“The Hexapods are funny folk who have six feet. That is they have six when they are grown up, though some of the children have none at all, and some have as many as twenty-two. You can tell from this that they are strange people, and you may call them fairies if you like!
They have wings, – the grown-up ones do, – wonderful wings of many shapes and colors. Luna’s wings are green, – pale, pale green, – and very lovely, with a purple border on them. Perhaps there is nothing more beautiful in the world than Luna’s wings. When Van flies, you can see the yellow edge of her brown wings; and when she alights – hesto! presto! you can see nothing at all; for she disappears from sight even though she is near enough to touch. Carol wears her wings neatly folded like a fan, except when she is using them. And Gryl, the little black minstrel – oh, Gryl fiddles with his wings.”
Thus begins the introduction to Hexapod Stories by Edith Marion Patch. Patch wrote a series of children’s books, (sadly now out of print, but older copies can be found) which were not written just as whimsical tales of make-believe characters, but as tales that educate, with scientifically accurate details and illustrations, about the natural world. Luna (a moth), Van (a butterfly), Carol (a grasshopper), and Gryl (a cricket), are the characters of three of the tales in Hexapod Stories. In each of their tales of adventure the reader learns about their lives, life cycles, habitats, etc.
Dr. Edith Marion Patch was first and foremost an entomologist. Growing up she studied water, bugs, birds and plants, but it was bugs that became her career, both as researcher and educator. Though women in the sciences were not common in her time, especially in entomology (they still aren’t), in 1904 Edith became the head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Maine, and in 1930 she was elected president of the Entomological Society of America. She was the first woman in both these positions.
In her lifetime she was known not only for her discoveries of species, but for her passion to educate the lay person about Nature. Besides her children’s books, written in the early 1930s, which sold well, in the mid 1930s she had a radio show focused on making the natural sciences interesting to the public.
In a speech she gave in 1936 at the meeting of the Entomological Society of America called, “Without Benefit of Insects,” Patch urged the protection of insects, predicting that by the year 2000, if the heavy use of pesticides was not curtailed, many species of birds and insect pollinators would decline, some becoming extinct. Sadly, her science-based warning was not heeded.
There is a good chance you never heard of Edith Marion Patch. In spite of her popularity in her life time, primarily due to her children’s books, and her prolific attempts to make the natural sciences popular, like many women in science, her reputation is known only to those in her field, and likely not even to all of them. Edith died in 1954.
Preceding Patch by a few centuries, there was Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), considered the founder of entomology and, by some, the first environmentalist. Merian was the first to observe and understand insect metamorphosis. Her life story is remarkable, made more so by the era in which she lived, when not only were women not scientists, but science itself was suspect. Median’s influence on the general public’s knowledge of Nature was through her beautiful and detailed art. Though she made many breakthrough discoveries in scientific research of insects, she is known mostly for her art.
In reading about these women I reflect on a contemporary woman in science, botanist Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, born in 1953, a year before Patch died. I imagine they would have enjoyed each other’s company, as Patch would of enjoyed Maria Merian (and undoubtedly knew of her!). I’ve been reading two of Kimmer’s books – Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. As a member of the Potawatomi Nation, Kimmer’s perspective and writings on Nature blend and reflect the cultural perspective and values of her tribe with her knowledge as a scientist. Her observations of Nature are delightfully detailed, her observations of the relationship between people and Nature poignant. She brings the same awe and passion to her observations and writings that Patch brought to her children’s stories, that Merian brought to her art. Her books are popular, her observations resonant with and educate readers.
There are other women of science who were, and are, remarkable in their contributions to scientific knowledge. What stands out as I read their stories is how many of them desired not just to learn and discover the mysteries of Nature, but to share those mysteries, to educate others. They are story tellers.
When I was growing up I wanted to be a botanist (also a historian!) but challenged by math comprehension in high school, I gave up that goal. As a child I had my little nature desk in the garage where I would collect and observe bits and pieces of the natural world, from a dead beetle or butterfly to an unusual rock or plant, a habit I’ve never outgrown! But my goal was not research, but education, to become a ranger or summer camp teacher to “turn on” other folks to the mysteries of Nature. Perhaps it’s a “woman’s thing”…..to teach and share Mother Nature. To be story tellers. I wonder if I had known of Edith Patch or Maria Merian I would have been inspired and not given up my interest to learn more and share my love for the intricate wonders of nature. Though they both faced obstacles even greater, in the 1960s girls were still not given much support for such endeavors. I had great science teachers, but math teachers simply told me I couldn’t do math, there was no extra support available, no calculators, and to advance in science, I had to advance in math. Or so I was told.
If you have a desire to pass on your love of nature to children or grandchildren, I encourage you to track down copies of Dr. Edith Patch’s books. They are available for download on-line and can be found in bookstores that carry old books. Delightful and educational, they are stories for children and adults! Reading them to girls will send the message that bugs and birds are cool and becoming a scientist and studying them even cooler!
And if you have not read Kimmer’s books (many of you have likely read Sweetgrass), I highly recommend both. I’m grateful for her perspective and consider her one of the top contemporary Nature writers and a spokesperson for the environment……for the Earth.