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NATURAL HISTORY

MY LIFE AS A NATURALIST

15

I am asked to give an account of my interest in natural history, and my experience as an amateur naturalist. The former has always been very real; and the latter, unfortunately, very limited.

I don't suppose that most men can tell why their minds 5 are attracted to certain studies any more than why their tastes are attracted by certain fruits. Certainly, I can no more explain why I like “natural history” than why I like California canned peaches; nor why I do not care for that enormous brand of natural history which deals 10 with invertebrates any more than why I do not care for brandied peaches. All I can say is that almost as soon as I began to read at all I began to like to read about the natural history of beasts and birds and the more formidable or interesting reptiles and fishes.

The fact that I speak of "natural history” instead of “biology," and use the former expression in a restricted sense, will show that I am a belated member of the generation that regarded Audubono with veneration, that accepted Watertono-Audubon's violent critic—as the 20 ideal of the wandering naturalist, and that looked upon Brehmo as a delightful but rather awesomely erudite example of advanced scientific thought. In the broader field, thank Heaven, I sat at the feet of Darwino and Huxley,o and studied the large volumes in which Marsh’so 25 and Leidy’so palæontological studies were embalmed, with a devotion that was usually attended by a dreary lack

1 Reprinted by permission from the American Museum Journal, vol. xviii, p. 321 (May, 1918.)

of reward—what would I not have given fifty years ago for a writer like Henry Fairfield Osborn,o for some scientist who realized that intelligent laymen need a guide capable of building before their eyes the life that was, in5 stead of merely cataloguing the fragments of the death that is.

I was a very nearsighted small boy, and did not even know that my eyes were not normal until I was fourteen;

and so my field studies up to that period were even more 10 worthless than those of the average boy who “collects"

natural history specimens much as he collects stamps. I studied books industriously but nature only so far as could be compassed by a molelike vision; my triumphs con

sisted in such things as bringing home and raising—by the 15 aid of milk and a syringe a family of very young gray

squirrels, in fruitlessly endeavoring to tame an excessively unamiable woodchuck, and in making friends with a gentle, pretty, trustful white-footed mouse which reared

her family in an empty flower pot. In order to attract 20 my attention birds had to be as conspicuous as bobolinks

or else had to perform feats such as I remember the barn swallows of my neighborhood once performed, when they assembled for the migration alongside our house and be

cause of some freak of bewilderment swarmed in through 25 the windows and clung helplessly to the curtains, the furniture, and even to our clothes.

Just before my fourteenth birthday my father—then a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History,

started me on my rather mothlike career as a naturalist 30 by giving me a pair of spectacles, a French pin-fire double

barreled shotgun--and lessons in stuffing birds. The spectacles literally opened a new world to me. The

mechanism of the pin-fire gun was without springs and therefore could not get out of order—an important point, as my mechanical ability was nil. The lessons in stuffing and mounting birds were given me by Mr. John G. Bell, a professional taxidermist and collector who had 5 accompanied Audubon on his trip to the “Far West.Mr. Bell was a very interesting man, an American of the before-the-war type. He was tall, straight as an Indian, with white hair and smooth-shaven clear-cut face; a dignified figure, always in a black frock coat. He had 10 no scientific knowledge of birds or mammals; his interest lay merely in collecting and preparing them. He taught me as much as my limitations would allow of the art of preparing specimens for scientific use and of mounting them. Some examples of my wooden methods of mounting birds 15 are now in the American Museum: three different species of Egyptian plover, a snowy owl, and a couple of spruce grouse mounted on a shield with a passenger pigeon—the three latter killed in Maine during my college vacations.

With my spectacles, my pin-fire gun, and my clumsy 20 industry in skinning "specimens," I passed the winter of '72–75 in Egypt and Palestine, being then fourteen years old. My collections showed nothing but enthusiasm on my part. I got no bird of any unusual scientific value. My observations were as valueless as my collections 25 save on just one small point; and this point is of interest only as showing, not my own power of observation, but the ability of good men to fail to observe or record the seemingly self-evident.

On the Nile the only book dealing with Egyptian birds 30 which I had with me was one by an English clergyman, a Mr. Smith, who at the end of his second volume gave

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