How to Study Natural History

Charles Kingsley


This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Wednesday, December 17, 2014 at 14:17.

To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

How to Study Natural History

Lecture delivered at Reading, 1846.

Ladies and gentlemen, I speak to you to-night as to persons assembled, somewhat, no doubt, for amusement, but still more for instruction. Institutions such as this were originally founded for the purpose of instruction; to supply to those who wish to educate themselves some of the advantages of a regular course of scholastic or scientific training, by means of classes and of lectures.

I myself prize classes far higher than I do lectures. From my own experience, a lecture is often a very dangerous method of teaching; it is apt to engender in the mind of men ungrounded conceit and sciolism, or the bad habit of knowing about subjects without really knowing the subject itself. A young man hears an interesting lecture, and carries away from it doubtless a great many new facts and results: but he really must not go home fancying himself a much wiser man; and why? Because he has only heard the lecturer’s side of the story. He has been forced to take the facts and the results on trust. He has not examined the facts for himself. He has had no share in the process by which the results were arrived at. In short, he has not gone into the real scientia, that is, the “knowing” of the matter. He has gained a certain quantity of second-hand information: but he has gained nothing in mental training, nothing in the great “art of learning,” the art of finding out things for himself, and of discerning truth from falsehood. Of course, where the lecture is a scientific one, illustrated by diagrams, this defect is not so extreme: but still the lecturer who shows you experiments, is forced to choose those which shall be startling and amusing, rather than important; he is seldom or never able, unless he is a man of at once the deepest science and the most extraordinary powers of amusing, to give you those experiments in the proper order which will unfold the subject to you step by step; and after all, an experiment is worth very little to you, unless you perform it yourself, ask questions about it, or vary it a little to solve difficulties which arise in your own mind.

Now mind — I do not say all this to make you give up attending lectures. Heaven forbid. They amuse, that is, they turn the mind off from business; they relax it, and as it were bathe and refresh it with new thoughts, after the day’s drudgery or the day’s commonplaces; they fill it with pleasant and healthful images for afterthought. Above all, they make one feel what a fair, wide, wonderful world one lives in; how much there is to be known, and how little one knows; and to the earnest man suggest future subjects of study. I only ask you not to expect from lectures what they can never give; but as to what they can give, I consider, I assure you, the lecturer’s vocation a most honourable one in the present day, even if we look on him as on a mere advertiser of nature’s wonders. As such I appear here to-night; not to teach you natural history; for that you can only teach yourselves: but to set before you the subject and its value, and if possible, allure some of you to the study of it.

I have said that lectures do not supply mental training; that only personal study can do that. The next question is, What study? And that is a question which I do not answer in a hurry, when I say, The study of natural history. It is not, certainly, a study which a young man entering on the business of self-education would be likely to take up. To him, naturally, man is the most important subject. His first wish is to know the human world; to know what men are, what they have thought, what they have done. And therefore, you find that poetry, history, politics, and philosophy are the matters which most attract the self-guided student. I do not blame him, but he seems to me to be beginning at the middle, rather than at the beginning. I fell into the same fault myself more than once, when I was younger, and meddled in matters too high for me, instead of refraining my soul, and keeping it low; so I can sympathise with others who do so. But I can assure them that they will find such lofty studies do them good only in proportion as they have first learnt the art of learning. Unless they have learnt to face facts manfully, to discriminate between them skilfully, to draw conclusions from them rigidly; unless they have learnt in all things to look, not for what they would like to be true, but for what is true, because God has done it, and it cannot be undone — then they will be in danger of taking up only the books which suit their own prejudices — and every one has his prejudices — and using them, not to correct their own notions, but to corroborate and pamper them; to confirm themselves in their first narrow guesses, instead of enlarging those guesses into certainty. The son of a Tory turn will read Tory books, the son of a Radical turn Radical books; and the green spectacles of party and prejudice will be deepened in hue as he reads on, instead of being thrown away for the clear white glass of truth, which will show him reason in all honest sides, and good in all honest men.

