Nimrods and Stuffed Animals

I

MR. BRINSLEY NORTON is an extraordinary father. He is a tramp and a vagabond, as unashamed and clever as a toastmaster in a dinner coat. He is the busiest and most leisurely of men: he will argue a case in court all morning, and sit all afternoon with his back against a tree, reading the Oxford Book of English Verse. He can stand on his hands, dive, play fair tennis, stroke a good game of golf. He collects postage stamps and etchings. A survival from the days when men had legs, he is an inveterate walker. He skis well, carves wood blocks for prints, likes to photograph birds. He can call by name the common flowers and beasts and stars. His attic of information is encyclopædic and curious, yet he has the allatoning grace of humor, and never seems to take himself seriously.

This is not to say that Mr. Brinsley Norton has no convictions. He has many, sincere and abiding. He has a set of them respecting the education of children with which I find myself so completely in accord that we have a common ground for that most warming of social exchanges — telling each other how absolutely right we are. We hold that to the list of things overproduced in this country ought to be added — on behalf of our children — shootinggallery Nimrods and stuffed animals.

Mr. Brinsley Norton’s story is this.

When he was a boy, still under the divine drive of a nosey curiosity, a man came to his town who, besides being able to crack all his finger joints and change the spots on playing cards, was also a crack shot. To substantiate his extravagant claims, the man accompanied a skeptical committee to a Main Street shooting gallery, where he rang all the bells and turned down all the ducks and rabbits with monotonous accuracy. But, strangely, the deadly gentleman avoided hunting parties. At last, however, a local duck club somehow inveigled him to their lodge and swamp, and the embarrassing truth revealed itself that, when confronted by birds that swam, dived, flew, and circled, he was too a-jitter to draw a bead. He admitted it: wild things so dismayed and excited him that he lost his cunning. He was a shooting-gallery Nimrod.

To this and similar anecdotes I nod, and assist Norton to bring out, in all their implications, the evils of specialization. In turn, he does a similar service for my story.

In my town, in those same mirthful years, we had a gloomy, bald-eagle old man who made a living as a taxidermist. On a dusty shelf over his workbench crouched a big puma with one sinister glass eye. Across the street was a resort hotel which maintained a small zoo of wild animals. One cage held a magnificent pair of Rocky Mountain pumas. Shall I ever forget the shivery chills that manœuvred over my back the first time I saw them, grimly patrolling opposite sides of the cage, their glittering teeth bared occasionally in a warning snarl, something of the long stare of eternity in their greenish eyes? What a pathetic package was that dusty, one-eyed cat on the taxidermist’s shelf!

But there was a yet higher accent in my succession of experiences with pumas. Once I was alone in a bluespruce forest of the Mosquito Range. It was an afternoon of sun and shower, no sound but the drip of water upon the trail. For the space of perhaps thirty seconds I stared at a tawny, crouched form on the limb of a lightning-blasted tree. I saw the sharp, brief ears; the impersonal, cruel fixedness of the eyes. A puma, uncaged in his own home, looking down at me, alone! Nothing happened beyond the shock to my nerves. He slid away and disappeared; but the roots of my hair seemed to ache for hours. And I reflected on how the beautiful pair in the hotel cage had been robbed, by the intervening bars, of half their thrilling, primitive reality.

So I say to Mr. Brinsley Norton that meeting a puma is an educative experience, effective in varying degree according as one meets him as a dead stuffing, a specimen in a zoo, or a denizen of the big timber. He nods. We light our pipes and sit back with the comfortable complacency of two men who have made up their minds.

II

It will at once be seen that Norton and I include in the category of the shooting-gallery Nimrod all people who have no cruising amateur tendencies, who are hobbyless and without versatility, who do one thing so appallingly well that they can do nothing else.

What we group under the stuffedanimal category is perhaps not so clear. A taxidermist’s beast — though he come from the hands of an Akeley — is dead. He is a suggestion. He is a secondhand experience. He has something in common with photographs, lantern slides, cinema films, phonograph records, radio programmes, lectures, all forms of the written word. These devices serve as substitutes or symbols; they come between us and the thing itself.

One of Norton’s vices is driving a motor car fast. He admits he feels swift, powerful, and arrogant behind the wheel. But he also admits that it is a weakness of vanity; a moment’s reflection chastens his pride, for he knows it is the car that is swift and powerful, that on his own legs he could not outrun the scurviest alley cat extant.

