Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On the fence

In the Thornton Burgess collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, there is a folder with dozens of letters from Radio Nature League correspondents. Each correspondent claims to have seen or to know someone who has seen a snake take its young into its mouth for the purpose of protection. Burgess usually had no tolerance for folk-lore when it came to animal facts; claim to have seen a "hoop snake" and he would reject it as imbecility. But Burgess remained fascinated about this particular young-snakes-in-mouth claim. In fact, it receives a whole chapter in his autobiography.

The young-snakes-in-mouth topic came up repeatedly in Radio Nature League programs. Burgess would invite visiting herpetologists to assess the claim and they would reject it as folk-lore (and still do today). At the same time, his correspondents were adamant about their experiences, and Burgess did not want to alienate them. What he would do was try to coax his listeners into a scientific stance towards their apparently honest observations. What counted as real evidence? If a correspondent only saw a large snake take smaller snakes into its mouth, perhaps the larger snake was simply eating the smaller ones. If a correspondent only saw smaller snakes emerging from the larger snake, that could simply be a species of snake that gives live birth. The only good evidence would be a snake taking smaller snakes in and then releasing them. During the later years of the first run of the Radio Nature League, you can see Burgess really hoping that a correspondent would come through with real evidence (this would have been a significant scientific contribution). But none apparently did.

In his autobiography, Burgess describes his position as "sitting on the fence." While he trusted scientific authority to a point, he also trusted the observations of his listeners. So he finally refused to make a decision. Like other Radio Nature League themes, this would also make its way into the Bedtime Stories. In August, 1934, he has Peter Rabbit's son, "Wigglenose," as well as Farmer Brown's Boy, see young snakes enter a larger garter snake's mouth (without managing to see if they emerge). Like Burgess, Farmer Brown's Boy remained "on the fence."

Next: Back to the early days again--Thornton Burgess and the Springfield Homestead.

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