But, says the young man, I wish to be wide-minded and wide-hearted — I study for that very purpose. I will be fair, I will be patient, I will hear all sides ere I judge. And I doubt not that he speaks honestly. But (I quote with all reverence) though the spirit be willing, the flesh is weak. Studies which have to do with man’s history, man’s thoughts, man’s feelings, are too exciting, too personal, often, alas, too tragical, to allow us to read them calmly at first. The men and women of whom we read are so like ourselves (for the human heart is the same in every age), that we unconsciously begin to love or hate them in the first five minutes, and read history as we do a novel, hurrying on to see when the supposed hero and heroine get safely married, and the supposed villain safely hanged, at the end of the chapter, having forgotten all the while, in our haste, to ascertain which is the hero and which is the villain. Mary Queen of Scots was “beautiful and unfortunate”— what heart would not bleed for a beautiful woman in trouble? Why stop to ask whether she brought it on herself? She was seventeen years in prison. Why stop to ascertain what sort of a prison it was? And as for her guilt, the famous Casket Letters were, of course, a vile forgery. Impossible that they could be true. Hoot down the cold-hearted, and disagreeable, and troublesome man of facts, who will persist in his stupid attempt to disenchant you, and repeat — But the Casket Letters were not a forgery, and we can prove it, if you will but listen to the facts. Her prison, as we will show you (if you will be patient and listen to facts), consisted in greater pomp and luxury than that of most noblemen, with horses, hounds, books, music, liberty to hunt and amuse herself in every way, even in intriguing with every court of Europe, as we can show you again, if you will be patient and listen to facts. And she herself was a very wicked and false woman, an adulteress and a murderess (though fearfully ill-trained in early youth), who sowed the wind, poor wretch, from girlhood to old age, and therefore reaped the whirlwind, receiving the just reward of her deeds. Catherine of Russia, meanwhile, instead of being beautiful and unfortunate, was only handsome and successful. Brand her as a disgrace to human nature. The morals and ways of the two were pretty much on a par, with these exceptions in Catherine’s favour — that she had strong passions, Mary none; that she lived in outer darkness and practical heathendom, while Mary had the light shining all round her, and refused it deliberately again and again. What matter to the sentimentalist? Hiss the stupid hard-hearted man of facts, by all means. What if he be right? He has no business to be right; we will consider him wrong accordingly, of our own sovereign will and pleasure. For after all, if we had the facts put before us (says the conscience of many a hearer), we could not judge of them; we read to be amused and instructed, not to study cases like so many barristers. So is history read. And so, alas, is history written, too often, for want of a steady and severe training which would enable people to judge dispassionately of facts. In politics the case is the same. In poetry, which appeals more directly to the feelings, it must needs be still worse; as has been shown sadly enough of late by the success of several poems, in which every possible form of bad taste has only met with unbounded admiration from the many who have not had their senses exercised to discern between good and evil.

Now what seems to me to be wanted for young minds, is a study in which no personal likes or dislikes shall tempt them out of the path of mental honesty; a study in which they shall be free to look at facts exactly as they are, and draw their conclusions patiently and dispassionately. And such a study I have found in that of natural history.

Do not fancy it, I beg you, an easy thing to judge fairly of facts; even to discover the facts at all, when they are staring you in the face; and to see what it is that you do see. Any lawyer will tell you, that if you ask three honest men to bear testimony concerning an event which happened but yesterday, none of them, if he be at all an interested party, will give you exactly the same account of it: not that he wishes to say what is untrue; but that different parts of the whole matter having struck each man with different force, a different picture has been left on each man’s memory. I have been utterly astounded of late, in investigating these strange stories of table-turning and spirit-rapping, to find how even clear-headed and well-instructed persons (as one had fancied them) become unable to examine fairly into a thing, the moment the desire to believe has entered the heart; and how no amount of mere cultivation, if the scientific habit of mind be wanting, can prevent people from finding (as in table-turning) miracles in the most simple mechanical accidents; or from becoming (as in spirit-rapping) the dupes of the most clumsy, palpable, and degrading impostures, even after they have been exposed over and over again in print. Humiliating, indeed, it is, in this so self-confident and boastful nineteenth century, amid steam-engines, railroads, electric telegraphs, and all the wonders of our inductive science, to find exploded superstitions leaping back into life even more monstrous and irrational than in past ages, and to see our modern Pharisees and Sadducees, like those in Judea of old, seeking after a sign of an unseen world; and being unable to find one either in the heaven above or in the earth beneath, discovering it at last (I am almost ashamed to speak the words) under the parlour-table.

