Birds, Naturalists, and Writers

While working outside the other evening, I heard the unmistakable sound of a Bob White. Bob-Bob-White he called over and over. The sound transported me to my childhood in Iowa, where I would answer the bird-call and exult in his calling back to me again and again.

Americans have had an obsession with birds since Audubon first determined to find, in person, all North American birds and draw or paint them. The copper-plated engraving process, both expensive and time-consuming, created a soft, rich, nostalgic effect, as did lithography, which took the place of the copper technique.

Here, we see not only the beauty of Audubon’s hand-painted work, but also of the engraving, identifying the birds, done by his printer Havell. Note the plate number at the top, right-hand corner.

 

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Painted Finch:  1,2, Old Males, 3 M of 1st. Year, 4,  2nd. Year, 5, Female.

[An up-close, high-resolution download and more information can be found at Audubon.org.]

My first introduction to naturalists (as in those who study animals and plants in their natural habitats) came subconsciously through writers such as Louisa May Alcott. After years of teaching and reading about Alcott, I now better understand that Alcott was influenced by her father’s background and involvement in the transcendentalist movement.

Jo’s parenting methods in her home for boys (Little Men) allows for each boy to explore and grow in his own unique gifts and talents as an “individual”.  As a teacher at a home for boys, I relate to all the types of “treasures” boys might bring home, including the following from my own experiences:  sticks, strings, weeds, seeds, feathers, stones, fossils, lizards, snakes, and even a freshly-shot turkey (he had a license and it was in-season, but still!). In Little Men, several of the boys create a naturalist museum brimming with all sorts of specimens, including:

“A snake’s skin, a big wasp’s nest, a birch-bark canoe, a string of birds’ eggs, wreaths of gray moss from the South, and a bunch of cotton-pods” (Louisa May Alcott, Little Men).

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Nests and Eggs of Birds of the United States:  Illustrated by Thomas G. Gentry, c 1906

Audubon stuffed his home at Mill Grove, Kentucky, with similar collections, according to his own journals published by his daughter in 1897. As a way to become better known, he visited naturalist museums all over the country and tried to contribute his work to them if they allowed him to. In the process, he learned from others how to improve his methods and market himself.

He painstakingly drew and re-drew birds and found a way to color them by hand:

“February [1822] was spent in drawing birds strenuously, and I thought I had improved much by applying coats of water-color under the pastels” (Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and his Journals,Volume I).

Here is a drawing/painting which he completed that same year:

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Black Bellied Darter or Snake Bird. Painting by John James Audubon, New Orleans, 1822.

Like Audubon, Gene Stratton-Porter shared a passion for birds, as well as other creatures of the forest, but described them, rather than drew them, in her fictional works such as Girl of the Limberlost and non-fiction articles for magazines such as McCall’s. Rich with imagery, her writing shows us her beloved home in The Song of the Cardinal:

“Every hollow tree homes its colony of bats. Snakes sun on the bushes. The water folk leave trails of shining ripples in their wake as they cross the lagoons. Turtles waddle clumsily from the logs. Frogs take graceful leaps from pool to pool.”

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Illustration Pond and Stream:  Nature Books for Children, c 1906

Books, magazines, journals, calendars, and illustrations from this period of literature were ripe with nature and depicted it in its most realistic forms, perhaps due most to the efforts of naturalists of the 19th and 20th centuries. It seemed to be a calling for Audubon, Gene Stratton-Porter, and others such as Chester A. Reed.

BobWhite

I quite love this illustration of bob whites from The Bird Book, by Reed and published in 1915 by Doubleday. Unfortunately, this talented artist and naturalist passed away of pneumonia in 1912.

He claims that the bob whites “frequent open fields” and build their nests “along roadsides.” That explains why I heard their call so often growing up. Open fields surrounded our house, and grass-covered ditches provided the habitat these plump birds need to propagate.

Reed also had a passion for photography, filling the pages of this beautiful book with photos of eggs, as well as appealing graphics and sketches on every page.

It is apparent that this was meant to be a resource for those who came across eggs, nests, or the birds themselves and wanted to identify them. But, had he lived in the 21st century, he might have been a graphic artist!

I try to remind myself when I watch old movies or read books with black-and-white photos that people viewed the world in color, just as we do now. They noticed the varying shades of green of the soft grasses, the yellow reeds, and the deep-emerald swallows. They, too, knew the white-blue of a summer sky and the cold-purple blue of a lake in the fall.

Perhaps this is the very reason Audubon’s works were so popular. For the bird world is a world of color. He knew this and wanted others to see what he noticed and not just in the grays of a sketch, however well done it might have been.

Thanks to the naturalists who left us records in photos, sketches, paintings, writings, and journals, we have a picture of the world as it was and in their eyes.