One of our annual pastimes is to take in ‘the Big Thanksgiving Day Game.’ We watch twenty-two boys struggle back and forth on the turf. We grow excited. We shove our neighbors into the aisle trying to help Old Siwash put the pigskin over the goal. But we go away without bruises, with only a derived glory or shame. We did not play the game. We watched.

Well, are n’t. we all specialists and lookers-on? There is some one thing we can do, some very necessary or felicitous thing — such as fitting plumbing or writing amusing rhymes. But we are otherwise incompetent and fumbling. We choose not to do what somebody else can do for us. We do our little task, ensconce ourselves in a chair, and experience the wide and amazing world through newsprint, the radio, and the screen.

Is this, Norton and I ask ourselves, the pattern we are setting for our children? ‘What does it matter?’ say you. Is it of no moment that my son plans to be, not a dentist, but an extraction expert? What manner of man will he be? What will be the range and richness of his experience and understanding — the reach and qualities of his leisure? Will his life be a great monotony of gaping mouths and uprooted molars? Will he otherwise stand aside, to watch, applaud, envy the professionals?

It is no longer necessary for baccalaureate orators to remind graduates that to succeed they must select a small corner in which to work. It were far better to remind them that there are other streets and boulevards and parks in the spacious metropolis of the world; that if one is to have that generosity and breadth of view which characterize the civilized man, he must range about, indoors and out of doors, conversing with all and sundry; that he must change his clothes, his companions, his point of view, endanger and contradict himself.

Before those who maintain that our children are being armed against a pinched, nailed-down existence by the schools with their ‘rich’ curricula, outside ‘activities,’ and ‘education for leisure,’ Norton and I make agreeable assent, but we insist that that is not enough. The school is, after all, a cloister, a place apart, where children look at the world through all sorts of keyholes, — the chief of them being books, — but where they actually encounter and are involved with the world at only a few, selected, censored points.

Norton argues Socratically.

What, he asks, do your children know about the provisions made for the fundamental necessities — food, clothing, shelter? Have they been nurtured on milk but never seen a cow? Do they understand — not from an encyclopædia, but from direct contacts — the life history of a piece of bread and butter? Have they seen a field ploughed and planted in wheat; seen the fresh miracle of misty green as the sprouts look through; seen the golden, ripening field; held a stored head in their hands and discovered the rich grains; followed the hot, dusty harvest; seen the milling into bran and flour and cereals? Have they been within a modern bakery to witness the transformation of what was once rain and sunshine and ploughed soil into fragrant loaves and cinnamon buns?

Now a school, Norton points out, with its overweight of numbers, can hardly essay such a project. But you, my dear pater, with your son and a couple of his chums, a tankful of gasoline and a willing heart, might view all the steps in the progress from seedling to breakfast toast. Falling back on the pages of The Story of Bread will not do; let the books be supplementary, but intimate observation the core of your pedagogy.

Eating honey, Norton summarizes, is the only way that has ever been found to discover what it tastes like.

III

There are two boys under Norton’s parentage. Aloft in his house is a sanctum in which he discusses with them what they are to do about ‘getting an education.’ What they are to do becomes apparent from week to week as they sally forth on long walks, or board ‘Cyrano,’ the family car, for an afternoon rendezvous with a brickyard or a turkey hen.

Commonly there are five of them — the three Nortons and two pals. They are abroad in streets and lanes, in factories or under the sky, in the dust and roar and smell of the world, to find out how the wheels go round. It may be that with a paper of ham and peanut-butter sandwiches they are bound, twenty miles into the hills, to a sheep ranch where it is shearing time. Or they may be crossing the railroad tracks to the Holland Textile Mills to see wool spun and woven; or visiting the Garment Trades Building north of the river to find how shirts and trousers are made.

I have been privileged to ride the fringe of some of these gay pedagogic excursions. Four boys carried away in a kind of tidal freedom, proceeding with gusto and awe from tile kiln to rug works, from a 10,000-egg incubator to the bottom of a coal mine, from sewage converter to ice-cream plant — and supported by a sense of companionship and exploration that is part of Brinsley Norton’s magic.