Against such extravagances, and against the loose sentimental tone of mind which begets them, hardly anything would be a better safeguard than the habitual study of nature. The chemist, the geologist, the botanist, the zoologist, has to deal with facts which will make him master of them, and of himself, only in proportion as he obeys them. Many of you doubtless know Lord Bacon’s famous apothegm, Nature is only conquered by obeying her; and will understand me when I say, that you cannot understand, much less use for scientific purposes, the meanest pebble, unless you first obey that pebble. Paradoxical; but true.

See this pebble which I hold in my hand, picked up out of the street as I came along; it shall be my only object to-night. There the thing is; and is as it is, and in no other way; and such it will be, and so it will behave and act, in spite of me, and all my fancies about it, and notions of what it ought to have been like, and what it ought to have done. It is a thought of God’s; and strong by the eternal laws of matter, which are the will of God. It has the whole universe, sun, and stars, and all, backing it by God’s appointment, to keep it where it is and what it is; and till (as Lord Bacon has it) I have discovered and obeyed the will of God revealed in that pebble, it is to me a riddle more insoluble than the Sphinx’s, a fortress more impregnable than Sevastopol. I may crush it: but destroying is not conquering: but I cannot even mend the road with it prudently, until I have discovered whether Almighty God has made it fit to mend roads with. I may have the genius of a Plato or of a Shakespeare, but all my genius will not avail to penetrate that pebble, or see anything in it but a little round dirty stone, until I have treated the pebble with reverence, as a thing independent of my likes and dislikes, fancies, and aspirations; and have asked it humbly to tell me its story, taking counsel meanwhile of hundreds of kindred pebbles, each as silent and reserved as this one; and watched and listened patiently, through many mistakes and misreadings, to what it has to say for itself, and what God has made it to be. And then at last that little black rounded pebble, from the street outside, may, and will surely, if I be patient and honest enough, tell me a tale wilder and grander than any which I could have dreamed for myself; will shame the meanness of my imagination, by the awful magnificence of God’s facts, and say to me:

“Ages and Æons since, thousands on thousands of years before there was a man to till the ground, I the little pebble was a living sponge, in the milky depths of the great chalk ocean; and hundreds of living atomies, each more fantastic than a ghost-painter’s dreams, swam round me, and grew on me, and multiplied, till I became a tiny hive of wonders, each one of which would take you a life to understand. And then, I cannot yet tell you how, and till I tell you you will never know, the delicate flint-needles in my skin gathered other particles of flint to them, and I and all my inhabitants became a stone; and the chalk-mud settled round us, I know not how, and covered us in; and for ages on ages I lay buried in the nether dark, and felt the glow of the nether fires, and was cracked and tossed by a hundred earthquakes. Again and again I have been part of an island, and then again sunk beneath the sea, to be upheaved again after long centuries, till I saw the light once more, and dropped from the face of some chalk cliff far away among high hills which have long since been swept off the face of the earth, and was tossed by currents till I became a pebble on the beach, while Reading was a sand-bank in a shallow sea. There I lay and rolled till I was rounded, for many a century more; till flood after flood past over me, and a new earth was made; and I was mixed up with fresh flints from wasting chalk-hills, and with freestones from the Gloucestershire wolds, and with quartz-boulders from the mountains of Wales, while over me swept the carcases of drowned elephants and bisons, and many a monstrous beast; and above me floated uprooted palms, and tropic fruits and seeds, and the wrecks of a dying world. And then there came another age —

And it grew wondrous cold;

