“Sometimes I think p’raps I’m a bird”: Naturalists in Literature
“Charles could entertain himself for hours just by thinking, or by observing birds, or watching sticks and leaves float down a stream. He made notes as he watched the birds, writing down what they did, how they behaved. And like many young boys, he was a collector. He collected shells, seals, coins, and minerals. He studied them and organized them in kind—in the tradition of natural historians.”
—from Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman
This passage about the young Charles Darwin made me think at once of Callie Vee, the spunky young naturalist who won our hearts in The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. And that got me thinking in turn about other literary naturalists we love. The impetuous, angry-eyed Dan comes to mind, Jo’s “firebrand” from Little Men. And of course there is Dickon from The Secret Garden: an unschooled naturalist to be sure, a student of nature by way of being a friend to every growing thing. Who else? I know I’m forgetting some favorites.
Sam from My Side of the Mountain? He’s more a survivalist than a naturalist, though certainly a student of nature. Anne Shirley’s beloved teacher, Miss Stacy, gets her pupils out collecting samples for nature study—Miss Stacy has long struck me as a sort of Charlotte Mason-style educator. The timing would be about right, but I have no idea whether Miss Mason’s principles traveled across the Atlantic to eastern Canada.
I thought it might be fun to collect some quotes about these literary naturalists; I’ll start off with a few below and if you have suggestions, please chime in!
Here’s Miss Calpurnia Tate, discovering the joys of recording nature observations in her Notebook-with-a-capital-N:
Before I went to bed that night, I took a can full of oats from the stable and dribbled them along the drive. I wrote in the Notebook, How many cardinals will we have next year, with not enough to eat? Remember to count.
I next wrote in my Notebook that we had two different kinds of grasshoppers that summer. We had the usual quick little emerald ones decorated all over with black speckles. And then there were huge bright yellow ones, twice as big, and torpid, so waxy and fat that they bowed down the grasses when they landed. I had never seen these before. I polled everyone in the house (except Grandfather) to find out where these odd yellow specimens had come from, but nobody could tell me.
(Callie’s quest to find out becomes the catalyst of a real relationship with her grandfather, himself an ardent naturalist, who has heretofore been only an intimidating and distant presence in her life. When no one else in her family has insight—nor interest, for that matter—in the grasshopper mystery, young Calpurnia gathers her courage and approaches the “dragon” in his den—er, laboratory. He dismisses her with a directive to figure it out herself, and when she does, all by herself, Grandfather emerges from his busy thoughts enough to take a fresh look at this girl-child he’d scarcely noticed until now—”as if I were a new species he’d never seen before.” From that point on, life will never be the same for Callie Vee.)
Now here’s Anne, infected by Miss Stacy’s enthusiasm for nature study:
“Mrs. Lynde says it made her blood run cold to see the boys climbing to the very tops of those big trees on Bell’s hill after crows’ nests last Friday,” said Marilla. “I wonder at Miss Stacy for encouraging it.”
“But we wanted a crow’s nest for nature study,” explained Anne. “That was on our field afternoon. Field afternoons are splendid, Marilla. And Miss Stacy explains everything so beautifully. We have to write compositions on our field afternoons and I write the best ones.”
—from Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
And here’s Dan, opening up to Mrs. Jo about his interest in the wild world:
“Where did you learn so much about these things?”
“I always liked ’em, but didn’t know much till Mr. Hyde told me.”
“Who was Mr. Hyde?”
“Oh, he was a man who lived round in the woods studying these things I don’t know what you call him and wrote about frogs, and fishes, and so on. He stayed at Page’s, and used to want me to go and help him, and it was great fun, ’cause he told me ever so much, and was uncommon jolly and wise. Hope I’ll see him again sometime.”
“I hope you will,” said Mrs. Jo, for Dan’s face had brightened up, and he was so interested in the matter that he forgot his usual taciturnity.
“Why, he could make birds come to him, and rabbits and squirrels didn’t mind him any more than if he was a tree. Did you ever tickle a lizard with a straw?” asked Dan, eagerly.
“No, but I should like to try it.”
“Well, I’ve done it, and it’s so funny to see ’em turn over and stretch out, they like it so much. Mr. Hyde used to do it; and he’d make snakes listen to him while he whistled, and he knew just when certain flowers would blow, and bees wouldn’t sting him, and he’d tell the wonderfullest things about fish and flies, and the Indians and the rocks.”
—from Little Men by Louisa May Alcott
Here’s Mary Lennox meeting Dickon for the first time:
The robin listened a few seconds, intently, and then answered quite as if he were replying to a question.
“Aye, he’s a friend o’ yours,” chuckled Dickon.
“Do you think he is?” cried Mary eagerly. She did so want to know. “Do you think he really likes me?”
“He wouldn’t come near thee if he didn’t,” answered Dickon. “Birds is rare choosers an’ a robin can flout a body worse than a man. See, he’s making up to thee now. ‘Cannot tha’ see a chap?’ he’s sayin’.”
And it really seemed as if it must be true. He so sidled and twittered and tilted as he hopped on his bush.
“Do you understand everything birds say?” said Mary.
Dickon’s grin spread until he seemed all wide, red, curving mouth, and he rubbed his rough head.
“I think I do, and they think I do,” he said. “I’ve lived on th’ moor with ’em so long. I’ve watched ’em break shell an’ come out an’ fledge an’ learn to fly an’ begin to sing, till I think I’m one of ’em. Sometimes I think p’raps I’m a bird, or a fox, or a rabbit, or a squirrel, or even a beetle, an’ I don’t know it.”
—from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Whom else shall we include?
“Some breezy open wherein it seemeth always afternoon”
“A little egg lay on a leaf”
“At first I could only hear people sounds…”