Posts Tagged ‘Charles Darwin’

Fascinating Live and Dead Things

March 11, 2010 @ 8:26 pm | Filed under: , , ,

OK, I am really enchanted by these crows. We had such fun today, watching them at work on a nest in the top of an enormous tree just the other side of our back fence. Our house backs up to an elementary school (I know, ironic) and in the schoolyard quite near the fence is a very large widespread Moreton Bay fig tree. (I think that’s what it is.) One crow went back and forth to the tippy-top carrying twigs, while another perched in a supervisory manner in a nearby eucalyptus.

At intervals we’d see four crows wheeling about between the fig and another clump of very tall eucalyptus trees on the other side of the school. Perhaps there is another nest over there.

They ate up the peanuts we left them—when we weren’t looking. When I was looking, they only made low swoops over the table, eyeing the nuts and uttering baleful remarks to the wind.

In the evening I saw one of the crows inspecting our driveway, stepping deliberately up its length beside the minivan. Probably he knows it is a reliable source of crushed goldfish crackers.

It was a quite interesting day, though we were stuck at home with the remnants of fevers-and-sniffles. A man came to investigate the scrabblings in our attic; he found two dead rats (horrors) and earned Beanie’s forever-friendship by letting the kids look at one. It was repulsive, she told me. I should think so. Rose now says she wants to pursue a career in pest control so she can see more “fascinating dead things.” There is a moral here somewhere, having to do with what happens when you strew the house with poetry and music and art, I’m sure. Apparently our mental diet has been low in fascinating dead things.

Plenty of fascinating live things in my flower garden: I did a lot of pruning today, and the middle kids had a grand time stripping leaves off the long canes of cape honeysuckle and then swishing them over one another’s heads and being indignant about how they almost knocked each other’s heads off. Swoosh! Like crows swooping low over the peanuts. I left the butterfly bush lopsided because just when I was poised for the final series of whacks, I realized there was a nice little bower behind the honeysuckle and the butterfly bush, if I stopped where I was. So now there’s a comical view from the patio, and a Secret Hideout in the back. They are stocking it with plenty of canes for knocking off each other’s heads.

Things people read today: Jane finished Don’t Know Much About Geography and began the History volume; Rose finished Tuck Everlasting and said she wasn’t sure how she felt about it but wasn’t ready to talk about it yet (I get that, especially with that book); Beanie began The Saturdays; and I finished Charles and Emma, which I greatly enjoyed. Darwin’s personality was not at all as I had envisioned it—I think I’ve imagined him more as a curmudgeonly, uninterruptible sort, very much like the grandfather in Calpurnia Tate. But it seems he was quite a teddy bear of a father, deeply affectionate with his children, so reluctant to spoil their fun by making them stop jumping on the furniture that he’d turn and leave the room rather than tell them to cut it out. And completely adoring of his wife, Emma, respecting her candor and insight even on the very serious questions for which they had quite different answers.

I loved this bit about Charles’s reaction to a wedding present—it begins with a quote from one of his letters:

“My good old friend Herbert sent me a very nice little note, with a massive silver weapon, which he called a Forficula (the Latin for an earwig) and which I thought was to catch hold of soles and flounders.” But Erasmus, who knew these things, told him it was for asparagus.


I’m poking around the stacks now, trying to fix upon which of a dozen promising tomes to read next. I’m craving a really absorbing piece of fiction, something I can fall into. There are a good many likely prospects in previous TBR posts on this blog: I still haven’t made time for I Capture the Castle, which so many of you have enthusiastically suggested, and I STILL haven’t gotten to The Elegance of the Hedgehog, nor The Thirteenth Tale, nor the second Mysterious Benedict Society book, nor In This House of Brede…not to mention this whole list of requests from my kids…plus you’ve got me all fired up to read those Patrick O’Brian books you were talking up in the comments the other day. And Girl of the Limberlost, which I did download to my iPod after your fervent recommendations.

I suppose I might get more reading done if there weren’t so many interesting things happening in my backyard.

Here’s how Beanie settles the problem:

(Speaking of books I mean to read.)

“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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