And ice mast-high came floating by,

As green as emerald;

and as the icebergs melted in the sun, the stones and the silt fell out of them, and covered me up; and I was in darkness once more, vexed by many an earthquake, till I became part of this brave English land. And now I am a pebble here in Reading street, to be ground beneath the wheels of busy men: and yet you cannot kill me, or hinder my fulfilling the law which cannot be broken. This year I am a pebble in the street; and next year I shall be dust upon the fields above; and the year after that I shall be alive again, and rise from the ground as fair green wheat-stems, bearing up food for the use of man. And even after that you cannot kill me. The trampled and sodden straw will rot only to enter into a new life; and I shall pass through a fresh cycle of strange adventures, age after age, till time shall be no more; doing my work in my generation, and fulfilling to the last the will of God, as faithfully as when I was the water-breathing sponge in the abysses of the old chalk sea.” All this and more, gentlemen and ladies, the pebble could tell to you, and will: but he is old and venerable, and like old men, he wishes to be approached with respect, and does not like to be questioned too much or too rapidly; so that you must not be offended if you meet with more than one rebuff from him; or if he keeps stubborn silence, till he has seen that you are a modest and attentive person, to whom it is worth while to open a little of his forty or fifty thousand years’ experience.

Second only to the good effect of this study on the logical faculty, seems to me to be its effect on the imagination. Not merely in such objects as the pebble, whose history I have so hastily, but I must add faithfully, sketched; but in the tiniest piece of mould on a decayed fruit, the tiniest animalcule from the stagnant pool, will imagination find inexhaustible wonders, and fancy a fairy-land. And I beg my elder hearers not to look on this as light praise. Imagination is a valuable thing; and even if it were not, it is a thing, a real thing, a faculty which every one has, and with which you must do something. You cannot ignore it; it will assert its own existence. You will be wise not to neglect it in young children; for if you do not provide wholesome food for it, it will find unwholesome food for itself. I know that many, especially men of business, are inclined to sneer at it, and ask what is the use of it? The simple answer is, God has made it; and He has made nothing in vain. But you will find that in practice, in action, in business, imagination is a most useful faculty, and is so much mental capital, whensoever it is properly trained. Consider but this one thing, that without imagination no man can possibly invent even the pettiest object; that it is one of the faculties which essentially raises man above the brutes, by enabling him to create for himself; that the first savage who ever made a hatchet must have imagined that hatchet to himself ere he began it; that every new article of commerce, every new opening for trade, must be arrived at by acts of imagination; by the very same faculty which the poet or the painter employs, only on a different class of objects; remember that this faculty is present in some strength in every mind of any power, in every mind which can do more than follow helplessly in the beaten track, and do nothing but what it has seen others do already: and then see whether it be not worth while to give the young a study which above all others is fitted to keep this important and universal faculty in health. Now, from fifty to five-and-twenty years ago, under the influence of the Franklin and Edgeworth school of education, imagination was at a discount. That school was a good school enough: but here was one of its faults. It taught people to look on imagination as quite a useless, dangerous, unpractical, bad thing, a sort of mental disease. And now, as is usual after an unfair depreciation of anything, has come a revolution; and an equally unfair glorifying of the imagination; the present generation have found out suddenly that the despised faculty is worth something, and therefore are ready to believe it worth everything; so that nowadays, to judge from the praise heaped on some poets, the mere possession of imagination, however ill regulated, will atone for every error of false taste, bad English, carelessness for truth; and even for coarseness, blasphemy, and want of common morality; and it is no longer charity, but fancy, which is to cover the multitude of sins.

The fact is, that youth will always be the period of imagination; and the business of a good education will always be to prevent that imagination from being thrown inward, and producing a mental fever, diseasing itself and the whole character by feeding on its own fancies, its own day dreams, its own morbid feelings, its likes and dislikes; even if it do not take at last to viler food, to French novels, and lawless thoughts, which are but too common, alas! though we will not speak of them here.

