“Sometimes I think p’raps I’m a bird”: Naturalists in Literature

March 7, 2010 @ 4:43 pm | Filed under: ,

“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?

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17 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Christine M says:

    How about Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter? Also, her book The Harvester really focuses on the natural world (and makes me marvel at how much information about natural medicines we don’t seem to possess anymore) – but it isn’t as much for children.

  2. Sherry says:

    I thought of Gene Stratton Porter, too: Freckles.

    On another subject, I can’t remember: have I invited you to send me your list of ten favorite poems? I’m planning a survey for the month of April and following. Read more here: http://www.semicolonblog.com/?p=9520

  3. Samantha says:

    What about Gerry from My Family and Other Animals.

  4. Mrs. Mordecai says:

    I thought of Gene Stratton-Porter, too, especially A Girl of the Limerlost and The Harvester (my favorite find of the past year). She wrote first as a naturalist and second as a novelist, so it’s not surprising.

  5. Jamie says:

    Not a kid lit naturalist, but I love Stephen Maturin of the Patrick O’Brian novels.

  6. Melissa Wiley says:

    Y’all, would you believe I have never read any Gene Stratton Porter? She’s been on my list for AGES, but somehow I’ve never gotten around to her. Must rectify.

    Jamie, I’ve never read any O’Brian either! (blush) I did see the Master & Commander film, though—that’s one of his books, right? Heiligman’s descriptions of Darwin on the islands, taking notes & collecting specimens, makes me think of that film. I really enjoyed that character in the movie.

    Oh man, there are just SO MANY good books still to read. (happy sigh)

    Hey, I suppose I ought to include John Foster from Montgomery’s THE BLUE CASTLE!

  7. Dawn Riccardi Morris says:

    The very first author/illustrator who comes to mind is Thomas Locker. Here are the last words of his extraordinary picture book, Water Dance:

    “I am one thing.
    I am many things.

    I am water.

    This is my dance through the world.”

    He has written and painted many picture books, and there’s even a wonderful photographic autobiography of him, called “The Man Who Paints Nature.” It’s great for young children.

    Just thinking about Thomas Locker’s paintings and children’s books puts a smile on my face. What a great way to start the day. Thanks!

  8. Lisa says:

    I loved Calpurnia Tate! Don’t forget the young future President Theodore Roosevelt!

  9. Jamie says:

    Yep, Master & Commander is the first of the Patrick O’Brian novels. (The movie is not much like that first book at all — it is based on one of the later novels.) I know you have an enormous teetering TBR pile, but really — balance some PO’B on top! I read the first one a few years ago, and picked up #2 on a whim last summer. It sparked a blissful binge that prompted my husband to read the whole series as well. (That’s more fiction than he had read in the previous decade; he’s a non-fiction kind of guy.) Aubrey and Maturin are a fabulous pair, and the books are both richly detailed and laugh-out-loud funny.

    O’Brian also wrote some other books, a couple of which would be suitable for adventure-minded older kids. (There’s a bit too much swearing and wenching in the Aubrey-Maturin books for me to recommend them to my 13yo.) My favorite of those is The Golden Ocean, in which a poor Irish parson’s son sails around the world as a midshipman.

  10. Melanie B says:

    I second Jamie.
    Make room for some Patrick O’Brien!
    You will be so glad you did. Delightful.

  11. Sarah N. says:

    I’ve been reading Enid Blyton’s adventure series (a found several years ago at a used bookstore and I’m just now getting to them). Jack is an obsessive bird watcher and Phillip is constantly collecting animal specimens much to the chagrin of his sister.

    I love Calpurnia Tate and I know my 6yo will too when she’s older. Charles and Emma was one of my favorite recent reads too. I will add my voice to those encouraging you to read Patrick O’Brien.

  12. Kay says:

    Quote contribution from Calpurnia Tate:)

    “It was more important to understand something than like it.”

    When talking about her parents not seeing the dynamics of her brothers….

    “Helen Keller could have seen what was coming, so why couldn’t my parents.”
    My notes says it’s from page 263

    My last heartfelt favorite..
    “If no one around me even understood the question, then it couldn’t be answered. And if it couldn’t be answered, I was doomed to the distaft life of womanly things… I was depressed right into the ground.” pg 218

    The Calpurnia is also rich in vocabulary..
    apparition, admonishments, precipice, protuberant, purgatives, astentations, ignominy, cotillions, diurnal and foo faraw:)to name a few.

  13. Anna says:

    Oh, why didn’t I think of GSP’s Girl? Melissa, you really should read it. I can’t find my copy, or I’d choose a bit for you.

    I think My Side is a good choice, too, even if we didn’t finish it. It has been returned to the library.

    How about Trumpet of the Swan?
    “I don’t know of anything in the entire world more wonderful to look at than a nest with eggs in it. An egg, because it contains life, is the most perfect thing there is. It is beautiful and mysterious. An egg is far finer thing than a tennis ball or a cake of soap. A tennis ball will always be a tennis ball. A cake of soap will always be just a cake of soap- until it gets so small nobody wants it and they throw it away. But an egg will someday be a living creature. A swan’s egg will open and out will come a little swan. A nest is almost as wonderful and mysterious as an egg. How does a bird know how to make a nest? Nobody ever taught her. How does a bird know how to build a nest?”

  14. Melissa Wiley says:

    Sherry: re the list of my ten favorite poems! What fun! I’m sort of palpitating at the thought. Oh my. Yes. I’m in!

  15. mamacrow says:

    Well Jane of course, from Jane’s Country Year (Malcolm Saville) – spends the entire book bird watching & finding flowers etc

    Kate Ruggle who is country mad and in Dew Drop Inn (Eve Garnet) spends a year in the country, collecting wild flowers for the village fete competition among other things.

    There are numerous Enid Blyton Series with a nature theme, Enid Blyton’s Nature lover’s book and Around the year being proper nature books (as it were) and there was a series – I think it was the one starting with Six Cousins at Mistletoe Farm – but I could be wrong – which featured the children having a naturist adult as a friend.

    Along with Samantha I’d also site the child Gerry in Gerald Durrels’ Corfu trio of autobiographies, and also his friend Theo (really an adult, but needs including)

    RedShanks Warning (Malcolm Saville again) which is one of his books featuring the Jillys, and is all around bird watching and protection.

    Then there’s the Monica Edwards Romney Marsh series which starts with Wish for a Pony. As you’d expect, there’s a strong ‘horsey girls’ theme throughout, but Operation Seabird is about them rescuing sea birds from oil pollution, and Strangers to the Marsh features them trying to protect some rare nesting Hoopoes.

    I’d also nominate Dick of the two DDs in Aurthur Ransom’s Winter Holiday – he sees himself more as scientist but is obsessed with everything around him, having a particular interest in the stars.

    And of course there are the Romany & Rac books which came from a series of radio programmes on BBC Children’s hour in the ’40s and feature Romany (aka George Bramwell Evans) and his nature rambles and travels in his vardo (caravan) with Comma his horse, Raq his dog, and various nature mad child friends.

    Elizabeth Enright springs to mind – I think it’s in Then There Were Five where Oliver has a passion for moths, or it could be the Four Story Mistake (am unwilling to get up from the sofa to go check, to be honest)

    Sorry to write a novel, but I was passionately interested in nature as a child (still am!) and a veracious reader, so you’ve hit on one of my favourite subjects!!!