How to Know the Ferns (7th ed)/Chapter 1

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How to Know the Ferns, 7th ed. by Frances Theodora Parsons
Ferns as a Hobby

New York Fern


I think it is Charles Lamb who says that every man should have a hobby, if it be nothing better than collecting strings. A man with a hobby turns to account the spare moments. A holiday is a delight instead of a bore to a man with a hobby. Thrown out of his usual occupations on a holiday, the average man is at a loss for employment. Provided his neighbors are in the same fix, he can play cards. But there are hobbies and hobbies. As an occasional relaxation, for example, nothing can be said against card-playing. But as a hobby it is not much better than "collecting strings." It is neither broadening mentally nor invigorating physically, and it closes the door upon other interests which are both. I remember that once, on a long sea-voyage, I envied certain of my fellow-passengers who found amusement in cards when the conditions were such as to make almost any other occupation out of the question. But when finally the ship's course lay along a strange coast, winding among unfamiliar islands, by shores luxuriant with tropical vegetation and sprinkled with strange settlements, all affording delight to the eye and interest to the mind, these players who had come abroad solely for instruction and pleasure could not be enticed from their tables, and I thanked my stars that I had not fallen under the stultifying sway of cards. Much the same gratitude is aroused when I see men and women spending precious summer days indoors over the card-table when they might be breathing the fragrant, life-giving air, and rejoicing in the beauty and interest of the woods and fields.

All things considered, a hobby that takes us out of doors is the best. The different open-air sports may be classed under this head. The chief lack in the artificial sports, such as polo, golf, baseball, etc., as opposed to the natural sports, hunting and fishing, is that while they are invaluable as a means of health and relaxation, they do not lead to other and broader interests, while many a boy-hunter has developed into a naturalist as a result of long days in the woods. Hunting and fishing would seem almost perfect recreations were it not for the life-taking element, which may become brutalizing. I wish that every mother who believes in the value of natural sport for her young boys would set her face sternly against any taking of life that cannot be justified on the ground of man's needs, either in the way of protection or support.

The ideal hobby, it seems to me, is one that keeps us in the open air among inspiring surroundings, with the knowledge of natural objects as the end in view. The study of plants, of animals, of the earth itself, botany, zoölogy, or geology, any one of these will answer the varied requirements of an ideal hobby. Potentially they possess all the elements of sport. Often they require not only perseverance and skill but courage and daring. They are a means of health, a relaxation to the mind from ordinary cares, and an absorbing interest. Any one of them may be used as a doorway to the others.

If parents realized the value to their childrens' minds and bodies of a love for plants and animals, of any such hobby as birds or butterflies or trees or flowers, I am sure they would take more pains to encourage the interest which instinctively a child feels in these things. It must be because such realization is lacking that we see parents apparently either too indolent or too ignorant to share the enthusiasm and to satisfy the curiosity awakened in the child's active mind by natural objects.

Of course it is possible that owing to the strange reticence of many children, parents may be unconscious of the existence of any enthusiasm or curiosity of this sort. As a little child I was so eager to know the names of the wild flowers that I went through my grandfather's library, examining book after book on flowers in the vain hope of acquiring the desired information. Always after more or less tedious reading, for I was too young to master tables of contents and introductions, I would discover that the volume under examination was devoted to garden flowers. But I do not remember that it occurred to me to tell anyone what I wanted or to ask for help. Finally I learned that a book on the subject, written "for young people," was in existence, and I asked my mother to buy it for me. The request was gratified promptly and I plodded through the preliminary matter of "How Plants Grow" to find that I was quite unable to master the key, and that any knowledge of the flowers that could appeal to my child-mind was locked away from me as hopelessly as before. Even though my one expressed wish had been so gladly met, I did not confide to others my perplexity, but surrendered sadly a cherished dream. Owing largely, I believe, to the reaction from this disappointment, it was many years before I attempted again to wrestle with a botanical key, or to learn the names of the flowers.