To turn the imagination not inwards, but outwards; to give it a class of objects which may excite wonder, reverence, the love of novelty and of discovering, without heating the brain or exciting the passions — this is one of the great problems of education; and I believe from experience that the study of natural history supplies in great part what we want. The earnest naturalist is pretty sure to have obtained that great need of all men, to get rid of self. He who, after the hours of business, finds himself with a mind relaxed and wearied, will not be tempted to sit at home dreaming over impossible scenes of pleasure, or to go for amusement to haunts of coarse excitement, if he have in every hedge-bank, and wood land, and running stream, in every bird among the boughs, and every cloud above his head, stores of interest which will enable him to forget awhile himself, and man, and all the cares, even all the hopes of life, and to be alone with the inexhaustible beauty and glory of Nature, and of God who made her. An hour or two every day spent after business-hours in botany, geology, entomology, at the telescope or the microscope, is so much refreshment gained for the mind for to-morrow’s labour, so much rest for irritated or anxious feelings, often so much saved from frivolity or sin. And how easy this pursuit. How abundant the subjects of it! Look round you here. Within the reach of every one of you are wonders beyond all poets’ dreams. Not a hedge-bank but has its hundred species of plants, each different and each beautiful; and when you tire of them — if you ever can tire — a trip into the meadows by the Thames, with the rich vegetation of their dikes, floating flower-beds of every hue, will bring you as it were into a new world, new forms, new colours, new delight. You ask why this is? And you find yourself at once involved in questions of soil and climate, which lead you onward, step by step, into the deepest problems of geology and chemistry. In entomology, too, if you have any taste for the beauties of form and colour, any fondness for mechanical and dynamical science, the insects, even to the smallest, will supply endless food for such likings; while their instincts and their transformations, as well as the equally wondrous chemical transformation of salts and gases into living plants, which agricultural chemistry teaches you, will tempt you to echo every day Mephistopheles’s magic song, when he draws wine out of the table in Auersbach’s cellar:

Wine is grapes, and grapes are wood —

The wooden board yields wine as good:

It is but a deeper glance

Into Nature’s countenance.

All is plain to him who seeth;

Lift the veil and look beneath,

And behold, the wise man saith,

Miracles, if you have faith.

Believe me you need not go so far to find more than you will ever understand. An hour’s summer walk, in the company of some one who knows what to look for and how to look for it, by the side of one of those stagnant dikes in the meadows below, would furnish you with subjects for a month’s investigation, in the form of plants, shells, and animalcules, on each of which a whole volume might be written. And even at this seemingly dead season of the year, fancy not that nature is dead — not even that she sleeps awhile. Every leaf which drops from the bough, to return again into its gases and its dust, is working out chemical problems which have puzzled a Boyle and a Lavoisier, and about which a Liebig and a Faraday will now tell you that they have but some dim guess, and that they stand upon the threshold of knowledge like (as Newton said of himself) children gathering a few pebbles, upon the shore of an illimitable sea. In every woodland, too, innumerable fungi are at work, raising from the lower soil rich substances, which, strewed on the surface by quick decay, will form food for plants higher than themselves; while they, by their variety and beauty, both of form and colour, might well form studies for any painter, and by the obscure laws of their reproduction, studies for any philosopher. Why, there is not a heap of dead leaves among which by picking it through carefully you might not find some twenty species of delicate and elegant land-shells; hardly a tree-foot at which, among the moss and mould, you might not find the chrysalides of beautiful moths, where caterpillars have crawled down the trunk in autumn, to lie there self-buried and die to live again next spring in a new and fairer shape. And if you cannot reach even there, go to the water-but in the nearest yard, and there, in one pinch of green scum, in one spoonful of water, behold a whole “Divina Commedia” of living forms, more fantastic a thousand times than those with which Dante peopled his unseen world: and then feel, as you should feel, abashed at the ignorance and weakness of mortal man; abashed still more at that rash conceit of his, which makes him fancy himself the measure of all things; and say with me: “Oh Lord, thy works are manifold; thy ways are very deep. In wisdom hast thou made them all, the earth is full of thy riches. Thou openest thy hand, and fillest all things living with plenteousness; they continue this day according to thine ordinance, for all things serve thee. Thou hast made them fast for ever and ever; thou hast given them a law which shall not be broken. Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he spake the word and they were made, he commanded, and they were created.”

