by Jean C. George
In the sunny frame of our kitchen door last summer stood our eight-year-old daughter, Twig. Her excitement was so great that there were no words — just wide misty eyes and a trembling chin, for cupped in her hands was a tiny bird.
The bright-eyed nestling was still covered with puffs of natal down, and it was snuggled in her hands much as it had snuggled in its nest. I turned away from the begging face and said:
“You can’t keep it, Twig. It is too young, and it is a rare bird. It is a rose-breasted grosbeak. Return it to the spot where you found it. Only the mother bird knows how to care for one so young.”
Tears rolled from an ocean of grief, but we had been through this before. Birds, mice and raccoons too young to raise had only brought sadder moments when they did not survive. I knew what was to be learned from raising such a bird, but I also knew the pitfalls. We returned the nestling. I went home. Twig waited under the bush.
However, I had not counted on the unpredictable nature of the rose-breasted grosbeak. Hours passed. The little face appeared in the doorway again. The bird was in her hand calling for food.
“The mother won’t feed it,” Twig said. This awakened in me a vague knowledge that grosbeaks sometimes desert their young when the nest has been disturbed. I went into the yard. Crying from the branches of several trees were other hungry little grosbeaks. So we ended up with two of them, and launched into a summer of watching and reading and looking that was worth all the trouble that is inherent in taking in foundling birds.
Twig learned quickly. Baby birds are hungry most of the time. We had to feed them every twenty minutes or so. We also had to feed them a special formula, and change it often so that it would be fresh. This started us off to the library and the local Audubon Society for information. We found a pamphlet published by the Society describing how to feed stranded nestlings of various species. Once we had the feeding solved, Twig became interested in birds in general. We spent several evenings going through our own books with her, technical but convertible when read with an adult. Some of them were Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, Leonard W. Wing‘s Natural History of Birds, and Harry Hann’s The Biology of Birds. The last we read while looking at the two birds, stretching their little wings, to see the feather tracks, feeling their lightness discovering why they could fly.
When she had had as much of this as she could absorb we went to the library for stories about birds. We found several she loved: Rufous Redtail by Helen Garrett, White Birds Island by Georgi Skrebitsky, White Patch, A City Sparrow by Olive L. Earle, and Run Sandpiper Run by Lloyd Goff. These we read aloud while the grosbeaks perched on Twig’s finger and slept. As the stories went along, she would touch the little birds from time to time and whisper: “I’ll bet you’ll do that some day.”
When the feathered pair were old enough to fly, we put them outdoors and fed them in the bushes near the kitchen door to which they returned when hungry. After feeding them, Twig would follow them from tree to tree to see where they sat to sleep. One day she asked why we had grosbeaks in Chappaqua, New York, but her grandmother had none in Pennsylvania.
This question had to be answered by altitude and trees, and specifically by the fact that grosbeaks love linden trees. I pointed out the linden tree in our yard, and on our next trip to the library Twig came home with American Trees by Russel T. Limbach and Knowing Your Trees by G. H. Collingwood. She learned the linden, and then she learned the maples, next the elm, and the scotch pine, and so around the yard. I helped her press leaves from all these trees between old newspapers and before we knew it, the grosbeaks had led to the trees, the trees to the flowers that grew under them, and the flowers to the insects that decorated them. While moving from tree to flower, she would often come into the house to report a hole in the ground. We turned to The Mammal Guide by Ralph S. Palmer and Field Guide to Animal Tracks by Olaus J. Murie.Palmer’s book is excellent for adults working with children, for it not only identifies the animal but gives its life history, which is enchanting to children. Murie’s is wonderful because it makes detectives out of everyone, and the animals that can’t often be seen become real when their teeth marks are found on nuts or their footprints discovered in the dust.
For flowers we turned to the Book of Wild Flowers for Young People by F. Schuyler Mathews, and for insects, we started with a children’s book, Insects in Their World by Su Zan Noguchi Swain, and then went into a technical book An Introduction to Entomology by John Henry Comstock for brief but exciting excursions.
And so, that summer we learned the hills of New York through the arrival of a grosbeak in our home.
