Favorite Nature Writers – Anna Botsford Comstock

About nine years ago, I came across The Handbook of Nature Study in a used book store.  It was a 937-page book about teaching children how to study nature.  This edition was from 1939, originally published in 1911, and the author was Anna Botsford Comstock.  I was a teacher at the time, and always looking for ways to bring nature into the classroom, so I picked up her book.

Compared to other nature education books I have seen, that provide little puppet shows scripts or paper crafts to teach about nature, Comstock’s book is more scientific, more trusting in the child’s curiosity and skills of observation.  She doesn’t talk down to children, and she understands their antipathy to being maneuvered into drill lessons.

A boy once said to me, ‘I’d rather never go on a field excursion than to have to write it up for English,’ a sentiment I sympathized with keenly; ulterior motive is sickening to the honest spirit.  But if that same boy had been a member of a field class and had witnessed interesting things on this excursion, and if later his teacher had asked him to write for her an account of some part of it, because she wished to know what he had discovered, the chances are that he would have written his story joyfully and with a certain pride that would have counted much for achievement in word expression. (p. 16)

Here are some of her comments on field notebooks for students:

The book should be considered the personal property of the child and should never be criticized by the teacher except as a matter of encouragement; for the spirit in which the notes are made is more important than the information they cover. (p. 13)

The making of drawings to illustrate what is observed should be encouraged.  A graphic drawing is far better than a long description of a natural object. (p. 13)

It is through this method of drawing that which interests him that the child retains and keeps as his own what should be an inalienable right, a graphic method of expressing his own impressions.  (p. 17)

Over and over she stresses that the aim of these lessons is to inspire investigation rather than serve as a basis for memory drills.

But you don’t have to be a child or an educator to enjoy this book!  Each lesson has clearly written background information, a “leading thought”, suggestions for observations and further reading.  Comstock writes that the teacher should not just read the background information aloud to the students as the lesson material, but have it in mind to present in her own way, or use it to answer the questions that arise as the students observe.  But I find that the writing  style of the background information is so clear and memorable, enjoyable to read on its own.  Within any one topic, she is constantly linking to so many others, that I become curious about those too.

Let’s look at what she has to say on a bird that has just recently shown up here for the winter, the ordinary little Chipping Sparrow:

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

This midget lives in our midst, and yet among all bird kind there is not another which so ignores us as does the chippy.  It builds its nest about our house, it hunts for food all over our premises, it sings like a tuneful grasshopper in our ears, it brings up its young to disregard us, and every hour of the day it “tsip-tsips” us to scorn. And, although it has well earned the name of “doorstep sparrow,” since it frugally gathers the crumbs about our kitchen doors, yet it rarely becomes tame…

Its cinnamon-brown cap and tiny black forehead, the gray streak over the eye and the black through it, the gray cheeks and pale gray, unspotted breast distinguish it from other sparrows…

Despite its seed-eating bill, the chippy’s food is about one-third insects, and everyone should know that this little bird does good to our gardens and trees.  It takes in large numbers of cabbage caterpillars, pea lice, the beet leaf-minters, leaf hoppers, grasshoppers, and cutworms, and does it share in annihilating the caterpillars of the terrible gypsy and browntail moths…

One peculiarity of the nest has given this sparrow the common name of hair-bird, for the lining is almost always of long coarse hair, usually treasure trove from the tails of horses or cattle, switched off against boards, burs, or other obstacles.

With just a few paragraphs, Comstock has given me a much clearer mental picture of this bird and how it differs from other birds.

chipping 2Then she goes on with some suggestions for observations, for example:

  • Note whether the chippy catches flies or moths on the wing like the phoebe.
  • Describe the shape of the beak as compared with that of the robin.  What is this shaped bill adapted for?
  • If you have the luck to find a pair of chippies nesting…Do both parents build the nest?  How is the framework laid?  Do both parents feed the young?  How large are the young birds before the parents stop feeding them.

And she finishes each lesson with a poem or other literary nugget.    Here is just the first verse of the one she chose to accompany the chipping sparrow.

The Field-Sparrow

A bubble of music floats, the slope of the hillside over;
A little wandering sparrow’s notes; and the bloom of yarrow and clover,
And the smell of sweet-fern and the bayberry leaf, on his ripple of song are stealing,
For he is a cheerful thief, and the wealth of the fields revealing.

– Lucy Larcom

When the Chipping Sparrows are here in winter, they are so common, I hardly pay any attention to them (which perhaps they don’t mind, since Comstock tells us that they ignore us more than any other bird), but just this one short lesson has given me so much information and so many more things to notice.  I realize that since this book was published in 1939, some of the facts may have been disproven by now, and some then unknown things might now be common knowledge, but I love this book for the many layers of meaning wrapped up together in each lesson.