This I shall say, but little more than this, on the religious effect of the study of natural history. I do not wish to preach a sermon to you. I can trust God’s world to bear better witness than I can, of the Loving Father who made it. I thank him from my own experience for the testimony of His Creation, only next to the testimony of His Bible. I have watched scientific discoveries which were supposed in my boyhood to be contrary to revelation, found out one by one to confirm and explain revelation, as crude and hasty theories were corrected by more abundant facts, and men saw more clearly what both the Bible and Nature really did say; and I can trust that the same process will go on for ever, and that God’s earth and God’s word will never contradict each other. I have found the average of scientific men, not less, but more, godly and righteous men than the average of their neighbours; and I can trust that this will be more and more the case as science deepens and widens. And therefore I can trust that every patient, truthful, and healthful mind will, the more it contemplates the works of God, re-echo St. Paul’s great declaration that the Invisible things of God are clearly seen from the foundation of the world, being understood by the things which are made, even His eternal power and Godhead. And so trusting, I pass on to a lower view of the subject, and yet not an unnecessary one.

In an industrial country like this, the practical utility of any study must needs be always thrown into the scale; and natural history seems at first sight somewhat unpractical. What money will it earn for a man in after life? — is a question which will be asked; and which it is folly to despise. For if the only answer be: “None at all,” a man has a right to rejoin: “Then let me take up some pursuit which will train and refresh my mind as much as this one, and yet be of pecuniary benefit to me some day.” If you can find such a study, by all means follow it: but I say that this study too may be of great practical benefit in after life. How much money have I, young as I am, seen wasted for want of a little knowledge of botany, geology, or chemistry. How many a clever man becomes the dupe of empirics for want of a little science. How many a mine is sought for where no mine could be; or crop attempted to be grown, where no such crop could grow. How many a hidden treasure, on the other hand, do men walk over unheeding. How many a new material, how many an improved process in manufacture is possible, yet is passed over, for want of a little science. And for the man who emigrates, and comes in contact with rude nature teeming with unsuspected wealth, of what incalculable advantage to have if it be but the rudiments of those sciences, which will tell him the properties, and therefore the value, of the plants, the animals, the minerals, the climates with which he meets? True — home-learnt natural history will not altogether teach him about these things, because most of them must needs be new: but it will teach him to compare and classify them as he finds them, and so by analogy with things already known to him, to discover their intrinsic worth.

For natural history stands to man’s power over Nature, that is, to his power of being useful to himself and to mankind, in the same relation as do geography, grammar, arithmetic, geometry, political economy; none of them, perhaps, bearing directly on his future business in life; but all training his mind for his business, all giving him the rudiments of laws which he will hereafter work out and apply to his profession. And even at home, be sure that such studies will bear fruit in after life. The productive wealth of England is not exhausted, doubt it not; our grandchildren may find treasures in this our noble island of which we never dreamed, even as we have found things of which our forefathers dreamed not. Recollect always that a great market town like this is not merely a commercial centre; not perhaps even a commercial centre at all: but that she is an agricultural centre, and one of the most important in England; that the increase of science here will be sure more or less to extend itself to the neighbourhood: and then lay to heart this one fact. A friend of mine, and one whom I am proud to call my friend, succeeding to an estate, thought good to cultivate it himself. And being a man of common sense, he thought good to know something of what he was doing. And he said to himself: The soil, and the rain, and the air are my raw materials. I ought surely then to find out what soil, and rain, and air are; so I must become a geologist and a meteorologist. Vegetable substances are what I am to make. And I ought surely to know what it is that I am making; so I must become a botanist. The raw material does somehow or other become manufactured into the produce; the soil into the vegetable. I ought surely to know a little about the processes of my own manufacture; so I must learn chemistry. Chance and blind custom are not enough for me. At best they can but leave me where they found me, at their mercy. Science I need; and science I will acquire. What was the result? After many a mistake and disappointment, he succeeded in discovering on his own estate a mine of unsuspected wealth — not of gold indeed, but of gold’s worth — the elements of human food. He discovered why some parts of his estate were fertile, while others were barren; and by applying the knowledge thus gained, he converted some of his most barren fields into his most fertile ones; he preserved again and again his crops from blight, while those of others perished all around him; he won for himself wealth, and the respect and honour of men of science; while those around him, slowly opening their eyes to his improvements, followed his lessons at second-hand, till the whole agriculture of an important district has become gradually but permanently improved, under the auspices of one patient and brave man, who knew that knowledge was power, and that only by obeying nature can man conquer her.