Admittedly a grosbeak is exotic. But the same chain of events can take place with the most common of the earth’s creatures. All children exposed to the earth and sky are collectors, and I am sure every home has had its share of worms, insects, polliwogs, and flowers, brought in by the curious young. We have found that the best thing to do when the air warms and the doors open is to invest in five good guide books — on birds, mammals, trees, flowers and insects — and keep them near a supply of empty jars on the kitchen sink, for in our house all life enters through the kitchen door.
These books are inexpensive and are regional. It is best to pick them up in your own neighborhood, for then you are sure that if you live in Maine you are not going to get birds and mammals and insects of California. (We picked up a nice series of these books in the gift shop at the New York Museum of Natural History.) After a few hours of helping the children name what they have found, they are usually off to the library to find out more about the foundling creatures. They are good systematists — all children are.
Our six-year-old-son, Craig, was worm-conscious one summer. He carried worms wherever he went. They brought him some inner satisfaction. After about a month of this, he became curious about the earth they lived in, and why they didn’t have any eyes. An excavation in the backyard marked his probe into the mysterious underworld. He found roots, ants and stones. At the end of this expedition into the earth he asked, “Where does the earth end?”
I got out The World We Live In by Lincoln Barnett and the editors of Life, an adult book that our children have claimed. Craig moved in new spheres. From land to sky, through space to the planets. And then he alighted on the dinosaurs! Fortunately there are several good dinosaur books for six-year-olds, an age when the giants of the earth are particularly appealing for some mysterious six-year-old reason. Two favorites are: So Long Ago by E. Boyd Smith and Dinosaurs by Marie Halun Bloch. Craig liked these because they use the scientific names. “Tyrannosaurus rex” is a name he tosses off with the same abandon as “Georgieporgiepuddin’n pie.”
We realized later that Craig would have discovered dinosaurs very soon via the cereal boxes, but we like to think that he came upon this fascinating world all on his own through worms. However, we are so grateful for any source of inspiration — be it cereal boxes or TV — that we are delighted no matter what provokes a question. Our only formula is that when the questions arise we have the books to answer them, or make some effort to get the inquirer to the library where we can search for the answer.
As a family we have a very strong sense of environment and to spend a summer vacation in a country where the animals, birds and plants are strangers makes us feel like outcasts. None of us knew much about the seashore when we started off for the ocean front along Delaware, so in addition to bathing suits we packed guide books on shells, seabirds and marine life, then took a bearing on the local library before finding a home on the beach.
A seashore makes a collector out of the most resistant. There is something about a shell gleaming in the sand that defies you to pass over it, and so our front porch became a marine zoological laboratory as all of us, children and adults, added to the collection. As soon as the tide went out, the children and I hurried down to the edge of the water to see what enchanting bit of life or debris the tide had brought ashore for us this time. The shells, of course, we learned first, gluing them on cardboard, looking them up in the guidebook and labeling them. Then came the crabs, two species of which we kept alive in an old tub. Twig and Craig would spend hours watching them eat or signal each other with their claws. They called them by their scientific names, Uca Pugnax and Minax. When we tired of crabs, there were the turtles and fish to learn, and many trips to the library to bring back every book that pertained to the sea. The Illustrated Book of the Sea by Leon A. Hausman and Felix Sutton was a fine juvenile version of our own technical book (Field Book of Seashore Life by Roy Waldo Miner). My husband, John, and I found that we learned pleasantly from this book, too. Then we discovered Wilfrid Bronson and his Children of the Sea. This story of a child and a porpoise took our own children beyond naming and labeling into the heart of the ocean. Pagoo by Holling Clancy Holling renewed the children’s interest in their crabs as the life history of a little hermit crab made a personality out of their pet in the tub on the porch. Oley, The Sea Monster by Marie Hall Ets brought man and the little seal from the wide ocean together in an amusing way for the children, and, as the evening closed over the ocean they would look out across the vast world of water and wonder if they could find an Oley.
