Reading through Troubled Times

On the day we learned my hus­band had stage 4 can­cer, I stopped read­ing. For me, this is akin to stop­ping breath­ing. I read all the time, every­where, even in the movie the­ater. Our house is filled with books. Tent­ed nov­els sprawl by the bath­tub, non­fic­tion sits in the dish drain­er, all wait­ing for me to pick up and read a bit more as I pass through that room. Nat­u­ral­ly I dip into one or two books in bed. But that night I did not read. I couldn’t.

The Burgess Animal Book for Children

I went to the library, ven­tured into Barnes and Noble, came out emp­ty-hand­ed and bereft. After a few nights try­ing to sleep with every nerve out­side my skin, I padded into my sit­ting room. There I keep the books most pre­cious to me. I pulled off the shelf a one-hun­dred-year-old edi­tion of The Burgess Ani­mal Book for Chil­dren by Thorn­ton W. Burgess and took it to bed. The rolled edges of the worn bind­ing felt reas­sur­ing in my hands, the thick rag pages soft and gen­tly foxed. Why turn to an ancient children’s book?

Because I didn’t have the ener­gy for slick mod­ern fic­tion. What com­fort would I find flick­ing through some genre-bend­ing nov­el? And because I’d read this book dozens of times as a kid.

It was most often the week­end book I’d check out on Fri­day, library day, in fifth grade. We were only allowed to take out two books a week. I’d choose a mys­tery or some­thing about stars, with The Burgess Ani­mal Book as my sec­ond choice. At home, I tot­ed Burgess into our woods, perched on my favorite log, and read until dusk called me in.

The book, fic­tion­al­ized sto­ries laced with true facts, uses a frame device: a school run by Old Moth­er Nature to teach the ani­mals of the Green For­est, the Old Bri­ar-Patch, and the Green Mead­ows about their rel­a­tives. Her first stu­dents are Peter Rab­bit and Jumper the Hare. Moth­er Nature tells them about Peter’s rel­a­tive, the marsh hare. She also asks Peter and Jumper to describe them­selves and they learn how they are alike yet different.

As the book pro­gress­es, the class expands to many stu­dents and the lessons include most mam­mals in North Amer­i­ca, rel­a­tive by rel­a­tive. In his intro­duc­tion, Burgess states: “Only through inti­mate acquain­tance may under­stand­ing of the ani­mals in their rela­tions to each oth­er and to man be attained. I offer [this book] … hope­ful that it will prove of some val­ue in acquaint­ing chil­dren with their friends and mine — the ani­mals of field and woods, of moun­tain and desert, in the truest sense the first cit­i­zens of America.”

Burgess’s style is unapolo­get­i­cal­ly old-fashioned:

Hard­ly had jol­ly, round, red Mr. Sun thrown off his rosy blan­kets and begun his dai­ly climb up in the blue, blue sky when Peter Rab­bit and his cousin, Jumper the Hare, arrived at the place in the Green For­est where Peter had found Old Moth­er Nature the day before. She was wait­ing for them, read­ing to begin the first lesson.

Why, you might be won­der­ing, would a pro­gres­sive Fair­fax Coun­ty school keep such a dat­ed book on their shelves in the 1960s? I don’t know but I’m glad they did. While Burgess’s prose can be flow­ery — Peter Rab­bit runs lip­per­ty-lip­per­ty-lip — Old Moth­er Nature’s teach­ings are deliv­ered con­cise­ly and accu­rate­ly, and she often gives her stu­dents ques­tions to ponder.

This book taught me about ani­mals. I looked up from the page to observe squir­rels tus­sling high in trees, fol­lowed rab­bit trails through bram­bles, not­ed rac­coon paw­prints along the mud­dy creek. As a lone­ly child with no close neigh­bors and few friends at school, The Burgess Ani­mal Book for Chil­dren showed me how to grow into my true self, a wood­land creature.

Nature's AmbassadorIn Nature’s Ambas­sador: The Lega­cy of Thorn­ton W. Burgess by Christie Palmer Lowrance, I learned Burgess wrote 170 wildlife and nature books, begin­ning with Old Moth­er West Wind in 1910. He wrote thou­sands of sto­ries and arti­cles for chil­dren and edu­ca­tors, includ­ing a dai­ly news­pa­per col­umn, “Bed­time Sto­ries,” from 1912 to 1960. A month­ly mag­a­zine series spawned the Green Mead­ow Club, where mem­bers pledged to pro­tect wildlife. The club spon­sored dri­ves for bird sanc­tu­ar­ies result­ing in mil­lions of acres set aside. Burgess gave chil­dren auton­o­my in con­ser­va­tion before the end of World War I. His Radio Nature League series was broad­cast in 30 states. In 1960, at the age of 86, he pub­lished his 15,000th news­pa­per column.

