was published and received positive reviews.
On February 14, 1947, the Teales set off in their black Buick for a 17,000-mile (27,000 km) roadtrip. They headed first to the Florida Everglades, then zigzagged northward following the advance of spring. Teale wrote about the adventure in North with the Spring. The book was followed by three others on the North American seasons: Journey Into Summer, Autumn Across America, and Wandering Through Winter, which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1966.
Teale served as president of the New York Entomological Society from 1944-1949 and the Brooklyn Entomological Society (later incorporated into the New York Entomological Society) from 1949-1953.
Teale worked as a co-writer for a segment titled "Vernal Equinox" on the March 20, 1955 episode of Omnibus, a TV-Radio Workshop of the Ford Foundation produced by Robert Saudek and hosted by Alistair Cooke on the CBS Television Network.
Teale became president of the Thoreau Society in 1958, the same year that Autumn Across America was presented to the White House Library. He received an Indiana Author's Day award in 1960 and the Doctor of Humane Letters (LHD) honorary degree from Indiana University in 1970. Earlham College honored Teale with an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
In 1959, the Teales left the increasing suburbanization of their Long Island home for a 130-acre (53 ha) farm in Hampton, Connecticut, which they named "Trail Wood," and which Teale chronicled in A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974). The property was further described in A Walk through the Year (1978). Situated next to the Natchaug State Forest, Trail Wood is now managed as a nature preserve by the Connecticut Audubon Society.
In 1975, Teale received the Ecology Award from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and the Conservation Medal from the New England Wildflower Society.
Teale was an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Sciences, and an associate of the Royal Photographic Society.
In 1980 while working with author Ann Zwinger on the book A Conscious Stillness: Two Naturalists on Thoreau's Rivers, Teale died. Teale's portion of the book was nearly complete at the time of his death, and he was included as co-author when the book was published in 1982.
Teale's body was buried at North Cemetery, Hampton, Connecticut.
Nellie Teal died in July, 1993 at the age of 92.
Teale's papers consume 238 feet (73 m) in the University of Connecticut Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center in Storrs, Connecticut and include:
...field notes and drafts for each of his books, early childhood writings, professional writings for magazines, newspapers and book reviews, correspondence- both personal and professional, personal and family documents, scrapbooks, and memorabilia, as well as his photographs (prints, negatives, and transparencies) and his personal library. There is also one box of original John Burroughs material Teale collected over the years.
Teale's last will and testament of September, 1980, bequested to The Concord Free Public Library, Concord, Massachusetts, his...
...collection of Henry Thoreau books, letters, correspondence, momentos [sic] and any other material dealing with Henry Thoreau, all ... material dealing with Ralph Waldo Emerson and all other material ... dealing with or relating to Concord, Massachusetts. The collection consumes 16.9 feet (5.2 m) including 12 containers, plus 108 printed books and pamphlets.