Anna Botsford Comstock provides us with another strong example of a Past Environmental Hero who used her exquisite writing skills to spawn sincere interest in and caring for the natural world. Comstock was a conservationist before most people knew what the word meant. In her 1912 book, The Handbook of Nature Study, she was way ahead of her time in stressing the importance of the interactive relationships—both biological and abiotic—that work together to form what we now call ecosystems.
Born in 1854, Comstock grew up on a farm in Otto, New York where she traipsed around outdoors with her Quaker mother who taught her about all the elements of the natural world—including insects, birds, wildflowers, and trees. In 1874, she enrolled at Cornell University where she met and fell in love with her husband-to-be, John Henry Comstock, an entomology professor. She then withdrew from school and spent several unheralded years drawing exquisite insect illustrations for her husband’s books.
In the mid-1890s, Comstock finally had the chance to break out and shine like the star she was destined to be. The New York Society for the Promotion of Agriculture asked her to help introduce a nature study program—the first of its kind in the United States— into local schools in Westchester County, New York. At first, many parents and teachers resisted the idea of teaching about the outdoors as being both frivolous, unproductive, and a waste of time. Despite these objections, Comstock’s outdoor education initiative soon grew into a nationwide teacher-education program administered by Cornell University and her career was off and running.
Comstock stayed busy promoting her nature study program by producing study guides and instructional booklets for teachers to use across the country. By encouraging instructors to take their students outside to learn, and then helping them see the relationship between people and the natural world, she left her mark on countless generations.[i] Now that’s what we call fantastic stick-to-it-tive-ness—going from an unappreciated drop-out to the founder of a national education initiative—all at the same university!
During the early 1900’s, Comstock and husband John opened the Comstock Publishing Company with its motto: “Nature through Books”. It was here that she wrote and illustrated a series of her own books, including Ways of the Six-Footed(1903), How to Keep Bees (1905)[ii], The Pet Book (1914)[iii], and Trees at Leisure (1916). But her tour de forceremained her nearly 900-page tome, The Handbook of Nature Study, which is now a famous sourcebook for teachers that has gone through twenty-four editions and has been translated into eight languages.
Throughout her landmark work, Comstock continually emphasizes the rewards of direct observation of the natural world. Here’s how she described her approach to nature study as used in the book: “I want to cultivate the child’s imagination, love of the beautiful, and sense of companionship with life out-of-doors.” Expressing such a radical shift from today’s reliance on electronic tethers, it’s no wonder that the Handbook of Nature Study still remains so popular with grade schools teachers—even today!
Comstock retired from full-time teaching in 1922, but continued to lecture and—in a 1923 poll by the League of Women Voters—was named one of “America’s 12 Greatest Living Women”. Comstock died of cancer in Ithaca, New York on August 24, 1930.
Outside of the classrooms, Comstock’s work as a conservationist remained largely unknown and unappreciated until the US Environmental Movement started to gather steam in the 1960s and 1970s. Then—fittingly in 1988—she was named to the National Wildlife Federation’s esteemed Conservation Hall of Fame where she is now forever lauded as the “Mother of Nature Education.”
While she was not an audacious conservation leader on the order of such contemporaries as Theodore Roosevelt or John Muir, Anna Botsford Comstock—in her own quiet and inimitable way—bolstered the national environmental consciousness by reaching out to America’s youth. Since Climate Change holds the greatest peril for future generations of Americans, it is incumbent on us all to involve our children and grandchildren in finding solutions. A guidebook written along the same lines as Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study would certainly go a long way toward accomplishing this.
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books.
Photo credits: Shutterstock(2)
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America”— provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.