Bear in mind both these last great proverbs; and combine them in your mind. Remember that while England is, and ever will be, behindhand in metaphysical and scholastic science, she is the nation which above all others has conquered nature by obeying her; that as it pleased God that the author of that proverb, the father of inductive science, Bacon Lord Verulam, should have been an Englishman, so it has pleased Him that we, Lord Bacon’s countrymen, should improve that precious heirloom of science, inventing, producing, exporting, importing, till it seems as if the whole human race, and every land from the equator to the pole must henceforth bear the indelible impress and sign manual of English science.

And bear in mind, as I said just now, that this study of natural history is the grammar of that very physical science which has enabled England thus to replenish the earth and subdue it. Do you not see, then, that by following these studies you are walking in the very path to which England owes her wealth; that you are training in yourselves that habit of mind which God has approved as the one which He has ordained for Englishmen, and are doing what in you lies toward carrying out, in after life, the glorious work which God seems to have laid on the English race, to replenish the earth and subdue it?

One word more, and I have done. Unless you are already tired of hearing me, I would suggest a few practical hints before we part. The best way of learning these matters is by classes, in which men may combine and interchange their thoughts and observations. The greatest savants find this; and have their Microscopic Society, Linnæan, Royal, Geological Societies, British Associations, and what not, in which all may know what each has done, and each share in the learning of all; for as iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpens the face of his friend. I have nothing to say against debating societies: perhaps it was my own fault that whenever I belonged to one as a young man, I found them inclined to make me conceited, dictatorial, hasty in my judgments, trying to state a case before I had investigated it, to teach others before I had taught myself, to make a fine speech, not to find out the truth; till in, I think, a wise moment for me, I vowed at twenty never to set foot in one again, and kept my vow. Be that as it may, I wish that side by side with the debating society, I could see young men joining in natural history societies; going out in company on pleasant evenings to search together after the hidden treasures of God’s world, and read the great green book which lies open alike to peasant and to peer; and then meeting, say once a week, to debate, not of opinions but of facts; to show each what they had found, to classify and explain, to learn and to wonder together. In such a class many appliances would be possible. A microscope, for instance, or chemical apparatus, might belong to the society, which each individual by himself would not be able to afford; while as for books — books on these subjects are now published at a marvellous cheapness, which puts them within the reach of every one, and of an excellence which twenty years ago was impossible. Any working man in this town might now, especially in a class, consult scientific books, for which I, as a lad, twenty years ago, was sighing in vain; nay, many of which, twenty years ago, the richest nobleman could not have purchased; for the simple reason, that, dear or cheap, they did not exist. Such classes, too, would be the easiest, cheapest, and pleasantest way of establishing what ought to exist, I think, in connection with every institution like this, namely, a museum. If the young men were really ready and willing to collect objects of interest, I doubt not that public-spirited men would be found, who would undertake the expense of mounting them in a museum. And you cannot imagine, I assure you, how large and how interesting a museum might be formed of the natural curiosities of a neighbourhood like this, I may say, indeed, of any neighbourhood or of any parish: but your museum need not be confined to the neighbourhood. Societies now exist in every part of England, who will be happy to exchange their duplicates for yours. As your collection increased in importance, old members abroad would gladly contribute foreign curiosities to your stock. Neighbouring gentlemen would send you valuable objects which had been lumbering their houses, uncared for, because they stood alone, and formed no part of a collection; and I, for one, would be happy to add something from the fauna and flora of those moorlands, where I have so long enjoyed the wonders of nature; never, I can honestly say, alone; because when man was not with me, I had companions in every bee, and flower, and pebble; and never idle, because I could not pass a swamp, or a tuft of heather, without finding in it a fairy tale of which I could but decipher here and there a line or two, and yet found them more interesting than all the books, save one, which were ever written upon earth.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005