Celebrating Women's History Month at the VCU Libraries
Reviewed by Margaret Henderson, Education Services Specialist
American Women Afield: Writings by Pioneering Women Naturalists is a collection of writings by 25 female naturalists from the 19th and early 20th centuries, with short biographies provided by Marcia Myers Bonta. Bonta discovered these writings while doing biographical research for her Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists, and she decided that people would enjoy the actual writings as well as biographies.
The biographies are very informative, covering family history, education, how the woman started her work, and a summary of the work done. It is interesting to note the wide variety of backgrounds that led to the love of nature and the urge to write about it. As Katharine Dooris Sharp wrote “She will do it because she was born to do it; because within her is the heaven-imparted kinship with Nature which is the open sesame to that kingdom of delight. But she will do it under difficulties.”
The writings show natural history at its best. Natural history was a popular pursuit during the time these women were alive, so most of the selections are in an easy-to-read style, although the author carefully chose selections and writers who would be interesting. All the selections are characterized by careful descriptions of interesting specimens, plant and animal, or wonderful locations. Many of these meticulous observations are still valid: the song sparrow behavior studied by Margaret Morse Nice, the aphid descriptions of Edith Patch, or the grasses described by Agnes Chase.
Several of the women were concerned about conservation issues before people were aware there was a problem. Susan Fenimore Cooper was warning about the misuse of natural resources in 1850; Margaret Morse Nice decried the destruction of songbird habitat; E. Lucy Braun worked to conserve eastern deciduous forests; and of course Rachel Carson fought against pesticide use.
Each author manages to draw you into her ‘world’. Wasps, aphids, spiders and other insects become quite fascinating. Anna Botsford Comstock wrote about Pantographa limata “... he was as interesting as a harlequin in his vivid costume of black and green. The black face was made grotesque by ten little eyes of assorted sizes, placed in circles, each one shining like an opal. His black legs were adorned at the joints with what a costumer would call ‘slashes’ that revealed a lining of green; on the segment nearest the body the black band was cut into gay points.” You feel the grandeur of forests we will never see again when E. Lucy Braun describes “Mountain magnolia and oil-nut, with here and there a mass of mountain laurel, are grouped with such perfection of design as only the Master Hand could plan. And all between are beds of ferns.” The need to conserve our forests and worry about the environment becomes quite clear. The passion and excitement all these women fell about their chosen subject comes through in all their writings.
Although most names in this book are not well known, some of the women corresponded with well known scientists of their day; Mary Treat corresponded with Charles Darwin about bladderworts, among other things. Others had respected scientists as their mentors; Graceana Lewis was encouraged by John Cassin, Curator of Birds at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. And some became the first female member of various scientific societies; Florence Merriam Bailey was the first woman member of the newly founded American Ornithologists’ Union
In an era when most people think women didn’t do much outside the domestic sphere, it is exciting to realize that there have always been women who like traipsing through the woods and writing about it.
If you enjoy these writings you might also enjoy more modern women afield. Margaret Lowman’s Life in the treetops : adventures of a woman in field biology (Internet Resources QH31.L79 A3 1999eb) and It’s a jungle up there: more tales from the treetops (Internet Resources QH31.L79 A3 2006eb) are excellent. In Search of the Golden Frog by Marty Crump (Cabell Library QL656.C35 C78 2000 Normal Loan) is another good biography of a female field biologist.