Saturday, April 11, 2009

Saturday Soliloquy-- Inspiring a Lifelong Love of Wildlife

I wasn't much older than I am in this photo when I began my love affair with Thornton W. Burgess. The first pets that I had were a Beagle (named Snoopy, of course) and rabbits. My grandparents and my mother noticed that I was never rough with my pets and that I was just plain fascinated by their behavior. Many times I didn't have to touch them; I was more than content to sit and watch them. Mom had recently become the librarian in our small farm village, and very few of the books in the library were published after 1945. Oddly enough, that suited her purposes quite well because Burgess wrote his animal stories for children during a span of at least thirty years beginning in 1918. They were there in the library for me to devour. Devour them I did.

Burgess wrote 118 books for children. We had about half of his catalog in the library. It wasn't long until I began getting some of his books as gifts, including this one that has a cherished place on my bookshelves.

Little did I know while I was reading about Peter Rabbit, Sammy Jay, Happy Jack the Squirrel and Longlegs the Heron, that I was learning valuable lessons in wildlife conservation and animal behavior. When I read passages like this

Someone had been in mischief. Someone had been meddling with the sap pails around Farmer Brown's sugar camp. Farmer Brown's boy meant to find out who that someone was. There was still snow in the Green Forest and in this he had found footprints. Now he was following these. He didn't know it, but someone was following him. It was Sammy Jay. Sammy gets a lot of fun from watching his neighbors. If you could get Sammy Jay to tell you all he knows about his neighbors, you would learn some surprising and interesting things.

I knew there were blue jays living in the trees around my house, and I wanted to find out exactly what those blue jays knew. So I watched them very carefully, and I learned a lot more than the fact that they liked to bedevil the neighbors' sneaky cat.

Even at that early age, I thought Harrison Cady's illustrations were cute and quaint. (Okay, so I didn't know what "quaint" meant at the time!) Anyone with eyes knew that raccoons didn't wear britches, and that if they spoke, they didn't speak English. But britches and English didn't matter a bit when it came to Burgess's storytelling ability. Reading his animal stories fostered a lifelong love of nature in me. By immersing myself in his tales, I wanted to learn how to observe wildlife without having the creatures run away from me. I learned to walk quietly, speak seldom, stay still for long periods of time, and let the critters come to me. To this day, I'd rather be out in the middle of nowhere with my camera than in a crowd of people. To this day, I still find the language of wildlife to be more interesting than the conversations of most people on the street.

If it weren't for those stories creating such a ravenous interest and passion within me, I doubt very much that I would be getting so much enjoyment from taking photographs like these:

Abert's Squirrel
White Mountains, Arizona

Male Robber Fly
Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Arizona

Thanks to a family who paid attention to me and nurtured budding enthusiasms, and thanks to writers such as Thornton W. Burgess, my love of wildlife isn't just an "interest" or a "passion", it's something fundamental deep within me. Like my spinal column. Something I cannot do without.

I'm happy to say that through publishers like Dover, Burgess's children's stories are still available today. Would I give them to small children to read? Yes. Who knows what Sammy Jay and Granny Fox might inspire in new generations of readers?


  1. That picture of you is adorable! I don't recognize Thornton Burgess's name, but the illustration by Harrison Cady that you included looks awfully familiar, so I may have read some of these stories too.

  2. What a wonderful and beautiful post. I found Burgess when I was in kindergarten. My mom would take us up to the high school library, which doubled as the county library. There was a whole long shelf of matching Burgess books. I am not sure how many there were, but I was delighted that I could keep coming back and getting more. And thrilled and proud that I was reading such big books. These books probably helped to inspire my love of wildlife and nature, also. All of my first written stories, at the age of six, were mimicks of Thornton W. Burgess. Thanks for the reminder. I have tried to read them to my children, but the are not so interested.

  3. What a fantastic post! I enjoyed this immensely. I have also been an animal lover since the time I was a little girl (my husband calls me Mrs. Dolittle!) and I was always drawn to the books that featured animals.

  4. Your post deserves much more than a short "I really enjoyed this", but I have just spent two hours blogging, checking blog mail & commenting. Besides we both know I DO enjoy your blog and will be back :D

  5. The photo of you is priceless-just adorable! I've heard of Burgess but I don't remember reading him as a child. I was lucky too though, in that I had a mother who nurtured my love my reading. Really great post Cathy.

  6. Kathy--I'm glad you like the photo. I was inspired by another blogger who has a feature each week that's headed by a photo of a famous person reading. I'm not a famous person, but I am the one yakking away about books and reading, so I thought it was fitting! LOL Cady was a popular illustrator in his day, but chances are that you did read some Burgess stories.

    Lisa--I remember feeling quite grown-up that I was reading such big books, too! It's a shame that your children didn't take to them, but all you can do is try. :)

    Wendy--we must be related because I get called Dolittle quite a bit. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I've been enjoying your photos of your new puppy!

    Dorte--I know you tend to be very busy, so I'm just glad you stop by! :)

    Dar--Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  7. I just love the Abert's squirrel, especially those demented ears.

  8. NIce post. You were so lucky to have a family that understood you.

  9. I read one of these stories as a kid but I'd like to read them all one day. Mother West Wind's Animal Friends by Thornton Burgess is now in the public domain.

  10. Susan--I would imagine the tufts of fur on those demented ears keep them warm when he ventures out in winter!

    Beth--I was lucky, although they only understood me to a certain degree.

    Jen--I didn't realize that was in the public domain. Thanks for letting me know!


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