Burgess didn’t just write. He grew up on Cape Cod, in the cran­ber­ry bogs and the marsh­es and lat­er, the woods near Sand­wich. He knew famous nat­u­ral­ists of the day: ornithol­o­gist Frank Chap­man, who start­ed the Christ­mas Bird Count, zool­o­gist and con­ser­va­tion­ist Frank Hor­na­day, who helped save bison. Burgess and ornithol­o­gist Alfred Gross band­ed the last heath hen and let him go free, into extinc­tion, unlike the last pas­sen­ger pigeon and Car­oli­na para­keet, birds that had died in zoos.

That night, tucked in bed with The Burgess Ani­mal Book for Chil­dren, I stud­ied the ded­i­ca­tion: “To the cause of wild life in Amer­i­ca, espe­cial­ly the mam­mals many of which are seri­ous­ly threat­ened with extinc­tion, this book is ded­i­cat­ed.” Writ­ten in 1920, reread by me on the 100th anniver­sary year of Thorn­ton W. Burgess’s birth.

The old-fash­ioned lan­guage soothed me. My nerves sank beneath my skin. I remem­bered every one of Louis Agas­siz Fuertes’ six dozen illus­tra­tions, paint­ed in clear but mut­ed hues, unlike the over-sat­u­rat­ed art in many mod­ern children’s books. Before I fell asleep, some­where between the sto­ries of  Thun­der­foot, Fleet­foot, and Long­coat, I longed to be in Old Moth­er Nature’s school. I wished I had been enrolled in the Green Mead­ow Club, had pledged to learn about wildlife and pro­tect ani­mals. Then I real­ized that, because of a child­hood book, I had always done so.

This year, which promis­es to be trou­bling in many are­nas, my pro­ject­ed writ­ing projects will be about ani­mals. Thank you, Thorn­ton W. Burgess.

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1 month ago

Loved this!! I first came to the Burgess sto­ries in the New York Her­ald Tri­bune, a New York City dai­ly. Every day they pub­lished one chap­ter of a seri­al­ized Burgess ani­mal sto­ry, along with an illus­tra­tion by Har­ri­son Cady. I have no idea as to the age I came to these but I must have been fair­ly young. Even though I was a city boy I devoured these wood­land sto­ries. When, in a neigh­bor­hood used book­store – way back in the dim and dusty back – I dis­cov­ered I could buy Black­ie The Crow, Light­foot the Deer, and many of the oth­er Burgess books in Gros­set & Dun­lap vol­umes for 25 cents each I began to col­lect… Read more »

Reply to  Avi
1 month ago

Dear Avi, thank you so much for your kind response. I would have been thrilled to have read Burgess’s sto­ries in a news­pa­per! Over the years, I’ve col­lect­ed any­thing Burgess I could find, includ­ing his auto­bi­og­ra­phy. I have BLACKY THE CROW, a well-read first edi­tion with the inscrip­tion “Miss Helen With­ers, July 19th 1922, from “Gramp.” Burgess wrote many books in dif­fer­ent series, Green Mead­ow, Moth­er West Wind, Wish­ing-Stone, etc. I can’t imag­ine being so pro­lif­ic! I too moved on to Fred­dy the Pig. But as you so elo­quent­ly stat­ed, Burgess led me to deep­er read­ing (I learned on com­ic books) and the impor­tance of incor­po­rat­ing fact… Read more »

Cathy Ballou Mealey
1 month ago

As a child in west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts we were treat­ed once per year or so to a vis­it to the Laugh­ing Brook Nature Sanc­tu­ary where a kind­ly woman dressed as Old Moth­er West Wind wel­comed chil­dren and told sto­ries. There was a vari­ety of ani­mals to vis­it as well, most being reha­bil­i­tat­ed from an acci­dent or injury. Built on the site of Burgess’ home, it was a mag­i­cal spot for fam­i­lies and nature appre­ci­a­tion. Sad­ly it lat­er fell into decline due to mis­man­age­ment and oth­er fac­tors, but I real­ly trea­sured those vis­its to see the crea­tures that lived so vivid­ly in the pages of his stories!

Reply to  Cathy Ballou Mealey
1 month ago

Oh, you lucky child! I’ve read about the Laugh­ing Brook Nature Sanc­tu­ary and had hoped to go some­time (from Vir­ginia!), but by the time I found out about it, it was over. Thank you for shar­ing your mem­o­ry! Candice