by Ernest Thompson Seton
How to Know the Wild Things
All young folk want to know the ways and things of Nature. The difficulty is to know where to begin. There are so many kinds of flowers, ferns, birds, trees, grasses, bugs, insects, fish, rocks, etc., that one is confused and hardly knows where to begin his search for knowledge.
The trail is not so hard to find as it was a few years ago, for to--day there are plenty of blazes on its trees and the footway is well worn and cleared of logs--that is to say, there are plenty of good handbooks, not to speak of fellow travelers, who help by pointing to the blaze that perhaps escaped our eye, and who are wearing the pathway smooth.
But one must make a start, and it is well to get a few general rules in mind. First, take one thing at a time. Second, "Look in the book:" Have a simple but comprehensive guide book (if possible one that you can own) that tells in simple, clear language the main facts. Later, you will want to go into more scientific study. Third, make a record in a notebook of what you see aid either make drawings or preserve specimens. Fourth, if you have a friend "who knows" get information from him as to the specimen you have seen or have in . your possession.
The best way to begin, supposing you are alone, is with the flowers. They are so easy "to catch" and preserve.
Get a good handbook of flowers, Reed's is the smallest, simplest, and best for beginners (Dana's Blanchan's, or Lounsbury's are also good) and either a big scrap album or, better, a 12 by 18 inch portfolio with twenty or thirty loose sheets of heavy white or gray paper to fit; also a tin case, any big tin will do; but you can buy a properly made one for about a dollar.
Botanical enthusiasm is always at its height just when you find the first spring flower. Suppose then, in March, you have found the liverleaf in its blue bloom.
Take up one, leaf and flower; put it in your tin case; that will keep it perfectly fresh for many hours. At home, take a bundle of old newspapers as dry as possible, lay the plant flat on one of them, spreading the flower as you wish it to remain, put the other papers on top and then a board; last a heavy weight.
If the room and the papers are dry, the plant will be dried in three days. Then stick it on one of the sheets in the portfolio with a few strips of paper across it here and there. Then write the time and place on the sheet, also the name as soon as you can find it. And it is easy to get the name when you have the specimen. There is sure to be some botanist within reach.
If you gather and preserve half a dozen wild flowers each time you go out in the season, you very soon have the fifty that are needed to win you a coin.
But you are also getting something else--a lot of pleasant friends that you will remember and be glad to see as long as you live.
Of course, there are some plants that, are much harder to handle than the liverleaf, such as the jewelweed, which is so juicy that it must be reset on new dry paper perhaps two or three times. Some have roots so big that they are better left off, and same are so big that one must select a small example or take only a sprig; but always get the flowers, if possible.
The Trees are also very easy because they may be found in town as well as in country. Their flowers are usually up high and come in the spring. They may be difficult to see, but if one studies the leaves, the bark, and the general shape of the tree, it will be readily identified, so that one can see and know an old friend at considerable distance. The leaves and flowers may be preserved in the same way as already described.
The best tree books are by Keeler, Apgar, Hough, Sargent, Britton, etc.
The Birds are the true love of every young naturalist, and the only reason for giving them third place is that they are harder to study than flowers and trees.
You cannot walk up to the bird, at once note its every color spot, and so find who he is. You must make hasty notes through an opera glass and then turn to a handbook, unless you have a bird--sharp friend with you or a specimen in your hand.
Therefore, oh, bird lover, begin with a notebook, a field glass, and a copy of Reed's Bird Guide. Later when you really get acquainted with the birds you will want Chapman's Handbook. These books give a sketch of the habit and range as well as a description of the plumage, nest, and eggs.
The Quadrupeds, or Animals, as they are commonly called, are the most interesting of all to most people; but are the hardest of all to study because they are so seldom seen. Partly due to man's endless pursuit, the wild four-foots are nearly all nocturnal now; but they are there, and far more numerous than you would imagine.
If you live in New York City, for example, you may be sure that within five miles of the City Hall you can find twenty wild quadrupeds living their lives as they always did. Thus, there are muskrats along the Bronx and Harlem rivers in the salt marshes; there are red, gray, and flying squirrels, as well as chipmunks, in most of the parks. There are plenty of woodchucks in Westchester County, although I do not know of any within the five-mile radius. Of course, there are deer-mice and short-tailed field mice, and jumping mice in most of the large parks or along the Jersey shore of the Hudson; and where there are mice there are weasels, and where there are weasels there are mink.
The cottontail rabbit is common in some of the large parks and in most of the near woodlands, and there are at least three species of shrew and mole within the limits.
If we go a little farther into Westchester County or Jersey, we shall enter the region of the skunk, the fox, the common deer, the coon, and the possum.
So that the New York naturalist has a large opportunity among the quadrupeds; and the resident of Chicago, Boston, or Philadelphia is just as well off; while, of Course, the country girl has all the world before her.
But we seldom see the things, how are we to know that they are there?
By the tracks chiefly. The mud, the dust, or the snow will tell next morning much about the creature that passed in the night, and in time, about all that dwell near by.
"Life Histories" and "Game Animals," by Ernest Thompson Seton, are the only books that give a full account of the common animals and their tracks; but a good book on Tracks and Tracking has been published by J. Brunner.
The difficulties in the way of the student of mammals are perhaps the largest of all, but the rewards are as great; and every skull, every skin, every good track drawing, is a little victory that will give you pleasure to see as long as you live.
Insects are easily studied and preserved. A collection of butterflies, made according to instruction in the "Butterfly Book," Doubleday, Page & Company, is easily begun; while beetles and other orders of bugs, if less interesting, are yet more easily made.
In general, to those who would know the wild things: Keep a journal of your notes, sketches, and photos; get a good handbook; collect specimens--and you have the three basic things. All the rest will be in measure of your perseverance.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.