How much was lost by yielding too easily to discouragement I not only realize now, but I realized it partially during the long period when the plants were nameless. Among the flowers whose faces were familiar though their names were unknown, I felt that I was not making the most of my opportunities. And when I met plants which were both new and nameless, I was a stranger indeed. In the English woods and along the lovely English rivers, by the rushing torrents and in the Alpine meadows of Switzerland, on the mountains of Brazil, I should have felt myself less an alien had I been able then as now to detect the kinship between foreign and North American plants, and to call the strangers by names that were at least partially familiar.

To the man or woman who is somewhat at home in the plant-world, travel is quite a different thing from what it is to one who does not know a mint from a mustard. The shortest journey to a new locality is full of interest to the traveller who is striving to lengthen his list of plant acquaintances. The tedious waits around the railway station are welcomed as opportunities for fresh discoveries. The slow local train receives blessings instead of anathemas because of the superiority of its windows as posts of observation. The long stage ride is too short to satisfy the plant-lover who is keeping count of the different species by the roadside.

While crossing the continent on the Canadian Pacific Railway a few years ago, the days spent in traversing the vast plains east of the Rockies were days of keen enjoyment on account of the new plants seen from my window and gathered breathlessly for identification during the brief stops. But to most of my fellow-passengers they were days of unmitigated boredom. They could not comprehend the reluctance with which I met each nightfall as an interruption to my watch.

When, finally, one cold June morning we climbed the glorious Canadian Rockies and were driven to the hotel at Banff, where we were to rest for twenty-four hours, the enjoyment of the previous week was crowned by seeing the dining-room tables decorated with a flower which I had never succeeded in finding in the woods at home. It was the lovely little orchid, Calypso borealis, a shy, wild creature which had been brought to me from the mountains of Vermont. It seemed almost desecration to force this little aristocrat to consort with the pepper-pots and pickles of a hotel dining-room. In my eagerness to see Calypso in her forest-home I could scarcely wait to eat the breakfast for which a few moments before I had been painfully hungry.

Unfortunately the waiters at Banff were proved as ruthless as vandals in other parts of the world. Among the pines that clothed the lower mountainsides I found many plants of Calypso, but only one or two of the delicate blossoms had been left to gladden the eyes of those who love to see a flower in the wild beauty of its natural surroundings.

That same eventful day had in store for me another delight as the result of my love for plants. For a long time I had wished to know the shooting-star, a flower with whose general appearance from pictures or from descriptions I was familiar. I knew that it grew in this part of the world, but during a careful search of the woods and meadows and of the banks of the rushing streams the only shooting-star I discovered was a faded blossom which someone had picked and flung upon the mountain-path. Late in the afternoon, having given up the hope of any fresh find, I went for a swim in the warm sulphur pool. While paddling about the clear water, revelling in the beauty of the surroundings and the sheer physical joy of the moment, my eyes fell suddenly on a cluster of pink, cyclamen-like blossoms springing from the opposite rocks. I recognized at once the pretty shooting-star.

Two days later, at Glacier, I had another pleasure from the same source in the discovery of great beds of nodding golden lilies, the western species of adder's tongue, growing close to white fields of snow.

"Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance."

The enjoyment of the entire trip to the Pacific coast, of the voyage among the islands and glaciers of Alaska, and of the journey home through the Yellowstone and across our Western prairies, was increased indescribably by the new plants I learned to know.

The pleasure we take in literature, as in travel, is enhanced by a knowledge of nature. Not only are we able better to appreciate writers on nature so original and inspiring as Thoreau, or so charming as John Burroughs, but such nature-loving poets as Wordsworth, Lowell, Bryant, and countless others, mean infinitely more to the man or woman who with a love of poetry combines a knowledge of the plants and birds mentioned in the poems.

Books of travel are usually far more interesting if we have some knowledge of botany and zoölogy. This is also true of biographies which deal with men or women who find either their work or their recreation—and how many men and women who have been powers for good may be counted in one class or the other—in some department of natural science.

