Friday, July 9, 2010

Thornton Burgess and the Nature Study Movement

TWB feeding a squirrel. New England Homestead, February 25, 1905

Reading Kevin Armitage's recent book, The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America's Conservation Ethic, I was struck by how many Nature Study themes informed the work of Thornton Burgess, from theories of recapitulation and the promotion of gardening to the encouragement of direct observation of nature, birds in particular. I placed TWB as a second-generation Nature Study proponent--influenced by but not directly involved in the movement during its initial years. I was mistaken.

By 1904, Burgess was the "Young Folks' Editor" at the New England Homestead. During this period he instituted an "Outdoors Club" and, foreshadowing his bird sanctuary campaign work at the People's Home Journal, established a correspondence feature, "Friends of our Native Birds." Children were asked to write in with lists of birds they had observed (and gently scolded for their lack of close observation when they would list things such as "brown hawk" or "woodpecker.") They were also asked to write about what they had done for birds, such as putting out food or building houses (or removing house sparrow nests). Readers of this blog will remember that this "help the birds" theme runs through the rest of TWB's career, from his Bedtime Story "personal letters" to the Green Meadow Club, through the various incarnations of the Radio Nature League.

The key text is from December 24, 1904, p. 22 (TWB has a credited Christmas poem on the same page). Following a column on bird study by Lee A. Stafford (about whom the internet is silent), Burgess writes "A Plea for our Feathered Friends."

It begins:
In an apple-tree on the edge of an old orchard which the Young Folks' Editor visits frequently, is fastened by means of wire a suet bone with plenty of suet clinging to it. In another tree in the same orchard hangs a big lump of suet would around with string to prevent some greedy fellow from taking more than his just share at a time. Thither every day come a host of grateful little bird folk and after thoroughly searching the trees for insect eggs and hidden larvae, they complete their meal on the suet. And the Young Folks' Editor knows that, no matter how severe the winter, his little guests will weather it safely, for with full stomachs to keep up the life heat they can withstand almost any weather.
He proposes a club:
Now let us get down to work. Let us band ourselves together informally as "Friends of our Native Birds," until a better name suggests itself. All you have to do is to put out food for the birds and then drop a card to the Young Folks' Editor, this office, telling what you have done. Your name will then be added to the roll and published. This is for older folks as well as boys and girls...
Note, this is a clear model for the Radio Nature League "silver star" membership some 20 years later. Even the hard-sell model of solicitation is familiar:
WHO WILL BE FIRST from his or her county to be enrolled? Think of the suffering you can relieve at no trouble to yourself. ...DON'T DELAY. Think of the vivacious beauty of the plainest of our songsters and then picture to yourself that happy little sprite perishing miserably of starvation and exposure. Don't delay, girls and boys! Did you ever have the cold nip your fingers and toes until you cried? Then think of the little birds who cannot help themselves. If they have enough to eat they will keep warm. Won't you help in this great work? GET OTHERS TO HELP. Don't stop with your own efforts. Get all of your friends to do likewise. When they are also feeding the birds, send in their names to be added to the roll. Let us see what town will lead in this good work. Begin now. Don't postpone.
And thus Burgess effectively begins his first of many nature study clubs.

Note, I am extremely grateful for Michael Dowhan's TWB magazine bibliography, which lists almost all the New England Homestead articles credited to Burgess under his various pseudonyms (with page numbers!) Dowhan, however, does not list uncredited material, which means that much of Burgess's writing as "Young Folks' Editor" goes unmentioned.

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