Nature Study #2

Because there's WAY more to say about it

Image description: A lovingly worn copy of Anna Botsford Comstock’s “Handbook of Nature Study,” with a spiderweb printed on the green cloth fabric of the cover.

Hello flour friends,

I started to move on from nature study and tried to write about the scientific cookery movement of the late 1800s, but I realized I’d better first say a few words about the origins of nature study.

In the last letter, I made the point that nature study encouraged observation as a lead form of engagement with nature. Liberty Hyde Bailey, one of the movement’s key proponents, defined it as:

"Nature-study is not the study of a science, as of botany, entomology, geology, and the like. That is, it takes the things at hand and endeavors to understand them, without reference to the systematic order or relationships of the objects. It is wholly informal and unsystematic, the same as the objects which one sees. It is entirely divorced from definitions, or from explanations in books. It is therefore supremely natural. It simply trains the eye and the mind to see and to comprehend the common things of life; and the result is not directly the acquirement of science but the establishing of a living sympathy with everything that is."

I fear my musings might be misconstrued as anti-science, and I want to make sure that you know this pedagogical movement of the late 1800s in America was led by scientists. Scientists and bakers observe as part of their work -- isn’t every loaf a bit of research? How many of us take notes, mental or otherwise, to keep track of tending to the continuous experiment of bread making? 

The scientists behind nature study were keen on fostering strong connections to the natural world not at the expense of science, but to boost understanding of one's surroundings. I believe that Liberty Hyde Bailey and Anna Botsford Comstock gave so much of themselves to the project because it resonated with how they were raised, he in western Michigan and she in western New York; both grew up in the country with progressive parents who were farmers, and each had freedom and encouragement to connect with plants. Bailey and Comstock’s instructors also influenced nature study. Comstock’s mother taught her the names of many plants. As a child in a one room schoolhouse, Bailey’s teacher Julia Field once told him, “You are going through a beautiful world with your eyes shut. You see nothing.” He took her challenge and studied the trees on his walk to school the next day, and named them to her. 

Although Comstock, Bailey and Cornell were key proponents of nature study, its roots lay in many places: child-centered educational approaches observed in Europe and applied first in Boston, and then in Chicago. There, at the Cook County Normal School (Normal Schools trained teachers), a few naturalists and innovators versed in experiential education, such as Wilbur Jackman, popularized the concept of nature study. Bailey and others at Cornell learned of this work and started their own nature study efforts after the financial crisis of 1893 led to people leaving farms.

Anna Botsford Comstock led the efforts at Cornell, teaching teachers there and elsewhere around the state; she and other Cornell staff taught summer institutes, lectures, and weekend classes. The university incorporated a two-year course in nature study education in 1903. The demand for nature study instruction was so high that Comstock and her colleagues developed a correspondence course to train teachers, too.

The pamphlets from Cornell’s Nature Study Bureau fascinate me, because of the voice, as I said in the last letter, and because of the sheer volume of printed matter distributed to the public. Nature study bulletins for teachers and students circulated widely. Nature study work at Cornell was so popular that Bailey added staff; John W. Spencer was an orchardist initially hired to work on extension projects with farmers, but he wanted to work with young people, to develop better farmers. Spencer became “Uncle John” and led the Junior Naturalist Clubs, which were organized in schools.

The dues for the clubs were weekly letters where kids reported what they learned. “If you prefer to send us drawings instead of a letter, we shall accept them for dues,” Uncle John wrote. “Whichever you do, we hope you may be permitted to write as you would talk. We do not care to know so much about your scholarship as to learn your way of thinking and seeing.”

Think of all that paper! All those ideas pulsing back and forth in the mail -- what did such exchanges mean for kids? How did the Cornell style nature study voice, which was informational, but encouraged observation, develop a person’s sense of agency? Anna Botsford Comstock’s “Handbook of Nature Study” was a part of Rachel Carson’s childhood; how much of her considerable scientific imagination, and the environmental movement can we trace to Comstock? 

In my kitchen, as I watch the season change my starter and race my doughs to the finish line, I am applying a nature study mindset to the process. I am learning by experience, and by observation. I’ll be reflecting on this during the workshop I’m teaching with Ellie Markovitch in a few weeks for The Kneading Conference, Baking by Touch, Not Tech




A conversation about building trust-based supply chains, connecting pecans from Black farmers in Georgia to bakeries in the Midwest.

Hear from Shirley Sherrod and Paul Jones of New Communities and AGC member Rachel Bernier-Green of ‘Laine’s Bake Shop, who will share their personal and business journeys and discuss how food and agriculture can be used as a community catalyst. 

This is a free talk I helped organize through the Artisan Grain Collaborative, which is co-hosting the event with Red Tomato -- take a listen to my pal Ali Berlow’s podcast What Is American Food, ‘A Mighty Hybrid Food Hub in the Northeast

The Kneading Conference

Image description for page from Cornell bulletins:

An etching of a rural scene with flowers in the foreground and a schoolhouse near an owl and some birds. There is also a tower and a few trees. Text reads:





Junior Naturalist Club

is organized under the care and direction of the Cornell University College of Agriculture; and that, its purpose is the STUDY OF NATURE, to the end that every member thereof shall love the country better and be content to live therein; and further that this Document is a Charter acknowledging said Club to be a part of the EXTENSION WORK IN AGRICULTURE, inaugurated under the Laws of the State of New York.