I suppose it is the real demand for an article that leads to its counterfeit, otherwise the counterfeit would stand a poor show. The growing demand for nature-books within the past few years has called forth a very large crop of these books, good, bad, and indifferent — books on our flowers, our birds, our animals, our butterflies, our ferns, our trees; books of animal stories, animal romances, nature-study books, and what not. There is a long list of them. Some of these books, a very small number, are valuable contributions to our natural history literature. Some are written to meet a fancied popular demand. The current is setting that way; these writers seem to say to themselves, Let us take advantage of it, and float into public favor and into pecuniary profit with a nature-book. The popular love for stories is also catered to, and the two loves, the love of nature and the love of fiction, are sought to be blended in the animal story-books, such as Mr. Charles G.D. Roberts’s “Kindred of the Wild,” Mr. William Davenport Hulbert’s “Forest Neighbors,” Mr. Thomas Seton’s “Wild Animals I Have Known,” and the Rev. William J. Long’s “School of the Woods.” Only the last two writers seem to seek to profit by the popular love for the sensational and the improbable. It is Mr. Long’s book, more than any of the others, that justifies the phrase Sham Natural History.

In Mr. Thompson Seton’s “Wild Animals I Have Known,” and in the recent work of his awkward imitator, the Rev. William J. Long, I am bound to say that the line between fact and fiction is repeatedly crossed, and that a deliberate attempt is made to induct the reader to cross, too, and to work such a spell upon him that he shall not know that he has crossed and is in the land of make-believe. Mr. Thompson Seton says in capital letters that his stories are true, and it is this emphatic assertion that makes the judicious grieve. True as romance, true in their artistic effects, true in their power to entertain the younger reader, they certainly are; but true as natural history they as certainly are not. Are we to believe that Mr. Thompson Seton, in his few years of roaming in the west, has penetrated farther into the secrets of animal life than all the observers who have gone before him? There are no stories of animal intelligence and cunning on record, that I am aware of, that match this.

Mr. Long doubtless got the hint of his ridiculous book from Mr. Thompson Seton’s story of the crow, wherein he speaks of a certain old pine woods as the crows’ fortress and college. The idea was a false one before Mr. Long appropriated it, and it has been pushed to such length that it becomes ridiculous. There is not a shadow of truth in it. It is simply one of Mr. Thompson Seton’s strokes of fancy. The crows do not train their young. They have no fortresses, or schools, or colleges, or examining boards, or diplomas, or medals of honor, or hospitals, or churches, or telephones, or postal deliveries, or any thing of the sort. Indeed, the poorest backwoods hamlet has more of the appurtenances of civilization than the best organized crow or other wild animal community in the land!

Mr. Long deliberately states as possible a new suggestion in the field of natural history “that animal education is like our own, and so depends chiefly upon teaching.” And again: “After many years of watching animals in their native haunts, I am convinced that instinct plays a much smaller part than we have supposed; that an animal’s success or failure in the ceaseless struggle for life depends, not upon instinct, but upon the kind of training which the animal receives from its mother.” This is indeed a new suggestion in the field of natural history. What a wonder that Darwin did not find it out, or the observers before and since his time. But the honor of the discovery belongs to our own day and land!

The question I am here arguing is too obvious and too well established to be considered in this serious manner, were it not that the popularity of Mr. Long’s books, with their mock natural history, is misleading the minds of many readers. No pleasure to the reader, no moral inculcated, can justify the dissemination of false notions of nature, or of anything else, and the writer who seeks to palm off his own silly inventions as real observations is bound to come to grief.

There is a school of the woods, as I have said, just as much as there is a church of the woods, or a parliament of the woods, or a society of united charities of the woods, and no more; there is nothing in the dealings of animals with their young that in the remotest way suggests human instruction and discipline. The young of all the wild creatures do instinctively what their parents do and did. They do not have to be taught; they are taught by nature from the start.

If it be urged that I discredit Mr. Long’s stories simply because I myself have never seen or known the like, I say, no; that is not the reason. I can believe many things I have never seen or known. I discredit them because they are so widely at variance with all we know of the wild creatures and their ways. I discredit them as I do any other glaring counterfeit, or any poor imitation of an original, or as I would discredit a story of my friend that was not in keeping with what I knew of his character.

*Source: Atlantic Monthly, March 1903

A Maine “nature faker”

On August 10, 1913 Joseph Knowels called a press conference (discreetly hidden behind low bushes) and plunged totally naked and unarmed into the Maine woods to live off the land.