One fascinating department of nature-study, that of ferns, has received but little attention in this country. Within the last few years we have been supplied with excellent and inexpensive hand-books to our birds, butterflies, trees, and flowers. But so far as I know, with the exception of Mr. Williamson's little volume on the "Ferns of Kentucky," we have no book with sufficient text and illustrations within the reach of the brains and purse of the average fern-lover. In England one finds books of all sizes and prices on the English ferns, while our beautiful American ferns are almost unknown, owing probably to the lack of attractive and inexpensive fern literature. Eaton's finely illustrated work on the "Ferns of North America" is entirely out of the question on account of its expense; and the "Illustrated Flora" of Britton & Brown is also beyond the reach of the ordinary plant-lover. Miss Price's "Fern Collectors' Hand-book" is helpful, but it is without descriptive text. "Our Native Ferns and their Allies," by Mr. Underwood, is exhaustive and authoritative, but it is extremely technical and the different species are not illustrated. Mr. Dodge's pamphlet on the "Ferns and Fern Allies of New England" is excellent so far as it goes, the descriptions not being so technical as to confuse the beginner. But this also is not illustrated, while Mr. Knobel's pamphlet, "The Ferns and Evergreens of New England," has clear black-and-white illustrations of many species, but it has no text of importance.

In view of the singular grace and charm of the fern tribe, patent to the most careless observer, this lack of fern literature is surprising. It is possible that Thoreau is right in claiming that "we all feel the ferns to be farther from us essentially and sympathetically than the phenogamous plants, the roses and weeds for instance." This may be true in spite of the fact that to some of us the charm of ferns is as great, their beauty more subtle, than that of the flowering plants, and to learn to know them by name, to trace them to their homes, and to observe their habits is attended with an interest as keen, perhaps keener, than that which attends the study of the names, haunts, and habits of the flowers.

That ferns possess a peculiar power of blinding their votaries to the actual position they occupy in the minds of people in general seems to me evidenced by the following quotations, taken respectively from Mr. Underwood's and Mr. Williamson's introductions.

So competent and coldly scientific an authority as Mr. Underwood opens his book with these words:

"In the entire vegetable world there are probably no forms of growth that attract more general notice than the Ferns."

The lack of fern literature, it seems to me, proves the fallacy of this statement. If ferns had been more generally noticed than other "forms of growth" in the vegetable world, surely more would have been written on the subject, and occasionally someone besides a botanist would be found who could name correctly more than three or four of our common wayside ferns.

In his introduction to the "Ferns of Kentucky," Mr. Williamson asks: "Who would now think of going to the country to spend a few days, or even one day, without first inquiring whether ferns are to be found in the locality?"

Though for some years I have been interested in ferns and have made many all-day country expeditions with various friends, I do not remember ever to have heard this question asked. Yet that two such writers as Mr. Underwood and Mr. Williamson could imagine the existence of a state of things so contrary to fact, goes far to prove the fascination of the study.

To the practical mind one of the great advantages of ferns as a hobby lies in the fact that the number of our native, that is, of our northeastern, ferns is so comparatively small as to make it an easy matter to learn to know by name and to see in their homes perhaps two-thirds of them.

On an ordinary walk of an hour or two through the fields and woods, the would-be fern student can familiarize himself with anywhere from ten to fifteen of the ferns described in this book. During a summer holiday in an average locality he should learn to know by sight and by name from twenty-five to thirty ferns, while in a really good neighborhood the enthusiast who is willing to scour the surrounding country from the tops of the highest mountains to the depths of the wildest ravines may hope to extend his list into the forties.

During the past year several lists of the ferns found on a single walk or within a certain radius have been published in the Fern Bulletin, leading to some rivalry between fern students who claim precedence for their pet localities.

Mr. Underwood has found twenty-seven species within the immediate vicinity of Green Lake, Onondaga County, N. Y., and thirty-four species within a circle whose diameter is not over three miles.

