A Boy Naturalist: Chapter 2

 •  6 min. read  •  grade level: 8
MANY of the boys, and a few of the girls I know, think of a butterfly hunt, an afternoon spent in catching minnows, or a ramble through the woods, returning to a late tea with baskets filled with foams, mosses and wild flowers, as among the most keenly enjoyed pleasures of a summer holiday.
But to Thomas Edward, "the Scotch Naturalist," all these were no holiday amusements. From quite a tiny child he had loved all living things, and as he grew older he learned to look upon birds, insects, and even creeping things as part of the wonderful works of God, and did not mind taking trouble to learn all he could about their habits and ways of life.
Working, as he did for many years, at his trade of shoemaking, it was only by very early rising, often long before daylight, that he was able to get time for his nature studies. It is pleasant to remember that for him the Lord's day was one of rest, and he went where the word of God was read and explained.
Brightly written and well-illustrated books on natural history were not so plentiful fifty or sixty years ago as they are now; and he could not afford to buy even one of the few larger and more expensive works that were then to be had. Very few, if any, of the people he knew took much interest in birds and butterflies. Yet he kept steadily on, learning something every day; and though often slowly, still steadily adding to his collection of moths, butterflies and curious insects. I think he must have taken "try, try again" as the motto of his life, for when things did not go smoothly, and the labor of months or even years seemed lost, he did not waste time in fretting or grieving over his troubles, but set to work again to repair the mischief done.
Moths and butterflies were among his special delights; he was often out with his net by three or four o'clock in the morning, or late at night, to secure the night-flying species. Ready-made cases in which to keep his specimens were far beyond his means; so he taught himself enough of the trades of carpenter, painter and glazier to make, paint and glaze those he required for his collections.
During four years he had made a collection of nine hundred and ten rare insects, moths and butterflies; these he placed with great care in twenty boxes. Not having at the time the money needed for the purchase of glass, he carried the boxes into his garret, turning them face downward to keep out the dust. They were not left very long; on the evening of one payday he arrived at home with the glass, little thinking of the disappointment that awaited him. On lifting up the first box he found it had been robbed of its contents; he tried the others, but all were empty. Nothing was left but the pins with which they had been fastened, and here and there a wing, head or leg. The room had been entered, and the boxes stripped by rats or mice.
His wife on seeing the empty cases, said, "What are you going to do next?" His answer, bravely, almost cheerfully given, was, "Well, it's a big disappointment, but I think the best thing will be to set to work and fill them up again." And set to work he did, allowing himself fewer hours of sleep than before. Early and late he was at work, moth hunting. It took about four years to refill his empty cases, taking care to glaze each as soon as it was filled.
He was very fond of birds, and knew where each species to be found for miles round his home loved to build; but he remembered that a bird's nest is its home, and though he would take an egg, or a young bird for the pleasure of taming it, he was careful not to destroy the nest, or frighten away the mother bird. He had many a stiff climb, and more than once a bad fall, when hunting for the eggs of sea-birds, but nothing stopped him.
Walking along the seashore, gun in hand, he was much interested in watching the flight of a flock of terns (a large kind of sea-gull). He had long wished to obtain one of these birds to be stuffed and placed in his collection. Choosing a favorable moment, he fired, and one of the largest fell with a broken wing into the water. The report of the gun, and the shrill cries of the wounded bird, for a moment scared away its companions; but only for a moment. Returning, they flew round in circles, uttering screams, and seeming to consult as to what was best to be done. Edward stood perfectly still, and to his great surprise, saw two of them lift the wounded bird out of the water, and each taking hold of a wing, carry it for six or seven yards; they then laid it gently down, when it was taken by two others, and borne further seaward. More than once the wounded bird and its bearers were within range of his gun, but he had no heart to fire again.
Time and space will not allow me to tell you more about the work done by this humble shoemaker. His opportunities of gaining knowledge were not large, but his industry, patience and perseverance taught him how to make the best use of such as he had.
When asked by some one how it was that while working at his trade he had been able to learn so much about natural history, his reply was, "I never wasted a minute, or any part of a minute, in which any work could be done.”
Towards the close of his life he was asked to address the boys of a high school. I close by quoting one or two of his remarks: "Keep this ever in mind, young friends, that no idler will ever do anything but evil. Some of you may not be called to work for daily bread, but you can labor in other ways. We are told in the best of books that 'Man goeth forth to his work, and to his labor until the evening.' Do something. Be kind to every living creature, help one another in every good work; be obedient to your parents and teachers; be brotherly-hearted to your brothers, sisters and playfellows, and above all, whatever you do, or wherever you go, let an old man beg you never to forget your great Creator.”