The beautiful gossamer time has come again. Most mothers now cultivate in their children a love of flowers, but it is astonishing how rarely a love of insects is taught. I do not mean a mawkish fear of killing them, for very often they have to be killed. I remember a boy who was fond on wet summer days of killing flies on his nursery window. I remonstrated and said it was cruel, upon which he answered: 'Why? Father goes out fishing, and brothers go out shooting; why may I not kill flies?' The only answer that came to my mind was that I could stop the one and I could not the other; this remained for ever with him as an injustice. But I do think that probably the more children understand and admire, the less they would wish wantonly to kill, and at any rate it might do away with so much of that groundless dread and uncontrollable nervous fear of insects which stick to some people through life. I know some girls who have to leave the room if moths - innocent, soft, downy moths! - come in, attracted to their doom by the cruel lamp. I know others who dare not pick certain flowers for fear of an earwig, which from its silly name they believe to be really a dangerous enemy. Others, again, will injure their health and remain all through the hot summer nights, perhaps in quite a small room, with window and door closed, for fear of the inroad of some winged wanderer of the darkness. All this seems to me so silly, so ignorant, so unnecessary! And if children were early introduced to the wonders of insect life - ants, bees, butterflies, moths, etc. - I think they would fear them as little as the ordinary house-fly, which is really more objectionable than many of them. I never cared much for spiders till I heard a most interesting lecture about them, when I longed to know more. The process by which they weave their beautiful webs has only been understood in comparatively recent years. Everyone knows now that the gossamer which covers our commons is spun by spiders. In old days all sorts of fairy traditions hung about it, as it was quite unlike the web of other spiders. The lecturer said that spiders place themselves with their face to the gentle breeze. This carries the thin thread they have power to eject, with its glutinous end, into the air till it reaches some branch or stone or corner of leaf, to which it adheres instantly. When this happens the spider turns quickly round and pulls, like any British tar, with his two front claws till the fairy rope is tight. Then he fixes it and can travel along it, and that is the first stage in the 'weaving,' as the old language puts it, of his beautiful web. Spiders belong to a kingdom ruled by women, and the female eats up the male if she finds him troublesome and unsatisfactory. There is a very good book about British spiders by E. F. Staveley (L. Reeve & Co.), which would tell all that anyone might want to know about these insects. The first page illustrates spiders' heads, with the varying numbers of eyes the different kinds possess.
'Gleanings in Natural History,' by Edward Jesse, is a book I can indeed recommend to all lovers of natural history. The first edition is dated 'Hampton Court, 1842.' For all of us who live near Hampton Court the book has a double interest, as he was Surveyor of Her Majesty's Parks and Palaces, and lived there, and many of his anecdotes are connected with the neighbourhood. His opening words are: 'One of the chief objects I had in writing the following pages was to portray the character of animals, and to endeavour to excite more kindly feelings towards them.' It is a kind of halfway book between Gilbert White and the scientific writings of the present day; and all natural instincts and facts are accounted for in what the most ignorant, since the days of Darwin, would describe as the unscientific language belonging to that date. To my mind, that in no way detracts from the interest of its shrewd observations on the facts of Nature.
To name another book in this place, 'Country Pleasures: Chronicle of a Year chiefly in a Garden,' by George Milner, has been lately republished and thoroughly deserves it, as it is one of the best of its kind, and must be an especial favourite with all nature lovers. Its charm is of rather a different kind from either of the other two. The writing is beautiful, and the quotations are pointed and chosen with literary taste and knowledge. Here are two sentences which I give in order that the charm may be felt. One is dated 'May 22nd,' for the book is arranged in months, which seems to me the only natural system when speaking of the year's produce and colour-effects in field, wood, or garden:
'In the present general outburst of vernal foliage we naturally forget that the evergreens, as well as the deciduous trees, are putting forth their new leaves. This is one of those lesser beauties of the spring, easily overlooked, but full of interest when once observed. The yew-tree now shows itself as a mass of leafage, so dark as to be almost black, but wearing a fringe of yellowish-green; the box has six or seven bright new leaves at the end of each spray, in sharp contrast with the sombre but polished growth of last year; the ivy buds are silver-gray, like the willow; those of the holly are edged with red, and the rhododendron is a light green. In that delightfully child-like carol of Kit Marlowe, which gave such pleasure to the gentle soul of dear old Izaak Walton, the Passionate Shepherd promises to his Love A belt of straw and ivy buds, With coral clasps and amber studs.'
Once every year in the autumn, and sometimes twice I go to the east coast, and the house is so absolutely on the seashore that this description in 'Country Pleasures' exactly suits what I feel when I am there. It is, I think, so good that it may be an inducement for my readers to get the book for themselves: 'It is often said that the sea is both monotonous and melancholy, but the longer we remain in its close neighbourhood the less are we disposed to allow that it is monotonous. Melancholy it may be, as it is fierce or wild or lovely by turns, but it is not monotonous. Rather it is, next to the sky, the most changeful thing we know: and by this I do not mean only the obvious motion and restlessness of the waves, but the more subtle and ever-varying alternation of the whole aspect of the sea. It is usual to suppose that these moods are mainly in the mind of the observer; but that is not so. The sea, like nature generally, has its own absolute conditions - conditions which prompt and suggest, rather than follow, emotions in the mind of man. To feel all this, however, one must live continuously near the sea.' I do not agree that this is really necessary in order to appreciate the sea. I think one does feel all Mr. Milner describes, even if one goes only for a short time, so long as one lives close to the shore, no going out of the house being necessary in order to see the sea, still less a long walk, which means remaining only a few minutes by the waves. Mr. Milner continues: 'We are so contiguous to the sea here that, looking through the window as I write, I can see nothing but the wide stretch of waters, just as I should if I were sitting in the cabin of a vessel; and if I stand at the door I can fling a stone into the fringe of the tide. Crossing the road, one step brings me to the shore; and here you may sit all the day long, with the sea breeze blowing round you and the sound of the water ever in your ears. This sound is usually resolvable into three elements. There is first the great boom of the waves, the chorus of many waters, far and near, heard in one deep unison; then there is a noise as of liquid being poured continuously out of one vessel into another - that, I think, is caused by the falling crest of the waves; and lastly, there is a low and lisping talk ever going on between the water and the pebbles.' I call that an excellent word-rendering of sea-sounds. Then: 'In the pools and tiny basins there are a thousand fairy creatures, whose motions you may watch even as you lie reposing - green and thread-like tentacula issuing and retreating, purple atoms spinning round and round in some strange dance which is the beginning and end of their existence, gorgeous anemones and many a tiny shell, delicately built and cunningly coloured:
Slight, to be crush'd with a tap Of my finger-nail on the sand Small, but a work divine, Frail, but of force to withstand, Year upon year, the shock Of cataract seas that snap The three-decker's oaken spine Athwart the ledges of rock.'
In mentioning these books I mean no slight on any that I am not fortunate enough to know. I have kept to the same rule which I found necessary with the old garden-books - of only naming those that I not only know, but possess.