Gateway to the Classics: First Studies of Plant Life by George Francis Atkinson, Ph. B.
First Studies of Plant Life by  George Francis Atkinson, Ph. B.

Front Matter


FOR a long time botanical science, in the popular mind, consisted chiefly of pulling flowers to pieces and finding their Latin names by the use of the analytical key. All the careful descriptions of the habits of plants in the classic books were viewed solely as conducive to accuracy in placing the proper label upon herbarium specimens. Long after the study of botany in the universities had become biological rather than purely systematic, the old regime held sway in our secondary schools; and perhaps, some of us to-day know of high schools still working in the twilight of that first ray that pierced primeval darkness. However, this has practically passed away, and to-day life and its problems, its successes and its failures, absorb the attention of the botanist and zoölogist. The knowledge of the name of the plant or animal is simply a convenience for discrimination and reference. The systematic relations of a plant or animal are used in showing present anatomical affinities and past development. The absorbing themes of investigation and study are the life processes and the means by which the organisms living in the world to-day have climbed upward and placed themselves in the great realm of the "fit."

When the idea of nature study first dawned in the educational world, it was inevitably confused with the sciences on which it was based. Hence in earlier times we tried to teach the nature study of plants by making the children pull the flowers to pieces and learn the names of their different parts. This was as bad nature study as it was bad science, for we were violating the laws of the child's nature. The child cares very little about the forms of things; he is far more interested in what things do.

To-day nature study and science, while they may deal with the same objects, view them from opposite standpoints. Nature study is not synthetic; it takes for its central thought the child, and for its field work the child's natural environment. The child, through nature study, learns to know the life history of the violet growing in his own dooryard, and the fascinating story of the robin nesting in the cornice of his own porch. The differences of this violet and this robin from other violets and other robins in the world he considers not at all.

That the plant as well as the animal in nature study should be regarded a thing of life has long been recognized, and most of our nature study of plants begins with the planting and sprouting of the seed. Unfortunately, it mostly stops here; the life processes of the plant have seemed too complex to be brought within the comprehension of the child. There is much of chemistry in operations of plant growth, and we find very few things in chemistry that are simple enough to be properly a part of nature study.

"First Studies of Plant Life" has been written with the sole view of bringing the life processes of the plant within the reach of the child and, with the aid of the competent teacher, it will certainly be comprehensible to the pupil of even the lower grades. In this book the plant stands before the child as a living being with needs like his own. To live, the plant must be born, must be nourished, must breathe, must reproduce, and, after experiencing these things, must die. Each plant that is grown in the window box of a schoolroom should reveal to the child the secrets and the story of a whole life. He realizes that the young plant must be fed; it must grow; it is no longer a matter of commonplace; it is replete with interest, because it is the struggle of an individual to live. How does it get its food? How does it grow? It is of little moment whether its leaves are lanceolate or palmate; it is a question of what the leaves do for the plant; it is a matter of life or death.

When the child has once become acquainted with the conditions and necessities of plant life, how different will the world seem to him!—Every glance at forest or field will tell him a new story. Every square foot of sod will be revealed to him as a battlefield in which he himself may count the victories in the struggle for existence, and he will walk henceforward in a world of miracle and of beauty,—the miracle of adjustment to circumstances, and the beauty of obedience to law.




Author's Preface

IN presenting these "First Studies of Plant Life" the object has been to interest the child and pupil in the life and work of plants. The child, or young pupil, is primarily interested in life or something real and active, full of action, of play, or play-work. Things which are in action, which represent states of action, or which can be used by the child in imitating or "staging" various activities or realities, are those which appeal most directly to him and which are most forceful in impressing on his mind the fundamental things on which his sympathies or interests can be built up.

There is, perhaps, a too general feeling that young pupils should be taught things; that the time for reasoning out why a thing is so, or why it behaves as it does under certain conditions, belongs to a later period of life. We are apt to forget that during the first years of his existence the child is dependent largely on his own resources, his own activity of body and mind, in acquiring knowledge. He is preeminently an investigator, occupied with marvelous observations and explorations of his environment.

Why then should we not encourage a continuance of this kind of knowledge-seeking on the part of the child? The young pupil cannot, of course, be left entirely to himself in working out the relation and meaning of things. But opportunities often present themselves when the child should be encouraged to make the observations and from these learn why the result is so. No more excellent opportunities are afforded than in nature study. The topics most suitable are those which deal with the life, or work, or the conditions and states of formation.

To the child or young pupil a story, or the materials from which a story can be constructed, is not only the most engaging theme, but offers the best opportunity for constructive thought and proper interpretation.

In the studies on the work of plants some of the topics will have to be presented entirely by the teacher, and will serve as reference matter for the pupil, as will all of the book on occasions. The chapter dealing with the chemical changes in the work of starch-making is recognized by the author as dealing with too technical a subject for young pupils, and is included chiefly to round out the part on the work of plants. Still it involves no difficult reasoning, and if young children can appreciate, as many of them do, the "Fairyland of Chemistry," the pupils may be able to get at least a general notion of what is involved in the changes outlined in this chapter.

The chapters on Life Stories of Plants the author has attempted to present in the form of biographies. They suggest that biographies are to be read from the plants themselves by the pupils. In fact, this feature of reading the stories which plants have to tell forms the leading theme which runs through the book. The plants talk by a "sign language," which the pupil is encouraged to read and interpret. This method lends itself in a happy manner as an appeal to the child's power of interpretation of the things which it sees.

Many older persons will, perhaps, be interested in some of these stories, especially in the Struggles of a White Pine.

The story on the companionship of plants also affords a topic of real interest to the pupil, suggesting social conditions and relations of plants which can be read and interpreted by the young.

Nearly all of the line drawings are original, and were made expressly for this book by Mr. Frank R. Rathbun, Auburn, N.Y. Figs. 64, 79, 215, 216, 260 were reproduced from Bergen's "Botany," and Fig. 84, from Circular 86, United States Department of Agriculture, by Mr. Chesnut. The author desires to acknowledge his indebtedness to the following persons, who have kindly contributed photographs: Mr. II. E. Murdock, for the Frontispiece; Prof. Conway MacMillan, University of Minnesota, for Figs. 220, 249, 257; Professor Gifford, Cornell University, for Figs. 87, 183, 285, 290, 293, 295; Mr. Gifford Pinchot, Division of Forestry, United States Department of Agriculture, for Figs. 280, 282, 289, 292; Prof. W. W. Rowlee, Cornell University, for Figs. 279, 281, 304; Miss A. V. Luther, for Figs. 200, 296, 302; Prof. P. H. Mell, for Fig. 278; Prof. William Trelease, Missouri Botanical Garden, for Fig. 307; Professor Tuomey, Yale University, for Fig. 306. Fig. 221 is reproduced from photographs by Mr. K. Miyake; Fig. 77, from photograph by Mr. H. Ilasselbring; Figs. 76, 288, from photographs by Dr. W. A. Murrill. The remaining photographs were made by the author. Some of the text-figures were reproduced from the author's "Elementary Botany," while the photographs of mushrooms are from some of those published in Bulletins 138 and 168 of the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station, and from the author's "Mushrooms, Edible, Poisonous, etc."



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