The Mother of Nature Education

A couple of years ago, Jim picked up a book he thought I’d like at a library sale. It was a thick old book, stained and worn. At the time, I barely glanced at it as he put it on my shelf.

Over time, though, its title caught my eye: Handbook of Nature-Study. Above the title, in smaller capital letters, I could read the author’s name: Anna Botsford Comstock. Every once in a while, I'd become curious about the book and would pull it off the shelf and browse it. I noticed the detailed illustration of a cobweb that marked the cover, the publication date of 1911, and counted more than 900 pages of lessons about the natural world. But I didn’t actually read anything in it until a few months ago, when I was looking for information about squirrels. (From the section on the gray squirrel: “He is a little pirate and enjoys stealing from others with the keenest zest.”) Then I realized that I had a classic on my shelf.

Anna Botsford Comstock, I’ve since learned, is known as the mother of nature education. The first female professor at Cornell University, hired in 1897, she was also an accomplished illustrator: It’s her engraving of the spider web that graces the cover of my book. Her Handbook of Nature-Study grew out of pamphlets that she wrote for Cornell’s newly created Extension Service. To publish the book, Comstock and her husband, an entomologist, formed the Comstock Publishing Company. (Its motto: “Nature through Books.”) They fully expected to lose money in the endeavor; instead, the handbook was translated into 8 languages and became a standard textbook, published in numerous editions over half a century. Anna Comstock wrote the book in a conversational style that was knowledgeable about children and teachers as well as plants and animals. She believed that the best way to teach children about the natural world was to take them outside and let them observe it for themselves — a notion we are rediscovering nearly a century after her handbook was first published.

Here’s a short section, called “Nature-Study, the Elixir of Youth,” from the beginning of the book:

The old teacher is too likely to become didactic, dogmatic, and “bossy” if she does not constantly strive with herself. Why? She has to be thus five days in the week and, therefore, she is likely to be so seven. She knows arithmetic, grammar, and geography to their uttermost, she is never allowed to forget that she knows them, and finally her interests become limited to what she knows.

After all, what is the chief sign of growing old? Is it not the feeling that we know all there is to be known? It is not years which make people old; it is ruts, and a limitation of interests. When we no longer care about anything except our own interests, we are then old, it matters not whether our years be twenty or eighty. It is rejuvenation for the teacher, thus growing old, to stand ignorant as a child in the presence of one of the simplest of nature’s miracles — the formation of a crystal, the evolution of the butterfly from the caterpillar, the exquisite adjustment of the silken lines in the spider’s orb web. I know how to “make magic” for the teacher who is growing old. Let her go out with her youngest pupil and reverently watch with him the miracle of the blossoming violet and say: “Dear Nature, I know naught of the wondrous life of these, your smallest creatures. Teach me!” and she will suddenly find herself young.

What was true for the teacher then strikes me as true for the teacher today. And the power of nature continues to make magic, both for children who quietly, unconsciously absorb its lessons and for children who go outside with “keenest zest.”

Learn more
Anna Botsford Comstock was inducted into the Conservation Hall of Fame in 1988 by the National Wildlife Federation.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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