 

Popular Baby Names in Classic Literature

According to the most recent data from the Social Security Administration, new parents are choosing names once prominent from the 18th through the early 20th centuries. Here are some well-known female characters and writers from literature and their name rankings from the current decade (2010-2019 so far):

Emma (ranked #2) -This name is popular in the fictional world, as well as the real one. Think Emma Swan (Once Upon a Time) and Emma Frost (X-Men).  Now over 200 years old, matchmaker Emma Woodhouse shows us that it’s attractive to be confident. In a time when it was unusual to do so, Jane Austen’s famous protagonist insists she will never marry, and, though she does in fact accept a proposal, she stays true to herself by holding out for true love.

 

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Emma, 1896 edition, ill. Hugh Thomson

Isabella (ranked #3) – Jane Austen assigned this name more than once (including to Emma’s older married sister). Yet, it is Isabella Thorpe from Northanger Abbey who leaves the stronger impression. Flirtatious and beautiful, Isabella is the friend no other girl wants too close to her man. If alive today, she might go by Isabel or Bella.

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Northanger Abbey, 1907 edition, ill. C. E. Brock

 

Emily (ranked #5) – Fiercely independent Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights, gave us one of the most haunting, but strangest, love affairs in history. Baffling to researchers and readers alike, this talented writer never married and in all probability never even had a love affair. She could have fooled us!

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Emily Bronte
https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dd-cf0a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Lily (ranked #22) – Trapped between a high social standing and financial destitution, Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) seems to always be one step behind the security she seeks. Still, she lives up to the class and dignity of her name by choosing honor over reputation. Edith Wharton well understood the world of high-society New York as shown here around 1880:

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Edith Wharton

 

Grace (ranked #20) – Even a secondary character, especially when she is mentally-disturbed Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, intrigues me enough to place her on this list. However, author Grace Livingston Hill deserves first place for creating an entirely new genre of writing known as the Christian romance and for writing well over 100 novels in the early- to mid-1900’s. She understood well the meaning of grace.

Barbour Publishing, 2000

Elizabeth (ranked #10) – “Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Bess…” This children’s rhyme displays the versatility of this classic name. Memorable Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice lives on as a model of the strong, sassy female protagonist. In contrast, Elizabeth (Beth) March (Little Women) lives on as the girl whose sweet nature influences all those around her. [Note the illustration drawn by the real Amy (May Alcott).]

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Little Women, 1896 edition, ill. May Alcott

I like to think that at least some of the many names that remain popular decades and even centuries later can be attributed to the writers and characters of our favorite books. Perhaps Anne Shirley said it best:  “I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage” (L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables).

 

 

Laura, Catherine, Louisa, and Me

Recently, a poll on Twitter asked which book first inspired in you a love for reading. I thought immediately of Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

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This and other childhood books were my friends, their words my teachers, and their settings my travels. Even today, I see the connections between these books and my own life.

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have come to live in the Missouri Ozarks. We often vacationed here, and though I was born and raised in Iowa, I longed to live here. Now I realize the pull I had to the cool, green hills, the fingered lakes, and the giving spirit of the residents was a pull to home. Driving away after vacation with my family, I never wanted to leave here. Now, it is my home, and I have taken my husband (actually dragged him) to the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Mansfield more than once where I am in my element.

When I was thirteen, a friend’s mom placed the book Christy in my hands (long before the movie or the TV show came along). This book so influenced me that I purposely majored in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in college, hoping to become a missionary.

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Instead, God had a unique plan for me that comes much closer to Catherine Marshall’s book. I work as a teacher, like Christy, at a residential treatment facility, where at times I have taught many grades in one room, dealt with literacy issues, and have experienced the stench of boys who have been doing chores in the pig barn (and haven’t cleaned up afterward). Even though I never had to make the trek up that mountain in Tennessee, I have experienced the isolation of only seeing my family one or two times per year for the past twelve years due to the distance between us and the intensity of the job.

Although I wished for more fiction by Catherine Marshall (as you probably know, she only completed two fictional novels), I am still trying to finish all of Louisa May Alcott’s stories. Jo’s Boys remains one of my favorites from childhood. I was intrigued by the unique life Jo led, marrying an intellectual, having a home for boys, and writing in her spare time.

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This past year, my eighth grade class read Little Men. Each one in the class identified with a different character, and all identified with life in a group home. I am amazed at Alcott’s ability to describe in detail our lives here and now, many generations later and many states away (and yes, I married a very intelligent guy, live at a home for boys, and write in my spare time!).

I leave off with these words from Little Men:

“‘It is the best joke of the family, this school of yours and its success. So unlike the future we planned for you, and yet so suited to you, after all…’ said Laurie.” (Louisa May Alcott)