I have written a number of entries that I call “The History of the Butterfly” on this blog, and on my other website. Oarisma poweshiek, the Poweshiek skipper, is an endangered butterfly that was discovered in Grinnell, Iowa, and described by Henry W. Parker. Henry was a published author and poet, and a professor at what was then called Iowa College (now called Grinnell College). I have read many of the books and articles that Henry wrote. Then I read a book written by his wife, Helen Fitch Parker. It was quite obvious to me, after reading Rambles After Land Shells, that Helen was the true naturalist in the family.
One of the books that she wrote was known from only one copy, found in the Ohio State University Library. I had contemplated driving the five hundred odd miles to get there, and look at it myself, and maybe even scan it. But I don’t have to, because it is now available on Google Books. I waited for this book with anticipation (I was aware that it was on the list of books for them to scan, because I had inquired with a librarian there regarding the possibility of me scanning it).
It is a short book, intended to be read to young children. It exceeded my expectations. Here are my some of my thoughts about it.
First, Helen was a talented writer and naturalist. Without having drawings or photographs, Helen is able to describe caddisflies, dragonfly nymphs, fish, and snails in a manner that is informative, technically accurate, and simple.
In this book and Rambles After Land Shells, she mentions Dr. Louis Agassiz. I think she was a student of his. In fact, I think she tried to sneak the description of a new-to-science terrestrial snail past him by using her future brother-in-law to do the dirty work. Her reference to Dr. Agassiz in this book only reinforces my belief in my conspiracy theory.
She had what we would consider a racist comment about eating an alligator tail in a short passage. I think it was just a common prejudice of the times.
In her final section about baby birds, she mentions the flight of swallows and passenger pigeons. The first big population crash of the passenger pigeon happened about the same time this book was published.
She mentions a “dragonfly pupa”, and classifies the insect as a member of the neuroptera. We would call the stage a nymph today, and classify them as odonata. However, I think she used the correct terminology and classification for the time.
She also dealt with the subject of failure in an easy and natural way. Arthur built an aquarium, but it leaked. He learned from the experience and built one that did not leak. Some of Arthur’s pets died from mistreatment, and some ate the others. The whole experience was treated in a “learn from your mistakes” approach.
This book, like Rambles After Land Shells, was full of religious instruction. We don’t teach natural history in churches anymore, nor is it taught in science classes like it should be. And that is a shame.
Helen Parker was a first rate naturalist. She deserves to be remembered.