Periodically, he corresponded with the media by writing with charcoal on birch bark. He reported that he had been able to obtain fire by rubbing sticks together, was feeding himself on berries, trout, partridge, and venison, and had been able to lure a bear into a pit and club it to death in order to make himself a warm coat.

On his periodic visits to civilization, Harvard physicians reported the excellence of his physical condition and his paintings of wild animals sold like hotcakes.

Eventually it was discovered that all along he had been living in a snug cabin stocked with canned goods hidden back in the trees. By that time though, his book, ‘Alone in the Wilderness,’ had sold 300,000 copies!”

— By Barney Nelson, RANGE Magazine, Spring 2002, reprinted with permission

Can you spot a “nature faker”?

“I grow savager and savager every day, as if fed on raw meat!”

— Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

•   •   •

“The poor reptile [rattlesnake found in his cabin] was desperately embarassed, evidently realizing that he had no right in the cabin. It was not only fear that he showed, but a good deal of downright bashfulness and embarrassment, like that of a more than half honest person caught under suspicious circumstances behind a door.”

— John Muir, 1839-1914

•   •   •

“Beside my path in the woods a downy woodpecker, late one fall, drilled a hole in the top of a small dead black birch for his winter quarters. My attention was first called to his doings by the white chips upon the ground. Everyday as I passed I would rap upon his tree, and if he was in he would appear at his door and ask plainly enough what I wanted now.”

— John Burroughs, 1837-1921

•   •   •

“At first he [woodcock] took soft clay in his bill from the edge of the water and seemed to be smearing it on one leg near the knee. Then he fluttered away on one foot for a short distance and seemed to be pulling tiny roots and fibers of grass, which he worked into the clay that he had already smeared on his leg. Again he took some clay and plastered it over the fibers, putting on more and more till I could plainly see the enlargement, working away with strange silent intentness for fully fifteen minutes, while I watched and wondered, scarce believing my eyes. Then he stood perfectly still for a full hour under an overhanging sod, where the eye could with difficulty find him, his only motion meanwhile being an occasional rubbing and smoothing of the clay bandage with his bill, until it hardened enough to suit him, whereupon he fluttered away from the brook and disappeared in the thick woods.”

— Reverend William Long, 1867-1952

•   •   •

“[The mother fox’s] only thought had been to set him free. All means she knew she tried, and every danger braved to tend him well and help him to be free. But all had failed. Like a shadow she came and in a moment was gone, and Tip seized on something dropped, and crunched and chewed with relish what she brought. But even as he ate, a knife-like pang shot through and a scream of pain escaped him. Then there was a momentary struggle and the little fox was dead. The mother’s love was strong in Vix, but a higher thought was stronger. She knew right well the poison’s power; she knew the poison bait, and would have taught him had he lived to know and shun it too. But now at last when she must choose for him a wretched prisoner’s life or sudden death, she quenched the mother in her breast and freed him by the one remaining door.”

— Ernest Thompson Seton, 1860-1946

•   •   •

“Full into the firelight, with a stealthy, sidelong movement, glided a doglike animal. It moved with commingled mistrust and daring, cautiously observing the men, its attention fixed on the dogs. One Ear strained the full length of the stick toward the intruder and whined with eagerness. ‘That fool One Ear don’t seem scairt much,’ Bill said in a low tone. ‘It’s a she-wolf,’ Henry whispered back, ‘an’ that accounts for Fatty an’ Frog [missing dogs]. She’s the decoy for the pack. She draws out the dog an’ then all the rest pitches in an’ eats’m up’.”

— Jack London, 1876-1916

•   •   •

“I aimed for one of those hideous eyes, missed far enough to clip a piece of skin from the top of his skull and to whet his appetite for my gore. My bullet seemed to give him an added impetus; for, with almost a single bound and a blood chilling screech, by the time I had put another cartridge into my single-shot rifle, he was practically on top of me. Fortunately his spring had landed him short, and in another instant I had very nearly blown his entire head off. He was a monster.”

— Teddy Roosevelt, 1858-1919

*Source: RANGE Magazine, Spring 2002, reprinted with permission

I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.

—  John Burroughs

•   •   •

If you think you can do it, you can.

—  John Burroughs

•   •   •

The smallest deed is better than the largest intention.

—  John Burroughs

•   •   •

To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, to imagine your facts is another.

—  John Burroughs


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