We usually let the children set the pace in these adventures into nature, but since both John and I are deeply interested in natural history, we no doubt encourage any spark of curiosity they show. Any parents can do it, however, by simply being interested in what is around them and in what the children bring home. Fortunately the treasures from the wild fall into one of three groups, and it is easy to get the child started. It has to be either a plant, animal, or rock (mineral). With that decided, the book is the next step. A few minutes taken away from the ironing or dishwashing is all one needs, and, as for me, I need no encouragement. If it is an animal — a frog let us say — we next go after his markings, size and color. If it is an insect, we are usually satisfied to discover that it is a beetle — there are so many of these that I give up on any further identification unless it is big and common. Fortunately for parents, children have a habit of bringing in the big and the common. About June, I always brush up on walking sticks and praying mantises, ants and bees, as we are almost sure to have several of each every year.
Home and the backyard can be wonderfully stimulating to parent and child alike. Travel, of course, is a magnificent family adventure. However, we have discovered this: all too soon the sights grow mundane and the glitter and newness of an area tarnishes. Then there is nothing like a walk to collect the natural souvenirs of the land.
We went west several summers ago. At first, the cowboys were the thing. We all but tackled every cowboy during the first week we were in Wyoming. As it turned out, they were all good cowboys and nobody had shot anybody, and the west began to dull. Then one night the voices of the coyotes rose around our tent. Wide-eyed and goose-bumpy, the children sat up and listened. We talked about them until everyone was calm and sleepy. The next day however, we had to go out and see where the coyote lived. We walked through scratchy sage brush and over rocks, and all we found was a den, dry and uninteresting. Fortunately, the cousins we were visiting had a book Wild Animals of the Five Rivers Country by George Cory Franklin. The chapter on the coyote opened his dry den to us. We learned his habits and his food, and the following week we had to take another trip to see the pocket gophers. On this trip what we could not see was there anyway, as we knew all about the wild animals of this area. All About the Desert by Sam and Beryl Epstein brought more activity to the dry country.
Because it is hard to see much of the life that inhabits an area, we usually try to stop at roadside zoos as we travel. Although it is sad to see some of the bigger animals chained, this is an excellent way to see the animals and birds of a region. It also keeps the children content in the car for the next hundred miles or so, drawing the animals they saw or finding them in books. We also picnic along the way, and when the sandwiches are devoured and the adults are still eating, we send the children off into the woods to find as many new things as they can.
When they return with armloads of the countryside, we pack children and specimens in the car and put them to work making things out of them — dolls, hats, boats, necklaces — for there is a point beyond which all this scientific business becomes dull and must be replenished from play. Very often out of this kind of play comes the interest to collect, as it did in my own case, when I was a little older than my Craig. I was making boats of milkweed pods when it occurred to me that there were two different pods. I took them home to my father and he told me one was orange milkweed and the other was common milkweed. I went back for the plants and picked and pressed them. Later I pasted them on paper and wrote the names beside them. Other flowers joined the collection.
Then came the day when I walked into the meadow near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and everything was familiar. The bone-set, the ironweed, the butter-and-eggs were no longer masses of weeds. They were familiar faces. I shan’t forget the feeling of intimacy and comfort as I lay down among them to rest. No longer was the meadow full of “grass.” It was now filled with things that were mine. I had a sense of belonging that I had never known before. To this day the familiar eastern meadow brings a sense of quiet to me, and all the quaint and loved names rush hack to mind.
Experiences like this drove John and me to writing about the natural world. Both of us had a desire to pass on to our children and other children the smell of a summer meadow, the sounds of a winter night; for to us one of the great emotional experiences of life is to be so familiar with a spot of earth that it “belongs” to you. There is a feeling of security in looking at a familiar yard, or a street with elms along it. It gives one a sense of identity that all life craves whether it be raccoon or bird, turtle or child.
The human being is so mobile in the twentieth century that this experience is often missed; but it can happen to every child, whether he lives on the streets of a city or on a wandering trailer. A bird that comes to a feeding station, a tree that grows by an apartment door can become the poetry of a lifetime. Childhood is brief, but its impressions are indelible, and it is little enough to tell a child that the tree by the door is a sycamore, that robins nest in it pigeons sit on it starlings sleep in it, and that its roots go into the earth.
And then to give him a library card.
Article originally appeared in the June 1959 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.