Sunday, February 06, 2011

`Do the Moths Eat Anything?'

“The author feels apologetic that the book is so large. However, it does not contain much more than any intelligent country child of twelve should know of his environment; things that he should know naturally and without effort, although it might take him half his life-time to learn so much if he should not begin before the age of twenty.”

The words, witty and wise, are Anna Botsford Comstock’s in her preface to Handbook of Nature Study (1911). I have the 1986 revised edition of eight hundred eighty-seven pages published by Cornell University Press. Comstock (1854-1930) was the first female professor at Cornell, though she was never granted a full professorship. She was an amateur (in the etymological sense) with large gifts, scientific, artistic and literary, and her book, which I first read around age eleven, is charmingly anachronistic, published long before the revolutions in genetics and molecular biology. It would drive a biological positivist nuts, but if you’ve ever held a toad in your hand and looked at him, you’ll approve of Comstock’s style:

“The toad’s face is well worth study; its eyes are elevated and very pretty, the pupil being oval and the surrounding iris shining like gold. The toad winks ins a wholesale fashion, the eyes being pulled down into the head; the eyes are provided with nictitating lids, which rise from below, and are similar to those founds in birds. When a toad is sleeping, its eyes do not bulge but are drawn in, so as to lie even with the surface of the head.”

As an artist paints from life, so Comstock writes from life closely observed. I have no doubt she stared eye-to-eye with Bufo americanus. The passage reminds me of Thoreau’s description, in his journal entry for Sept. 3, 1858, of a snake swallowing a toad:

“It is a singular sight, that of the little head of the snake, directly above the great, solemn, granitic head of the toad, whose eyes are open, though I have reason to think that he is not alive, for when I return some hours later I find that the snake has disgorged the toad and departed.”

Who to judge the more skillful writer is obvious (“great, solemn, granitic head”), but that’s not the point. Comstock, born in upstate New York less than a decade before Thoreau’s death, is writing for the children and teachers of her time, not posterity. Her intentions are not “literary,” but her book is literature, and there’s a lesson in there somewhere. In her suggested classroom exercise on the cecropia moth she writes:

“Make a water-color drawing or describe in detail the fully expanded moth, showing the color and markings of wings, body, and antennae.”

followed by

“Do the moths eat anything?”

Comstock knew her entomology – and children. To draw or write in detail about a plant or animal is the happiest, most efficient way to learn about it. A child drawing a cecropia (the largest native North American moth) would naturally observe the adults have no mouth parts and thus are unable to feed, though the caterpillars are ravenous.

Comstock cites Thoreau fifteen times in her text, mostly from the journals; Darwin, four times; Emily Dickinson, three times; Emerson, twice; Linnaeus once. This easy mingling of what we now call “science” and “the humanities” was, until recently, the lingua franca of educated people, whether or not they attended a university. Comstock’s declaration that her book contains little more than what “any intelligent country child of twelve should know of his environment” is audacious and humbling. Her chapter devoted to “The Skies” begins like this:

“For many reasons aside from the mere knowledge acquired, children should be taught to know something about the stars. It is an investment for future years; the stars are a constant reminder to us of the thousands of worlds outside our own, and looking at them intelligently lifts us out of ourselves in wonder and admiration for the infinity of the universe, and serves to make our own cares and trials seem trivial.”

Thoreau writes in the “Economy” chapter of Walden:

“The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles!”

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...

Perhaps the following epigram by the late Catherine Davis is inappropriate as a comment on Comstock's toad:

"In New York"
What can I do here? I could learn to lie;
Mouth Freud and Zen; rub shoulders at the "Y"
With this year's happy few; greet every hack--
The rough hyena, the young trimmer pack,
The Village idiot--with an equal eye;
And always scratch the true backscratcher's back.
All this, in second Rome, I'd learn to do;
Hate secretly, climb; get money; quit,
An absolutely stoic hypocrite.
This, but not more. New York is something new:
The toadies like the toads they toady to.

(from Second Beginnings, 1961)