Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/December 1905/The Study of Locality

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



A SIMPLE statement of what can be done and has been done with children is attempted in this article by one who for five years maintained a school in Ottawa for boys, limited in number to twenty and ranging in age from eight to fourteen years.

The afternoon work of this school was conditioned by the season. In the fall, the topography and physiography and the geological history of the city and surrounding country were studied The crust of the earth was examined in outcrops, mines, quarries and excavations, and collections made of soils, shells, fossils and animals for museum, vivarium and aquarium.[1]

In the winter when animate nature is in a state of torpidity and the earth covered with a mantle of snow, the conditions are less favorable for outdoor study of nature. As nature is asleep, we study her asleep. The forest in particular is a convenient and interesting object of winter study. We observed the general appearance of the tree-skeletons, striving to fix in our minds by memory-drawing the characteristic shapes of the various deciduous trees. We examined the bark of the trunk, the character of the wood (making collections of various woods), the size, form, color, texture, taste and smell of the twigs and buds, and the number and arrangement of the buds. The character of the terminal twigs is an excellent means of distinguishing our trees and shrubs. The various contrivances by which the buds protect themselves are of great interest. The buds, being kept in water, open out, showing how ready they are to cast off their winter clothes when the moisture and warmth of spring shall come.

Approaching Christmas reminded us of the evergreens, which we learned to distinguish, the boys decorating their desks with them. In this connection, I shall describe a typical winter outing. A few days before school closed for the winter holidays, we went to a rugged, swampy brush in search of evergreens, each boy being assigned a particular kind to be responsible for, while all were on the lookout for the rarest in the neighborhood, namely, ground hemlock or American yew. Joyously shouting defiance to the frost king, they trudged over the ridges, plunged down into the gullies, and ran across the tiny ponds. Skirting one of these, they at last found the ground hemlock nestling at the foot of the taller balsam and spruce. Then one of the boys made the merry discovery of the orange berries of the climbing bittersweet shining brilliantly against the bright green of a tall spruce, which it clasped in its tight winding embrace to the very top, while hanging its beautiful clusters down in rich and graceful festoons. At once there was a clambering and a pulling till we had added these gay wreaths to our varied evergreens. Such an outing puts iron into the blood and glad memories into the heart.

One of our favorite haunts was a piece of bush called Beechwood. Last winter we undertook to make a valuation survey of it on snowshoes. We first marked off a strip by tramping from one end of the woods to the other in Indian file. Then we counted all the trees in that strip, but recorded the measurement only of those of a circumference, breast high, of 36 inches or more. Two boys were assigned to each of the principal trees, one of them using the tape while the other kept tally. In the case of the boys in the illustration, it is evident that two of them are measuring one of the large beeches. In this way, we covered the whole woods in four afternoons, and found it to contain 670 trees, of which 270, or 40 per cent., were at least three feet around. All the trees but 90 and all the large trees but 30 were maple, beech and basswood, there being as many large maples as large beeches and basswoods together. The other trees present we found to be elm of two species (American elm and slippery elm), ironwood, yellow birch, hemlock, butternut and white ash.

At the school, we worked out the diameters of the trees whose circumference we had recorded, and then with the aid of lumbermen's tables found the total contents in board feet of the three most numerous species. Counting the lumber as worth $12 a thousand, we soon found out the value of the standing timber of our little woods to be about $800. Meanwhile, with compass and pencil in hand we had ascertained the shape and size of the wood, made a chart of it and estimated it to contain about eight acres.

In the spring, we studied the character of the underbrush and of the soil cover and indicated with proper surveyor's signs the large wooded portion, the two small open grassy corners, the marshy ground, the hill and the paths. Scattered through the wooded part, we placed signs for the principal trees, which signs we had invented ourselves from our observation of the character of the trees. The basswood, for example, we found most numerous in the lower parts, the butternut on the ridges. The ironwoods we noticed to be small but thrifty, shade not being so detrimental to these weeds of the forest as to many other species. At the close of the school year, a little lad of eleven summers had the bright idea of presenting me with an enlarged chart of our wood, done neatly in ink. Here surely is an example of self activity.

Early last April, we spent two mornings in the woods sugar making. Having obtained permission to tap twenty maples in Beechwood, we bought the outfit and went to work. The first morning we tapped the trees, the boys being taught how to select the best trees and how best to tap them. The reasons for each step were elicited or suggested, science and practise going hand in hand. It was great fun for the boys to watch the sap dropping into the cans, and to see whose cans filled first—proving their owners to have made the best choice of trees or managed the tapping best.

A couple of days later, having on hand a couple of barrels of sap or its product in syrup, we went to the woods to sugar off. First we made taffy by pouring the thick syrup on the snow. Then we boiled the rest down into sugar to take home. The boys in the illustration are enjoying the fruits of their labors in the shape of taffy.

PSM V67 D736 Geologizing on pine island.png

Geologizing on Pine Island.

After each of these occupations of surveying and sugar-making which I have described, and after considerable discussion of the same, the boys wrote compositions on 'Beechwood' or 'A Valuation Survey of Beechwood' and on 'The Maple' or 'Sugar-making.' A boy can write to some purpose after such an experience.

