Sunday, June 1, 2014

Birds and Bees, Sharp Eyes and, Other Papers, by John Burroughs

Birds and Bees, Sharp Eyes and, Other Papers, by John Burroughs, With An Introduction By Mary E. Burt. PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK January 17, 2009 [EBook #3163]


Burroughs, while an iconic figure to very few people today, was widely heralded as a naturalist about one hundred years ago. The author, a peer of John Muir is little known today. He was oft-published in the form of books as well as in popular periodicals. He was a keen witness to the world around him, one which kept him in a rural northeast area. It was fairly pre-industrial during his time and therefore he was surrounded by a natural world much different than ours. He was much like Bernd Heinrich is today. By immersing himself in the natural world around him he could witness wild behaviors as only the most erstwhile explorer would. He thought about his experiences in a scientific way as Heinrich does today.

In this book, one of many that he published the focus is on a few animals and describes them thoroughly and in an easy fashion that stands up well against the face of time. The language is not arcane or jargon filled. In fact it reads as if he is just relating experiences. Yet it was intent on informing the reader as well. The title of the book explains a lot about what his essays entail. Birds are the main feature and what he described makes this reader want to build a time machine in order to return to about one hundred years ago so that some very different bird watching could occur than it does today. He mixes into many of his stories, his love for apples. He would have made a good ad man for the apple industry.

Likewise the invertebrate bees and their habits also are described in the detail that keeps it interesting. While portraying other animals such as muskrats, squirrels or woodchucks, Burroughs often described their relationships with birds. The theme of ornithology is woven throughout the entire book.

In Burroughs’ writing he warns about misinterpreting notions like evolution. It is easy for an amateur to understand evolution only so far as it fits their own personal psychology. Animals and their world evolve and he warns the reader that they need to understand that. He also rails against anthropomorphism which we humans are prone to do. He was often guilty of violating this rule but that was merely to describe behaviors in terms that came easy to the reader. We all do that. We pretend that our pets understand us but that is primarily while we make those pets part of the family.

He did not understand or accept any notion of animal intelligence. In his day any author of a natural history book wanted to distant themselves from a notion that animals act out of any other reason than self-preservation and breeding the next generation. Time and knowledge found through observation and experimentation is eroding that idea though. The many studies of corvids, apes and whales (to name a few fauna) have chopped a very large chink in that armor. Author’s still temper the results of their findings by shying away from determining that there is animal intelligence and that it is certain. Rather it is suggestive but as the evidence of the theory of mind advances there is a lot of convergence of facts that make stronger suggestions all the time.

So this was a good read of intelligent naturalism of a student one hundred years ago. People like me love books like this.

No comments: