Thursday 3 May 2012

Treatise on religion, natural history and heredity

Recently, I was perusing the book shelves at Tense Towers, where there are several natural history tomes which have been handed down from generation to generation. These books have been in my possession for some years, filed away amongst the varied subjects and titles of our own collection and the inherited sacred texts from my paternal grandfather, a lay preacher.

These latter texts are kept, not because we're particularly religious (for, in fact, we are particularly secular, just in a spiritual way), but rather because of the family connection. Although, as works such as 'Counsel and Comfort Spoken From A City Pulpit' and 'Altar Of The Household' aren't the "go to" books for wildlife ID, I rarely tend to browse that section of shelf.

However, whilst looking for some gentle holiday reading, before last month's trip to Gower, I discovered 'Watching Birds' by James Fisher. This paperback book was a 1951 revised edition of the 1940s original and was a thoroughly absorbing read. As far as ornithological history is concerned, I have to admit that until recently I was a bit of a philistine. For instance, I was totally unaware of the significant role that Fisher played in shaping British natural history after the Second World War. This book, presumably purchased by my father in his twenties, wouldn't really be out of place today, though there's no mention of Collared Doves, who, in 1951, were still four years away from colonising Britain.

One particular paragraph brought a smile to my face. It was on the subject of geographical tally-lists, as a way of keeping records, but touched on a topic that's still hotly-debated in ornithological circles today.

Fisher writes,

"But the tally system does produce certain peculiar results. It tends to focus people's attention on the variety of birds they can see, and among a certain section of ornithologists it induces useless rivalry."

Ouch! That'll be twitchers then.

The next book I discovered was 'Life of a Scotch Naturalist' by Samuel Smiles, a seventh edition from 1879. This is a biography of Thomas Edward, a 19th Century shoemaker with a love and a talent for natural history. Despite a poor education and having to work long hours to support his wife and eleven children, Edward amassed several splendid collections in his lifetime. Sadly, they all had to be sold for a fraction of their worth to keep the family from falling into poverty. He was elected as an Associate of the Linnean Society in 1866 and later became the curator of Banff Museum.

However, on a personal level, the most amazing fact about this book, is that it belonged to my maternal great grandmother. On an inner leaf is a printed label bearing her name, above a short poem,

"If thou art borrowed by a friend,
Right welcome he shall be
To read, to study, not to lend,
But to return to me.

Not that imparted knowledge doth
Diminish learning's store;
But books, I find if often lent
Return to me no more.

Now slowly read, and often pause,
Think much; the book keep clean
And when returned to me, let not
The folded leaves be seen."

Who'd have thought it? There's a gene for pedantry!


Spadger said...

Loved the Fisher quote - awesome and gigglesome!

Imperfect and Tense said...

Unfortunately, I lent someone a book recently and they thought the poem was a personal dig. Oops, cue much explanation and soothing words!