©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules: Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season
By Lillian Vallee

42. Her Life was a Poem

In preparation for the fourth Oak Apple Nature Walk along Dry Creek on February 2, I picked up a book entitled Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock, consummate naturalist and engraver born in 1854. The handbook was first published in 1911 by the author’s husband, the noted entomologist John Henry Comstock, who was convinced he was going to lose his $5,000 investment. Marcia Myers Bonta writes that the book, designed for schoolteachers, went on to become “the all-time best-seller among books published by Cornell University.”

A work of tremendous passion and commitment, the handbook includes poems, lesson plans, illustrations, and the distinctive, engaging voice of the author. By the time Anna Comstock died in 1930, the handbook had been translated into eight languages and was being sold on four continents. According to Verne Rockcastle, who wrote the introduction to the handbook seventy-five years after its initial publication, “Anna Botsford Comstock very appropriately took the view that we should know first and best the things closest to us….All that is needed is an inquiring mind, senses to observe, and a willingness to think about nature on a personal level.” Teachers began to refer to the book as the “Nature Bible.”

Comstock was taught by a “gentle Quaker mother” to recognize “as soon as Anna was old enough to understand….sixty wildflowers and a dozen constellations.” In 1864 she went on to Cornell University; there she met her husband Henry and together they began the tender and supportive partnership that lasted until his death in 1927. Anna learned how to draw insects and became, in the process, an accomplished engraver whose work was hailed as “magnificent” and displayed in galleries abroad. Childless, the couple put all their energy into their work and into acting as surrogate parents to many students.

Even though Anna Comstock took care to present the natural world with great scientific accuracy, she understood that educating children about nature was not “primarily for method or for drill: we are to teach it for loving” [emphasis is mine]. “If nature-study as taught does not make the child love nature and the out-of-doors, then it should cease.” Of the almost 900-page volume, Comstock adds, “The author feels apologetic that the book is so large. However, it does not contain more than any intelligent country child of twelve should know of his environment….”

Emphasizing “simple, truthful observation,” Comstock believed nature-study cultivated a child’s imagination, love of the beautiful, “manual dexterity in handling fragile things,” and “a perception and a regard for what is true, and the power to express it.” And she felt this kind of learning could be done in a spirit of companionship with the teacher in lessons “short and sharp.” She believed that together they were exploring the mystery at the heart of the world.

Student accounts of Comstock’s “kirtling” her skirt to the knees, whooping with delight at spotting a rare butterfly and then clambering over rocks to chase it are revealing of her spontaneity and spirit, but it is the animating language of the Handbook that expresses how much fun it must have been to accompany Anna Comstock into the field.

Here is the opening to the section on the Downy Woodpecker: “Friend Downy is the name this attractive little neighbor has earned, because it is so friendly to those of us who love trees. Watch it as it hunts each crack and crevice of the bark of your favorite apple or shade tree, seeking assiduously for cocoons and insects hiding there, and you will soon, of your own accord, call it friend, you will soon love its black and white uniform….” The sapsucker, alter ego to Friend Downy, is rendered with mock-moralizing humor: “The sapsucker is a woodpecker that has strayed from the paths of virtue; he has fallen into temptation by the wayside, and instead of drilling a hole for the sake of the grub at the end of it, he drills for drink. He is a tippler, and sap is his beverage….It is amusing to see a sapsucker take his tipple, unless his saloon happens to be one our prized young trees.”

On Saturday, along Dry Creek, I had Comstock on my mind as we headed for the buckeyes and the bright green umbrellas of their first leaves. Buckeyes were supposed to be the focus of the walk, but with children along the mood was investigative: we peered into squirrel, fox and skunk burrows; examined lichen and fungi growing on downed and decaying oak branches; admired the waxy caps of mushrooms; and broke open some oak apples, or galls, to check on progress of the tiny wasps within.

The most enthusiastic member of our group was six-year old Austin (watched over by his Mom and younger sister) whose insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm inspired us to look more closely at everything. Thanks to Austin we found patches of bulbs, stinging nettle and Indian lettuce in places we had looked at but had not really seen before. Austin drew us down to “breathe” the plants and to look at what the burrowing animals were hauling into the underground squirrel villages.

Also along were three members from Modesto Junior College’s Student Environmental Club. Veasna Marvin Duong, Rebecca Vorn and Ryan Aiken-James demonstrated a high tolerance for the cold weather and the slow pace. Marvin had grown up near Dry Creek park and had lively memories of rafting down the creek with friends. The students were having a look at the park because they had an interest in the native plant communities there, the invasive plants that were appearing, and in what could be done to protect and enhance native habitat.

In the lively company of children and young people savoring their backyard, I understood why Comstock believed nature study resulted in healthy companionship and health itself. Bonta concludes her essay on Comstock with the following tribute from her colleague Liberty Hyde Bailey: “Anna Botsford Comstock….leaves a fragrant memory of high achievement, noble service, unselfish co-operation, constructive counsel, inspired teaching, loving kindness and unforgettable companionship. Her life was a poem.”

Sources: Marcia Myers Bonta, Women in the Field: America’s Pioneering Women Naturalists; and Anna Botsford Comstock, Handbook of Nature Study

Fruit & nut trees in your garden


Horticulture Associate, University of California Cooperative Extension

If your 2008 New Year’s resolution was to eat better and exercise more, you are in luck. Bare root fruit trees are arriving at local nurseries and the season for planting them is here. The climate in Stanislaus County is perfect for having a home orchard. Planting, harvesting and eating fresh produce is a great way to incorporate exercise and healthy eating into your lifestyle.

You needn’t have a large amount of space to have a home orchard. A “three in one” or “four in one” fruit tree has several varieties of the same fruit grafted onto one tree. Bare-root trees available with one kind of fruit but several fruit varieties include apple, cherry, pluot, nectarine and peach. For example, a multi-graft cherry tree might include ‘Black Tartarian’, ‘Bing’, ‘Lapis’ and ‘Van’. For a tree with different types of fruit, plant a “Fruit Salad” tree which combines apricot, plum, peach and/or nectarine on a single tree, depending on the combination you choose.

Fruit trees can also be kept small using the “Fruit Bush” method. To learn more about training young fruit trees and pruning older fruit trees, go to http://homeorchard.ucdavis.edu/8057.pdf or ask for a free copy of Fruit Trees: Training and Pruning Deciduous Trees at the Cooperative Extension Office.

Deciding which fruit and nut trees to have in your garden can be challenging. Local nurseries have certified nurserypeople who can help. Brochures and tags will discuss the flavor and firmness of various crops, giving some clues about how they taste. In summer, many nurseries have fruit tasting opportunities. During the year, the Modesto Farmers’ Market has many types of fruit and nut varieties available for sale. Decide which ones you like best and make a note of them.

I grew up eating persimmons, pomegranates and figs, which are flavorful and full of vitamins and nutrients. If you’ve never tried them, you may want to investigate different varieties. Other unusual fruit crops include pluots, apriums, and plum-cots. This past summer I had the chance to try ‘Flavor Grenade’ pluot and am now smitten. The flavor is sweet, and the skin isn’t tough. One tree provides enough pluots for a few families, and the fruit stays on the tree for 4-6 weeks.

Asian pears are expensive at the supermarket, but at home are an easy tree to grow. The crisp, sweet flavor tastes more like a dessert than a fruit. Varieties of note are ‘Hosui’ and ‘Shinseiki.’

Nut trees take a little more work during harvest, but are well-worth the effort. Once you’ve tasted fresh nuts, you will want to plant your own trees. Many people worry that nuts are fattening, but in truth, nuts contain essential fatty acids that are vital for growth, healthy skin and hair, blood pressure control, immune response and blood clotting. In moderation, nuts can be a great addition to your diet. Nurseries carry almond, chestnut, pecan, pistachio and walnut trees.

Reach the author at aschellman@ucdavis.edu

Note on pollination: Flowers of fruit trees must be pollinated to produce fruit. Without sufficient pollination, they may blossom abundantly but will not bear fruit. For more information, see http://cecalaveras.ucdavis.edu/fruit.htm