Their reconnoitring within the narrow radius of the home grounds has disclosed a score of ‘demonstrations’ and unwitting teachers that no formal school could duplicate. There is ‘the pigeon man ’ — a lonely bachelor, an Australian, a veteran of the Boer War, who has been pathetically gracious, explaining his job of keeping the near-by Biltmore in squabs, and relating, for the wide-eyed posse, personal adventures that any boy would walk miles to hear.

There is Mr. Cunningham, hidden behind an evergreen hedge only two blocks away. Fuchsia fanciers the world over know his name and experiments. The boys are fortnightly visitors in the gardens where he accomplishes his miracles in flower strains.

Behind the house, against the foothills, they have discovered the fish hatchery, and Norton has pulled wires to obtain a permanent pass. The boys are so firmly rooted in the director’s good will that they make overnight trips in the high country with the big trucks that carry baby trout to the fishing streams.

To this list of neighborhood amazements must be added the wrought-iron shop in a converted garage, where a Polish pistol expert fashions marvelous curlicues in metal, and discourses passionately on the grievances of his native land; t he creamery where the versatile possibilities of milk are brought out in every form, from the powdered essence to fancy cheeses; the studio of a garrulous illustrator of medical textbooks, where white bones and kidneys in bottles decorate the walls; the cannery where vegetables, fruits, and jams are prepared for the multitude of can-opener cooks; the cabinet and upholstery shops where museum pieces of furniture are copied to grace sumptuous drawing-rooms; the miraculous mechanical kitchens of the immense crag of a hotel on the hills; the small bungalow candy kitchen where the sweet secrets of chocolate dipping have been witnessed and approved.

Knowing Norton and the boys as I do, I assert — hoping eagerly for contradiction — that there is no group of boys in the land that has a better insight into the resources, activities, and personalities of its community than this inquisitive quartette.

And the periphery of their ‘classroom’ is continually being extended. They may be off into the country for a pleasant bumpkin day, snooping about goat ranches, aviaries, duck ponds, quarries, truck farms, and orchards. Another day, turning to the centre of the local metropolis, they may see Ford cars being assembled; watch a ship dock and unload; straggle along Main Street, listening to auctioneers and woolly-chested lecturers on how to develop muscle on only twenty-five cents; spend an exciting hour in a courtroom or at a City Council debate. Norton has managed to get them admitted to the engine rooms of ships, to the summit of a skyscraper skeleton, to the bottom of a foundation pit, to all manner of factories and shops. They have extracted themselves from bed at three on a silvery morning and driven to wholesale produce markets to see the mountainous quantities of fresh foods being delivered from the country.

The energetic gang ranges, in fact, everywhere, always absorbing, along with information and impressions, a savory amount of that rarest of commodities — good fun.

IV

Mr. Brinsley Norton has shown his sons and their friends a campus bounded only by horizons, with a haphazard schedule and a hodgepodge curriculum. He is a shrewd, tactful, modest pedagogue, full of information and ignorance, a pupil with his coterie of pupils. His wider experience, his extensive reading, his conversational trick of unburdening himself of his greater knowledge, have made him anything but a forbidding master. He has the gift of laughter, and of blithe, childish enthusiasm. He does not fidget under questions. The world is still a-sparkle with surprises. I have heard him quote from William Watson: —

Strange the world about me lies,
Never yet familiar grown —
Still disturbs me with surprise,
Haunts me like a face half known.

Not least important is Norton’s ability, as an amateur, to arouse admiration in the young idea. There are not many provinces — athletics, craftsmanship, camp life — in which he cannot show a boy a few tricks. He has the special power of the genuine amateur to betroth others to his enthusiasms. He piques their envy and draws them on.

Fundamentally, under Norton’s activities in behalf of his sons lies his conviction that they must not fall heir to an impoverished, secondhand experience. They must have some comprehension of what the world’s life and work really are. They must go beyond stuffed skins in museums to vibrant cats in the woods. And they will have, unless his efforts go for naught, a command of themselves and an appetite for participation with their fellows all at war with the narrowness of shooting-gallery Nimrods.

Here and there over the country, leavened in among the millions of impatient parents who are only too relieved that they can shoulder off responsibility on the schools, may be a few more like Brinsley Norton. I hope so, and I congratulate the children of such fathers on their superior fortune.