Mrs. E. H. Terry, on a two-hours' walk near Dorset, Vt., did still better. She found thirty-three species and four varieties, while Miss Margaret Slosson has broken the record by finding thirty-nine species and eight varieties, near Pittsford, Rutland County, Vt., within a triangle formed by "the end of a tamarack swamp, a field less than a mile away, and some limestone cliffs three miles from both the field and the end of the swamp."

Apart from the interest of extending one's list of fern acquaintances is that of discovering new stations for the rarer species. It was my good fortune last summer to make one of a party which found a previously unknown station for the rare Hart's Tongue, and I felt the thrill of excitement which attends such an experience. The other day, in looking over Torrey's "Flora of New York," I noticed the absence of several ferns now known to be natives of this State. When the fern student realizes the possibility which is always before him of finding a new station for a rare fern, and thus adding an item of value to the natural history of the State, he should be stimulated to fresh zeal.

Other interesting possibilities are those of discovering a new variety and of chancing upon those forked or crested fronds which appear occasionally in many species. These unusual forms not only possess the charm of rarity and sometimes of intrinsic beauty, but they are interesting because of the light it is believed they may throw on problems of fern ancestry. To this department of fern study, the discovery and development of abnormal forms, much attention is paid in England. In Lowe's "British Ferns" I find described between thirty and forty varieties of Polypodium vulgare, while the varieties of Scolopendrium vulgare, our rare Hart's Tongue, extend into the hundreds.

The majority of ferns mature late in the summer, giving the student the advantage of several weeks or months in which to observe their growth. Many of our most interesting flowers bloom and perish before we realize that the spring is really over. There are few flower lovers who have not had the sense of being outwitted by the rush of the season. Every year I make appointments with the different plants to visit them at their flowering time, and nearly every year I miss some such appointments through failure to appreciate the short lives of these fragile blossoms.

A few of the ferns share the early habits common to so many flowers. But usually we can hope to

"The greatest charm the ferns possess is that of their surroundings."

find them in their prime when most of the flowers have disappeared.

To me the greatest charm the ferns possess is that of their surroundings. No other plants know so well how to choose their haunts. If you wish to know the ferns you must follow them to Nature's most sacred retreats. In remote, tangled swamps, overhanging the swift, noiseless brook in the heart of the forest, close to the rush of the foaming waterfall, in the depths of some dark ravine, or perhaps high up on mountain-ledges, where the air is purer and the world wider and life more beautiful than we had fancied, these wild, graceful things are most at home.

You will never learn to know the ferns if you expect to make their acquaintance from a carriage, along the highway, or in the interval between two meals. For their sakes you must renounce indolent habits. You must be willing to tramp tirelessly through woods and across fields, to climb mountains and to scramble down gorges. You must be content with what luncheon you can carry in your pocket. And let me tell you this. When at last you fling yourself upon some bed of springing moss, and add to your sandwich cresses fresh and dripping from the neighboring brook, you will eat your simple meal with a relish that never attends the most elaborate luncheon within four walls. And when later you surrender yourself to the delicious sense of fatigue and drowsy relaxation which steals over you, mind and body, listening half-unconsciously to the plaintive, long-drawn notes of the wood-birds and the sharp "tsing" of the locusts, breathing the mingled fragrance of the mint at your feet and the pines and hemlocks overhead, you will wonder vaguely why on summer days you ever drive along the dusty high-road or eat indoors or do any of the flavorless conventional things that consume so large a portion of our lives.

Of course what is true of other out-door studies is true of the study of ferns. Constantly your curiosity is aroused by some bird-note, some tree, some gorgeously colored butterfly, and, in the case of ferns especially, by some outcropping rock, which make you eager to follow up other branches of nature-study, and to know by name each tree and bird and butterfly and rock you meet.

The immediate result of these long happy days is that "golden doze of mind which follows upon much exercise in the open air," the "ecstatic stupor" which Stevenson supposes to be the nearly chronic condition of "open-air laborers." Surely there is no such preventive of insomnia, no such cure for nervousness or morbid introspection as an absorbing out-door interest. Body and mind alike are invigorated to a degree that cannot be appreciated by one who has not experienced the life-giving power of some such close and loving contact with nature.