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Sharp Eyes!

By (November 6, 2012) No Comment

Our book today is William Hamilton Gibson’s lovely 1891 nature-book Sharp Eyes, one of half a dozen such books he wrote and illustrated in the course of his relatively short life, starting with 1880′s utterly wonderful Pastoral Days (anybody who’s ever enjoyed any time out-of-doors in New England should own a copy) and including Highways and Byways and Strolls by Starlight and Sunshine- the latter of which brought him an unprecedented amount of fan-mail, most of it from very serious, very studious young boys and girls who’d been given the book for Christmas or as a school prize and had fallen under the gentle spell of Gibson’s infectious, unpretentious curiosity for going out and seeing the natural world. Gibson was fond of complaining about this “battalion of boys” who bombarded him with letters and breathless accounts of their own adventures out exploring nearby parks and streams, but he wouldn’t have missed the camaraderie, and he never failed to write back to anybody who asked him questions about nature – or who sent him some oddity plucked from the forest floor. Gibson was a perfectionist (and what we would now call a workaholic), often crafting and re-crafting his sketches and engravings half a dozen times before he was satisfied with them – but he could always be convinced to put down his pencils, pick up his hat, and head out on a ramble … not forgetting his spectacles, of course:

He’d been in love with nature from his earliest childhood, and even when twenty years or more had passed and he was a busy columnist and illustrator (he was also much in demand as a lecturer, possessing that rarest of lecturer strengths, the ability to be extemporaneously funny), that love of rambling never dimmed in the slightest, as he explains in our present book:

Sharp Eyes is, moreover, a plea for the rational, contemplative country ramble. It is a messenger to that thoughtless host to whom Nature is a closed book – not only unopened, but with leaves uncut – to those who would take a “walk,” perhaps, but to whom, it would seem, the only virtues of a walk are comprised in the quickening pulse, the expansion of lung, and the cultivation of brawn. To such, a walk may be an exhilaration and a positive benefit, but scarcely the means of grace which is implied in the stroll or ramble. I woul lay open a few, a very few, of these uncut pages, which I have learned by heart, that a “little may be read,” even as we run. I would give at least one worthy motive for a stroll for every day of the year – storm or shine, summer or winter – conscious that in thus seeing through my spectacles my proselytes will surely rejoice in their conversion.

His books often follow a year through those courses of storm, shine, summer, and winter – the better to let him point out specific wonders that are often as evanescent as they are fascinating – like the phenomenon at hand on August 11th:

Can we really claim to know our evening primrose? Night after night, for weeks, its pale blooms have opened, and shed abroad their sweet perfume in the darkness in every glen and by every road-side; and yet how few of us have ever stopped to witness that beautiful impatience of the swelling bud, the eager bursting of its bounds, and the magic unfolding of the crinkly yellow petals?

This book, like all Gibson’s books, is an exquisitely beautiful reading experience. The chapters are mostly short enough to be the very thing they most resemble: dashed-off letters to science-curious boys, and on every page the words and the images skillfully support each other:

There’s a great deal in Sharp Eyes about insects and plants, those two easiest ramble-trophies to collect and examine. But Gibson’s walking welcome (like that of his hero, Emerson) extends to all the living things he might encounter, even on January 26th in what used to be the heart of a snowy Connecticut winter:

One of the most welcome occasional companions of the winter walker is the gray squirrel. On almost any genial day we are sure of him if our eyes are sharp enough, and our manner sufficiently decorous. His eccentric doings are written in his footprints everywhere upon the new-fallen snow, connecting tree with tree and keeping one’s eye ever on the lookout for the whisking tail.

We may never know how many future naturalists, when they were still eager little boys and girls, learned all about that decorum from so gentle and friendly a teacher as Gibson. Certainly his lovely books outlived him, if only for a few seasons, and bookish children have long memories for the bestowers of their first enchantments.