Throughout the spring the study of reviving nature was a never failing source of delight. The boys took the keenest interest in the return of the birds, the unfolding of leaf and flower, the awakening of frog and snake, squirrel, snail, butterfly and humble-bee. We set up our aquaria and vivaria afresh. We observed the birds in their busy occupations of feeding and nesting. We sketched them in their, characteristic attitudes; and learned to distinguish their varied notes and songs. We looked eagerly for the first flowers of spring, the gay hepaticas and sweet Mayflowers or trailing arbutus, and we observed PSM V67 D737 Natural history of hemlock lake.pngThe Natural History of Hemlock Lake. and recorded, until school closed, the lovely procession of the flowering plants. One year we observed the blooming of about two hundred of our native plants of wood, swamp and field. In this way the boys gained some conception of the wealth and variety of the Ottawa flora. We also made a special study of some one family throughout the year. I inserted glass tubes in the desks, and in these the boys were able to keep flowers fresh and beautiful. The boys also drew and painted the plants and made ornamental designs from them.[2] PSM V67 D737 Map of beechwood areas.png

PSM V67 D737 Surveying and evaluating beechwood.png

A Valuation Survey of Beechwood.

During the spring, also, the boys went to the woods and took home trees or shrubs or flowering herbs or ferns, according to their choice, and planted them in their gardens. Just before winter set in, the boys took home herbs from the woods to have the pleasure of a bit of spring in their homes in the middle of winter. In this way we induced hepaticas and spring beauties to bloom at Christmas time, and sweet cicely a couple of months later, when the plants in the woods
PSM V67 D738 Tapping for maple syrup.png
Tapping the Maples.
PSM V67 D738 Sugaring off.png
Sugaring off.

were asleep beneath a garment of snow and ice three feet thick, as we found by actual measurement.

Hitherto I have been speaking of the study of natural history. I shall now speak of the way we studied culture history: the history of man, his struggles and progress.

As the reader will have gathered, the study of nature in this school was by direct observation. Books were used, to be sure. The school library contained many books about nature, and the readers used were Wood's 'Natural History Headers' But the books were not the center of the study; they were merely accessory.

As with natural history, so with culture history. We began by observation. To get a large view of their native place, some six outings were spent in compassing the city on foot. Practical elementary lessons in surveying and mapping to scale were given, beginning with the schoolroom. Then a map was made of the city and its environs, and the course followed in the walks indicated, as well as the topography and the important buildings and public works. Visits were paid, mostly in the winter, to various institutions: to Parliament and City Hall and Market; to the shops of the jeweler, furrier, picture dealer, florist and maker of musical instruments; to the various factories and offices to see men wrestling with resistant matter in its various forms of wood, tin, copper, iron, stone; the lumberman, the joiner, the turner, the carver, the stone molder, the mason, the bridge-builder, the diver, the blacksmith, the printer, the bookbinder. We also attended the Ottawa Valley ploughing match just before winter set in, and visited the Experimental Farm at all seasons.

Meanwhile, the history of our city and district from the days of the sturdy backwoodsman to the present was unfolded and maps were made of the county and district. The industries of the locality were studied as conditioned by its peculiar resources in soil, timber, minerals and water-power. Then the early history of the various provinces and of the Atlantic states was narrated. The gist was given (with occasional reading of the more interesting parts) of many works relating to the discovery, exploration and settlement of the various parts of the American continent by the races of Europe. A map was drawn and so marked and colored as to give a bird's-eye picture of the course of discovery and settlement. In another map the native districts of the Indian aborigines were indicated, and something was told of Indian character and legend. Here again the school library was a valuable adjunct in the work, and sometimes the boys brought from their homes books bearing upon the subject in hand.

The parents have freely expressed their appreciation of the methods of the school.

I have tried to describe the value of this natural education, yet I have scarcely touched upon one aspect—perhaps most important of all, but too subtle to be pictured either in words or in illustrations. I mean the sweet, unconscious influences of nature and of one's native environment. By taking care that the child's associations with home are rich and full, we provide for the man an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

The reader will have observed that all that I have spoken of so far is really history—the history of nature and of man; and he will have seen how impossible it is entirely to separate these two things in any natural treatment of them. This is because they are not so much two separate things as two aspects of the same thing. Does not the reader see the application of this truth to education? Does it not suggest to him the thought that in taking his children away from nature,

PSM V67 D740 Studying the natural history of beechwood.png

Studying the Natural History of Beechwood.

away from their natural environment, and shutting them up all day in a schoolroom, chained to desks and books, he is doing violence to all that makes boyhood precious—to its naivete, to its love of all out-doors, to its instinctive craving for activity, and he is depriving it of the most natural means of its own development?

I wish to guard against a possible misapprehension. I am not laying down a school course for teachers. My school was situated in Ottawa, and the choice of culture material was governed largely by that fact. If I were to teach in Halifax, or Toronto, or Calgary, or Vancouver, I should deem it my first duty to study the conditions existing there. For I hold that the teacher will find in the locality, in the environment in which he lives and in which his pupils live, the most appropriate and the most educative material of instruction, far exceeding in value that found in any text-book or in all the text-books. To the teacher, therefore, this article is purely suggestive. It is for the trained teacher who possesses independence and initiative to work out his own course. His course should grow with his growth and with his increasing knowledge of his pupils and of his environmental conditions. It should be the teacher's task to locate his locality in its relationship to the rest of the country, geologically, geographically, meteorologically, botanically, zoologically, historically, in politics, in art, in literature, in industry, in all its conditions and endeavors, showing the place it has taken and the place it is destined to take in the building up of the national spirit and character.

PSM V67 D741 On the log boom.png

On the Boom.

  1. For a full account of the fall work in nature study, see 'A Glimpse at a Nature School,' in The Pedagogical Seminary for March, 1904.
  2. For an account of the manual work of the school see my article on 'Manual Training' in Acta Victoriana for December, 1904.